It is one of the merciful mysteries of human cognition that we have no robust mechanism for remembering physical pain. Even as a very fortunate human being, I’ve had a few moments of intense physical pain in my life. I can call up quite vivid memories of all kinds of other sensory experiences—but not the time when I had excruciating pain down my leg originating in the sciatic nerve down my back. I can vaguely remember what it was like to experience that pain, but the pain itself is not accessible to me through memory.
It’s a great gift, I think, that our bodies let us forget their most excruciating moments. But we have no such mechanisms for forgetting emotional pain.
I’m an author of books, and in the course of writing four books I’ve probably accumulated 45 or 50 endorsements, also known as “blurbs”: positive things people say about one’s book for the front pages or the back cover. I cannot quote a single one to you. But I could quote you every syllable of any number of critical tweets or certain biting moments in reviews of my work.
Perhaps the most famous poem by the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen is “Incident.” It describes an eight-year-old boy’s seven-month sojourn in Baltimore, punctuated by a single incident of being called the most derogatory racial slur in the English language by a white boy his age. “Of all the things that happened there,” the now-adult poet writes, “That’s all that I remember.”
A History Shaped by Scorn
Why is the “conflict thesis”—the idea of a “warfare” between science and religion—so entrenched, even though it has been so comprehensively debunked? It’s at least partly because conflict is one of the most cognitively salient aspects of human experience. Conflict persists in our memory because of pain. Because of humiliation. Because of scorn.
What is the key moment in the story of American Christianity and Darwinian evolution? You might expect it was the moment when Asa Gray, the Christian botanist at Harvard University, recognized the brilliance of Darwin’s core idea and began to defend it. But that’s an endorsement. That’s not what we remember. That’s not what has shaped our imagination.
Instead, we remember the Scopes trial. Why do we remember the Scopes trial? Not because of its content or even its outcome. Who even remembers that the creationist side, in the form of the school board of Dayton, Tennessee, won that trial? No one remembers who won. What we remember is the conflict. And conservative Christians remember the scorn. The scorn of the sarcastic media coverage of the trial. The biting cynicism of Clarence Darrow, the lawyer for the defendant in the trial. A certain kind of person was scorned very publicly and powerfully in that moment of American public life. That moment of humiliation was etched into American imaginations, especially the imaginations of the children and grandchildren of the fundamentalists themselves, the ones who won that pyrrhic victory.
But it’s not just Christians who retain and remember every negative thing. It’s also those on the other side. My wife, a Christian physicist who teaches at a nonsectarian college, has colleagues who have done their best to explain in good faith and with good will why they believe so robustly in certain features of human and cosmic origins. They have received vicious responses from Christians. Her colleagues talk about the abuse they’ve received with bewildered hurt in the faculty lunch room.
BioLogos has been a great gift to the church. You sense in the leaders of this organization an incredible winsome openness. In this conference, we have experienced not scorn, but hope. It’s an incredible gift. But how does this gift get shared with a world that forgets anything but the most painful and brutal moments?
Genesis: A Story of Goodness, Order, and Abundance
Israel was surrounded by conflict. To an extent this is the fate of all nations at all times, but Israel was an especially small nation in an especially strategic geopolitical location. From its inception it was surrounded by large empires, and it had to fight to possess its land. And Israel was surrounded by conflict-myths—stories that purported to explain the conflict in human affairs be connecting them to an ultimate cosmic conflict. Many, if not all, of the creation myths that surrounded ancient Israel in the ancient Near East were what we call “conflict cosmogonies.” These accounts of creation spoke of the world coming into being through some divine conflict.
Perhaps the most hilarious is the account of the creation of human beings in the Enuma Elish. Basically, the gods in the heavens like the smell of barbecue—but none of the gods want to tend the barbeque. So they’re all lazy and frustrated with each other. Fights are breaking out among the gods, so a demigod creates little beings to keep the barbecue going, and that’s where humans come from. The purpose of human beings, in that little corner of the Enuma Elish, is to solve a divine conflict and provide for lazy conflict-oriented gods.
It was in that context that Israel told its own very different story: In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep while—how shall we translate this?—a spirit, a breath, a wind from God hovered above the waters. In this different story, there’s no fundamental conflict. There’s breath. There’s waiting. There’s speech. There’s beholding. Then there’s this drumbeat of affirmation: what God saw was good, it was good, it was good.
Days one through three of the Genesis story of Creation are all God speaking. First, on day one, God separates the light and the dark. On day two, God separates the heaven and the earth, and on day three God separates the sea from the land. Even those minimal structures are seen by God as good.
In our digital age, the most minimal unit of information is a single bit, a 1 or a 0—signal or no signal. In light of that, I’m so struck that the first thing that God creates in this ancient story is the separation between signal and no signal. The first act of the Word is to create the precondition of information, which is energy and absence—light and dark—and even that is good.
So we have three days of structure and order, and then days four, five, and six correspond to each of the first three days. Day four is when the realm of light and dark is filled with the sun, the moon, and all the stars. Day five corresponds to day two, and now the heavens and the watery terrestrial realm are going to be filled with creatures—birds and fish and everything swims in the sea—and then on day six the dry land that appeared on day three is filled with creatures.
The word that comes up twice in those latter three days, the days of filling, is this word “teeming” or “swarming.” I love the fact that “teeming” and “swarming” is in Genesis 1. This God, this creative God, delights in order, but he also delights in swarming or teeming—he delights in abundance. He wants his world filled not with a minimal specification of creatures—that would be one big light in the day and a little light in the night, a sun and a moon and we’re done. But instead this God has strewn through the visible heavens uncountable stars. Thanks to astronomers, we know there are billions of galaxies in the universe, which each contain billions of stars. God doesn’t just want a few creatures, he wants teeming stars, teeming birds, teeming fish.
Order, Abundance, and Modern Science
Every once in awhile human beings get an especially astonishing glimpse of the teeming quality of the created world—as in this video called “Murmuration”:
A collection of starlings is called a murmuration. Olivia Smith and Sophie Windsor Clive happened to be in the right place at the right time, and saw, alongside beautiful order, astonishing abundance. Humans themselves are the result of teeming, surprising abundance. On day six of creation, there’s a “bonus round,” you might say, in which creatures are made in the image of God, male and female. Made in the image of God, which means among many other things, able to make videos like that. Able to attend to the world with awe (and even, in this video, a bit of worshipful profanity!). And God says to us, “now you teem.” We’re not little copies. That beautiful basic structure of male and female generates what God commands—be fruitful, fill the earth, multiply.
Some of you know I’ve been really into 2×2 charts for the past few years, and it occurred to me that we could do this with Genesis 1.
Order and abundance—that is the recipe for a very good creation. If you have neither order nor abundance, you have the nothing that Genesis says was present at the beginning. The earth was “without form” and “void.” No structure, no filling.
If you have abundance without order, on the right on this graph, you have my 16-year-old daughter’s bedroom. There is an abundance of clothing on her bedroom floor but there is no evident structure to it. It’s chaos.
But what if you had order without abundance? What if you had lots of structure; lots of rules; but no teeming? I suppose you would have what we might call a machine.
Now here is the fascinating thing: this is what Enlightenment science thought the universe was. Early modern science, in distinction from later 20th and 21st century science, was based on a conception of the universe very much like a machine. It had natural laws. It had particles that obeyed those natural laws with perfect regularity. Lots of structure, beautifully mathematically renderable and describable. But also completely locked into that structure, fixed in origin and outcome.
And then along came the 20th century, and above all quantum mechanics. And we discovered that if you go down to the most fundamental layers of reality, it can no longer be described in terms of particles obeying laws. As best as we can tell, the only way to describe fundamental reality is through possibility expressed in probability. We cannot characterize our world as a machine. It is not a clock. A clock just ticks along, with perfect regularity. No surprise, no variance, no possibility, and no randomness. That is not our world; and it’s not Genesis’s world.
If you wanted to be an intellectually contented, satisfied atheist, living in a world where science was most capable of excluding God and indeed any kind of freedom from the cosmos, I submit the best moment in history was about 1890. It has been downhill ever since. It turns out that we live in a world whose beautiful order has this extraordinary capacity to generate abundance—like the murmuration of starlings. This abundance can be described through certain beautiful probabilistic equations and models, but ultimately it is teeming beyond any mechanical ability to describe it. As wonderful as a clock is, this world is far more beautiful and mysterious than a clock—and indeed, from a Christian perspective, far more worthy of provoking worship.
The Good News
This is incredibly good news: the world is not a machine. The world is full of order and structure, but it’s also full of unpredictable manifold variety. The Christian creation story maps very well onto a world that is no mere mechanism.
But it’s also good news that science is not a machine. The work of science is not mechanical. It is not a mechanical method for churning out facts about the world. Instead, science is a profoundly human enterprise and profoundly cosmic enterprise, with all the glories and unpredictabilities of human life and the cosmos we inhabit. And this is more true the more complex the system that science tries to characterize.
When we abstract away from this ordered abundant world, we can create simple scientific models that are indeed very close to mechanical. But the more complex a system we try to address, the less science is like that—the less good science is like that.
Here’s what I’ve learned by being married to a scientist: Science is really humbling, because most of the time you’re wrong. Science is not a machine. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t tell us truth about the world, it means that it isn’t a mechanism. It’s better than that.
Our doctrine is also not a machine. Christian doctrine is not a set of rules that rigidly and repeatedly generate exactly the same results in every time and every place. Of course, we have powerful evidence of God as known in Christ. But we are still learning, and should still be learning. We don’t have a mechanical doctrinal system, and we should not if God is really a living God. Because machines, as Dorothy Sayers put it, are dead. They are fixed. But God is not the God of the dead, he is the God of the living.
Above all, the most exemplary human being who ever lived—our saviour, Jesus Christ— was not a machine. He was the living Word. He never answered the same question in the same way twice. He probably never told a parable the same way twice. This is a plausible reason for why we have different versions of his parables, because Jesus was not mechanical. He did not figure out a single rhetorical trick that worked and and then do it over and over, as all public speakers—like myself—are tempted to do. Instead, he was utterly attentive to every moment, and with beautiful order, every moment of his life teemed with unpredictable possibility.
Taking the Good News into the World
As we go out into this world of conflict with this incredibly beautiful story of goodness, order, and abundance, we must do everything we can to avoid scorn. Instead, we should embody its reverse, which is compassion. A pastor told me not long ago about inviting a notable scientist from his congregation up on stage to talk about his scientific work. The scientist, who has much to share about his scientific work and who is a deeply Christian person, got very heated and started to talk about climate change “deniers.”1 The problem is that the word “denier,” with its unavoidable association with “Holocaust deniers,” is almost inescapably scornful. And not a few people in the congregation who had some doubts about climate change felt the brunt of that scorn. The pastor told me about all the damage control he had to do in the days following this interview.
Instead of scorn, could we, instead, be compassionate on those whose resistance to the findings of science is very likely to be rooted in their own experiences of scorn? And their own fear? And their own doubts, as well as their own convictions?
The other thing I think we need to learn, that might be even more important than compassion, is contemplation. What is contemplation? It’s actually just beholding for the sake of beholding.
Listening to [sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund] yesterday, I was really troubled by something in her statistics. When you ask our tribe of evangelical Protestants whether they are very interested in scientific discovery, 22% of them say yes. Then when you ask whether they are very interested in medical discovery, 37% say yes.
The positive spin on this is we are compassionate people. We want to see the results of science meet the needs of vulnerable humans around the world. But my concern is that this lack of interest in merely discovering and beholding God’s world, and the belief that science is only interesting and useful to us insofar as it solves the world’s problems, actually leaves us extremely vulnerable to utilitarian arguments that will subtly but powerfully exploit the vulnerable.
Will Christians be wise enough to recognize that mechanical attempts to fix human problems sometimes undermine human dignity? If we’re told that cloning human beings will relieve profound human suffering, how quickly would many Christians get over that initial “yuck factor” and then say it’s okay? And yet Christians have a deeper narrative that says there’s something important and irreplaceable about the ordered abundance of sexual reproduction, male and female; the unpredictable, uncontrollable, nonmechanical begetting—not making—of persons.
There’s a lot said about STEM in our world right now—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But the truth is, all our world really wants is T. We don’t actually want math for the glory of how beautiful mathematics is in its own right. And we don’t just want basic science that attends to the world in contemplative ways. No, we want M to give us S that will give us E that will give us T, and T is what solves our problems.
Possibly the most powerful thing I’ve ever heard from a Christian teacher was from the late Leanne Payne, who said, “We either contemplate or we exploit.”2 Will Christians simply be lining up with the rest of our culture to use the world for our own ends, or will we be the ones to say S is good on its own, and M is good on its own? Will we be the ones to say that contemplating the world helps us understand God? God is not a machine. God is not there to be used, God is there to be enjoyed.
Ultimately, this question of whether we can pastor our fellow Christians into both compassion and contemplation goes into the heart of our worship. Do we worship God because he is a machine and we hope to get something from him? No, we worship God because he made all of this, and it is just very good to be creatures in his creation, and be endowed with the gifts to reflect back to him his goodness. That is the very good news that we can take into a world of conflict.
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