Interview with Ronald Osborn
IVP recently published Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering by Ronald E. Osborn, a fresh new voice in the dialogue on science and Christian faith. The book has a wider scope than its title might lead you to believe. Osborn does directly engage the topic of animal suffering in the second half of the book, but in building up to that point in the first half he offers a series of keen insights about biblical literalism. These are not just point-by-point refutations of literal interpretations of certain passages of Scripture (though there is some of that too), but rather he connects the impulse of literalism to broader intellectual and cultural currents stemming from the Enlightenment. I highly recommend putting this book on your summer reading list.
Over on the Jesus Creed blog, RJS has devoted several posts to the discussion of the book. These are worth reading too for a deeper engagement with the book. I decided to ask Osborn a few questions, which he graciously answered here for our blog.
Jim Stump: Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background and education? What led you to write this book?
Ron Osborn: My parents were Seventh-day Adventist missionaries in Thailand, Taiwan, and Zimbabwe. My earliest memories therefore include rich experiences of other cultures as well as memorable encounters with Africa’s wildlife in all of its danger and beauty. The Adventist tradition has at times unfortunately veered toward a wooden literalism if not fundamentalism when faced with questions of faith and science. Adventists played an important role in the rise of “scientific creationism” via the work of George McCready Price (whose writings inspired William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes Trial). This book is therefore in part an attempt to come to terms with my own creationist upbringing, including my education from kindergarten through college in conservative Christian schools. More recently, I earned a doctorate in politics and international relations at the University of Southern California.
Stump: You approach this topic as one trained in the social sciences, rather than in the natural sciences or theology. How do you think that affects the way you see it?
Osborn: There is very little in Death Before the Fall that I would describe as “social scientific,” unless perhaps my critique of some of the sociological and political aspects of fundamentalist communities. I wrote this book as a lay theologian exploring pressing questions arising from Scripture with shameless disregard for disciplinary boundary setting. It may be, though, that my training in the social sciences has made me especially attuned to what sociologists of knowledge refer to as the “social construction of reality”. One of the key themes of the book is our inability to ever gain the kind of direct, unmediated access to truth—whether scientific or theological—that many believers demand.
Stump: I thought your analysis of creationists was particularly insightful. You draw an interesting comparison in chapter two between creationists and Cartesian foundationalists. Descartes found an ultimate foundation in his "I think, therefore I am"; creationists find that in their "plain reading" of Scripture. As such, their interpretation of Scripture is not open to discussion, since the rest of their belief structure rests on it. What hope is there, then, of productive dialogue with creationists?
Osborn: One of the ways I have tried to help move the creation/evolution debate forward in the book is by showing that creationists who read Genesis in highly literalistic ways are often doing so for unexamined philosophical rather than theological reasons. Of course, it is not only young earth or young life creationists who are laboring under the influence of Enlightenment philosophical assumptions. Both fundamentalism and theological liberalism, Nancey Murphy points out, ironically share the same commitment to epistemological foundationalism. They simply disagree about what the foundation should be. There is therefore as much hope of entering into productive dialogue with creationists as there is with theological liberals! Whether this means much or little hope I will leave for others to decide. Optimistically, though, I would like to believe that there is always ground for conversation across differences among people who are committed to an honest and self-reflective search for truth.
Stump: Also on the analysis of creationists you say, "It is 'scientific' creationists themselves who are most clearly beguiled by the postmodern claim that the weight of the empirical evidence when it comes to questions of origins should be irrelevant to what we believe; that scientific findings can be dispensed with as nothing more than a social construct whenever they do not support our prior religious convictions or biblical interpretations; and that obstinate material realities may be reinterpreted virtually at will to fit one's subjective worldview" (p. 116). Can you unpack that a bit for our readers here?
Osborn: In the creationist settings in which I was raised, the scientific evidence for deep time and common ancestry was often summarily dismissed by way of appeal to one or another version of “presuppositional apologetics.” Evolutionary theory, according to this view, is a matter of belief no less than young earth or young life creationism. How one interprets the evidence depends entirely on the prior assumptions or faith commitments through which one views the data. Yet this way of dealing with the scientific challenges to biblical literalism is, ironically, deeply corrosive of any robust doctrine of creation. It is a kind of fideism tending toward solipsism. There is a world of beautiful, complex, and often stubbornly perplexing material facts that we have not created and that we must reckon with in ways that are intellectually honest lest we deny God’s actual creation in the name of our own creationism.
Stump: After the groundwork you've laid in part one, you turn more explicitly to the topic indicated in your title—animal suffering. It is clear now that we can't just blame this on the fall of human beings, so somehow we have to reconcile animal predation and suffering with the good world that God created. You suggest that it may just be the case that animal suffering isn't really so bad because Scripture doesn't seem to treat it as such. When spoken of directly in Job, "there is no hint of wickedness or 'natural evil' in the wildness and even ferocity of the animal kingdom. These aspects of his creation God seemingly delights in" (p. 153). This is an interesting and helpful point, but I wonder if we could use the same argument toward, say, slavery? Scripture doesn't unambiguously denounce slavery, but we today believe it to be morally reprehensible (and I'm sure you would say rightly so). Does this present a problem for your position on animal suffering with respect to the Bible?
Osborn: The book of Job is a necessary corrective to those domesticated readings of the creation narratives that refuse to allow that anything wild, untamed, ferocious, or dangerous might also be “very good.” But the fact that there is no hint in the Hebrew Bible of moral culpability or “natural evil” in the ferocity of some animals—we don’t accuse lions of committing interspecies murder when they devour impalas—does not mean that the problem of animal suffering is to be taken lightly or that God is somehow off the hook. If anything, I suggest in Death Before the Fall, the moral innocence of non-human animals makes their suffering an even greater theodicy dilemma than human suffering. We must press beyond the various creation narratives in the Hebrew Bible, including the final chapters of Job, to the picture of God revealed in the New Testament—the Creator who does not rationally explain away the scandal of suffering but who instead enters into it.
Stump: You say you want "to demonstrate to literalists that one can be a thoroughly orthodox Christian and embrace evolutionary concepts without contradiction" (p. 20). But some will charge that one man's orthodoxy is another's heresy. What do you see the relationship to be between traditional theological positions, which do change and evolve over time, and orthodoxy?
Osborn: Theological traditions constantly evolve in response to new circumstances yet they must do so in ways that express deep continuity with the central proclamation of the New Testament and of the church across time: that the character of God has been fully and bindingly made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Biblical literalists who read Genesis as a “plain” and “scientific” account have often failed to think in truly Christological terms about what the creation in Genesis means. A Trinitarian reading of the creation cannot ever be “plain” since we must rethink the entire story from the beginning in the light of the God who suffers and dies on a “tree” of “knowledge of good and evil.” Rethinking, however, does not mean abandoning. The Hebrew Bible’s affirmation of the goodness of the physical world and of material existence rules out any notion of the creation as divine sleight of hand. Many creationists believe that God created the earth with the appearance but not the actuality of age, with trees containing tree rings but no actual history, and so on. I have no stake in naming “heresy” or calling out “heretics” but I do argue in the book that such ideas are not far removed from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism with its distrust of material existence.
Stump: This is a very interesting claim about Scripture (and perhaps relevant to some of my questions here): "The way we talk to one another about Scripture is one of the ways that we ourselves become part of Scripture's story, whether for good or for ill, revealing what kind of authority Scripture is actually playing in our lives" (p. 84). What does this mean for those of us who work in the science and faith arena, and too often reduce Scripture to a collection of premises by which we might win an argument?
Osborn: If the Hebrew Bible and New Testament were written as a collection of answer books for winning arguments about science and faith or for answering all of our epistemological and metaphysical questions, they would be very poor guides! Fortunately, what we find in Scripture are not logical proofs and rationalistic syllogisms along the lines of Plato and Aristotle but instead primarily narratives, poems, and letters of ad hoc pastoral counsel addressed to specific communities. Syllogisms end debate. Narratives and poetry invite an open-ended search for new meanings in new circumstances as we learn how to locate our own stories within the Bible’s narrative arc from creation to final redemption. I take this to be one of Scripture’s greatest gifts. Its very form frees us from the tactics and rhetoric of epistemological closure.
Stump: What do you hope to be the primary take-away of your book for its readers?
Osborn: I hope that regardless of where readers might stand in their thinking about creation, evolution, and animal suffering they will come away from my book with a commitment to wrestling with the challenges with greater rigor, greater imagination, greater openness, and greater civility. There are enough puzzles to go around for all of us and this should rule out dogmatic posturing of any kind. There are rich resources in Scripture and in Christian tradition for thinking about new scientific discoveries and for continued introspection and dialogue when we find that we don’t have all the answers.