Who’s Afraid of Science?
A student of mine recently wrote a paper in which he talked about growing up in a church that taught young earth creationism. This student was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable as he had learned some facts about the world a long, long time ago that were almost certainly undeniable. Here is how he reported it to me:
Specifically, I remember the single youth group lesson that finally pushed me to the point of crisis. We were being taught about creation from a perspective that I now know to be called young-Earth creationism. I remember watching the video our youth leader and pastor had selected, and as they launched into the prefabricated curriculum, I remember raising my hand and asking a single, simple question: “What about the dinosaur bones?” The pastor and youth leader looked at each other, exchanging some unspoken communication, and then our pastor looked me in the eyes and said “Satan buried those bones.” After receiving comparably absurd responses to questions I asked about carbon dating and human archaeological evidence, I walked away feeling deeply shaken and concerned.
When we are driven to think dinosaur bones are buried by Satan to fool the world into demonic-inspired ideas, and to think the whole world is duped, and that we alone are right in our interpretation of the Bible, I will contend that we need more humility, not more confidence, and that most important we need to have enough humility to give the Bible yet one more read to see if we’ve got it right.
I grew up in the environment of young earth creationism, though because my childhood pastor had been to a university and not to an encapsulating Christian college, we were less strident about our beliefs. Yes, we firmly believed God created the world; yes, we believed evolution was rooted in unbelief and often enough in atheism, yet we did not develop the kind of explanation my student heard. But my own Christian college experience, while never once given to such explanations, did mean a robust, evidence-based defense of creationism. As a college student I thought I had expanded my brain to the breaking point when I read Francis Schaeffer’s Genesis in Space and Time and began to think the cosmos just might be older than what I been taught.
Later, as a seminary student, I read L. Duane Thurman’s How to Think about Evolution and Other Bible-Science Controversies, where I learned a much more nuanced, science-respecting but theologically alert volume. After that time I became more and more accustomed to one very simple dimension of thinking:
Base what I believe on the evidence.
Oddly enough, l learned from my fundamentalist Bible college teachers who taught me over and over – yea, they preached it – to read the Bible for myself, to find the evidence, to sort out the evidence, and to base my theology on the evidence and the evidence alone.
This is the hermeneutical equivalent of the scientific method. Not once was I taught to believe something because the church taught it, to believe something because the creed said so, or to believe something because it was the inherited tradition. To be sure, there was some inevitable tension if I were to disagree with the “tradition” I was in. For instance, I got obsessed with the rapture question in college, read a bundle of books – more than I care to confess – and then came upon George Ladd’s famous defense of what we called the “post trib view,”(G.E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956].) and became his advocate. My Bible college professor actually told me I wouldn’t be permitted in his class on eschatology because – this is what he told me explicitly – (1) I knew too much about the issue and would have too many questions others would not have and (2) I was too much in agreement with Ladd.
I took this as a badge of merit to be banned from class because I knew I was doing exactly what the professor had taught me – base what I believe on the evidence of the Bible and the Bible alone – and because I would get credit for taking a class by reading and not showing up for class. (I was tempted to barge in but he told me to stay away. We met a number of times where I got to air my views and he humored me by pushing me harder.)
The “scientific method” applied to the Bible
What happens when we apply this approach both to the Bible (as I had learned) and to the question of origins? We learn to base what we believe – about the Bible, about origins, about age – on the evidence and the evidence alone. Over the next decade of my life, I came to believe that if I was going to base my faith on the evidence of the Bible, by examining it and challenging as well as affirming the church’s beliefs, then I had to be honest and fair to do the same for questions about the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and the question of origins.
The result was conflict between what I had been taught about origins and age – even if I allowed the earth to be as old as 20,000 years, which I thought was mighty liberal of me – and what I was reading in the Bible (as I had been taught to read it). The word “conflict” is probably too mild. At times I came to the conclusion that my Bible might be wrong. Then along came a series of very encouraging books and articles and conversations, too many to mention in this context, that provided another way. What I learned was that “my Bible” was in fact my reading of the Bible. Maybe it wasn’t so much the Bible that was wrong but the way I was reading the Bible through the lens of my own questions, questions shaped more by my past worries about evolution and less by learning to read the Bible in its own historical and theological context.
I have never read all of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species though I have dipped into it, read tons about it, and have learned both its strengths and weaknesses. While reading Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s hefty Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist I settled rather gently into comfort with the general orientation of evolution. Since those days, nearly twenty years ago now, I have read book after book that has helped me think more critically about science and evolution, none more helpful and accessible than Edward J. Larson’s Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory.
But my field is not science but the Bible. Learning about science has taught me to be more scientific about the Bible, not less. It has taught me not to succumb to simplistic theories about the Bible, not to settle for less than rigor about what Genesis 1—3 are saying, and not to force an ancient Near Eastern text (Genesis) into the thought patterns and categories of modern science. Learning about science has taught me humility about my Bible reading and it has pushed me to think again, to read again, to ask again, and to wonder all over again what the Bible was saying when it was written and how the Bible was heard to its original hearers (so far as the evidence permits us to know such things).
What science has taught me, then, is that there was no reason to fear science. It has no agenda. Science, in its best form of study – whether examining the Bible or the universe – does not impose; it looks. It asks the evidence to talk to us and it lets the evidence make the decisions. It asks the observer – again, the Bible reader or the universe examiner – to get out of the way to hear, to watch, and to record what is there. It asks us not to be afraid but to respect what is there.
Science then encouraged me to think again about the Bible, and one recent study, by John Walton, has urged us to think again about what Genesis 1—2 meant in its day. Walton has some elements in this theory that are being challenged, but over all his major idea is reasonable and persuasive: that Genesis 1-2 is not about the origins of the world so much as the function of God’s world. That is, Genesis 1-2 presents creation as God fashioning the world as a temple, placing us in it to reflect God’s glory and to govern God’s good world on his behalf. That is, the universe is God’s temple and we are summoned by God to care for God’s temple by worship and work.
I will contend that the scientific method encouraged me to look at the Bible more freshly and gave me the courage to listen enough to science to rethink what the Bible might be saying. Science, then, has given me renewed confidence in our ability to hear what God is saying in the Bible.