Friday, July 20, 2007

The Great Stumbling Block

I am just about finished with Francis Collins’s The Language of God, and am quite pleased. Collins was the director of the Human Genome Project and has described its work and value for a general audience. That would be a commendable exercise in itself, but he takes on a greater task of integrating faith and science. Many writers attempt that, but Collins brings a rare honesty and intellectual rigor to the discussion.

You wouldn’t think I would judge any writer as having used CS Lewis too much, but the first few chapter of this book may actually fit that category. I usually have the opposite impression, that people who purport to have thought and studied deeply on a subject have tied themselves in useless knots by neglecting to look up the deft, clear words of Lewis on the topic. Yet even I was worried at first that Dr. Collins had gone too far. Not to worry. He weaves in many writers and thinkers in his recounting of his own faith-journey and his professional career in medicine and biochemistry. Augustine assumes especial prominence in some sections.

The book speaks with admiration for the scientific work of both believers and non-believers Collins has encountered, whether personally or in reading. There is no tearing down of anything but ideas; he gives credit for goodwill and sincerity to all parties. Because he finds most popular description of the most common points of view inadequate, he coins his own term BioLogos, for his particular intersection of creation and evolution.

In pointing out the weaknesses of Young Earth Creationism on both theological and scientific grounds he is quite kind. He gives considerable credit to the thinking behind Intelligent Design, though he ultimately finds it unsatisfying and rapidly eroding in value. Collins believes quite forcefully in evolution by random selection, and explains why in direct terms. Those of you who know Christians who have married their theology to Young Earth Creationism might want to leave this book lying around where they can find it.

There are various polls which suggest that 30-45% of Americans believe in Young Earth Creationism. That would indeed be appalling, but I think these numbers mislead. People believe contradictory things all the time because they really don’t think about them much. Most people believe in the Ice Age, the distance of the stars, the age of the earth, cavemen, the erosion of the Grand Canyon and a dozen other things incompatible with YEC. But when official persons asking questions corner them, they don’t want to be caught not being on God’s “side.” They think that a secular society is taking God out of circulation altogether too much, and they want to put in their vote that think He’s in charge. When you press people, it turns out that they would rather not risk heresy, and so give what they think is the spiritually safe answer. To do otherwise would seem disloyal and faithless to them.

I sent my sons to Christian schools which taught YEC, though they were often taught at least the rudiments of evolutionary theory as well. It was a bit of a balancing act to undermine that particular teaching without undermining the school, and keeping things age-appropriate for sons four years apart added to the difficulty. But we managed, and I always thought “better that problem than its opposite.” With the two younger boys, rescued by fundamentalist Romanian Baptists from the mouth of hell, it was always harder for them to move away from biblical literalism. And frankly, they don’t think about it much and it doesn’t matter. One is going to be an auto tech, the other an accountant.

Fundamentalists like to talk about “stumbling blocks” for others, and they use this doctrine to forbid things the Bible does not forbid, like drinking, rock music, smoking, movies, and dancing. But Young Earth Creationism is a much greater stumbling block for unbelievers and new believers. Jesus railed against Pharisees making up new rules for the people to live by if they wanted to be right with God. YEC fits this exactly. As far back as Augustine and Jerome biblical scholars were puzzled by the different style of Genesis chapters 1-14, especially 1-3, and seeing deeply symbolic lessons rather than recounted history there. These views of Genesis did not come in response to pressure from the sciences that seemed to call the facts into question, for there was no such pressure from science then. The scholars came to these views on the basis of the texts alone.

YEC has gotten into bizarre territory as time as gone on. Some are trying to sell the idea that God put these bones in the ground, and these moving stars, and these eroded canyons in place that just look like they are old. They say, God can do anything, He could do that. Okay, sure, but why would He want to? What’s your idea of God that He would think deceiving humanity would be a good idea? It is stuff like this that drives our young people out of the church. It’s not that they “just want to fit in with the world.” That’s our rationalization. It’s the intellectual cowardice that loses them.

Earnest young Christian musicians and popular preachers will tell you that people reject the church because we don’t show enough love, or generosity, or godliness. They will try to inspire the flock by declaring that people would believe if we really acted like the Good Samaritan, or lived by the Beatitudes, or forgave 70 times 7. That’s partly true. That would certainly help. But while many nonbelievers may say that what bothers them is the hypocrisy or the unforgiveness, I don’t believe them. Much of that is just an excuse by nonbelievers – I say that because I have seen too many people who were recipients of generosity and forgiveness who nonetheless rejected the faith.

Certainly many have believed false history of the church and attribute many ills to us unfairly, and it would be good to correct the record. But if you want to identify the #1 long-term stumbling block for those outside the faith, or those considering leaving it, look no further than Young Earth Creationism. Equating loyalty to God with loyalty to a particular way of reading the Scriptures is placing a Pharisaic, man-made burden on the people.

Now, all those objections to my view that some of you are sure I have never heard or haven’t considered, all that really compelling data from the Institute for Creation Research – take a breath and consider that maybe I have seen it and find it not very convincing. More importantly, Dr. Collins, whose credentials are far better than mine, has seen it and has ready answers.


terri said...

AVI...I am not really a YEC, nor am I am evolutionist, per se. I am more than willing to accept the creation account as a summary and not a literal 24-hour account.

My only reservation is the problem with the account of Adam and Eve. If they are symbolic figures and don't represent actual people, what are the implications for Christian theology?

Much of the New Testament rests on Jesus coming in the flesh to redeem humanity from the sins of Adam. The New Testament always deals with Adam as one individual being, and Christ as the "new" Adam, beginner of a new creation.

How do you reconcile those concepts and chunks of Scripture with an "evolved" man?

So much theology rests on the story of creation's fall. If it is all allegory and not "true", it undermines dozens of theological tenets....original sin, substitutionary atonement, the curses and prophecies concerning Man and his interaction with Satan....etc.

How do you fit it all together?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Collins addresses that, probably better than I could. He quotes Lewis pretty heavily at that point, and tackles those same theological issues straight on.

He did not include what I consider an important addition: the parables. When Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son or the good Samaritan, it is not necessary for those things to have happened for them to be true. There is something about them that is essential for us to know.

I don't think the elements of the Adam and Eve story are arbitrary. I think that the apple is important. Perhaps a peach "would do," or even a fish from a forbidden pond, but I rather doubt it. There is something about the apple in the story that makes it slightly better than a peach, and much better than a fish. The snake is important, though we barely understand it. Satan speaking through a cloud or tree wouldn't do. I don't mean that it simply wouldn't "feel right," though I include that. If the story had been passed down wrongly as a salamander it might still be intact. But if Satan spoke through one of the two human characters, or disguised himself as God in someway, the story would change so greatly that it would not penetrate our souls in the same way, and certainly not teach the same lesson.

The rib is important, though we only speculate why. The dust is important, and having to sacrifice animals to cover themselves is important.

And also - the wives that were unaccountably present for the children of Adam and Eve - that's a clue right there that the whole story has not been told to us.

terri said...

ah...but there was no "apple"...the fruit was never identified beyond its designation of "knowledge of good and evil.":-)

Also, the parables are always presented as stories by Jesus. He tells his disciples what they represent. He does not lead them to believe that they are to be historically accurate stories.

As far as the wives...I always thought they were just the daughters of Adam and Eve. Females are hardly ever listed in any geneology in the bible. Why should we be surprised that they are never mentioned?

My concern is that, in most circles, when the pendulum swings from "everything is literal" on its way to "everything is figurative/symbolic" Jesus usually gets lost as an historical, actual person. Most scholars who eventually discount all of Genesis as symbolic, later begin to view Jesus, and the creeds associated with Him, as symbolic. At that point, Christianity is no longer viable, cohesive, or very meaningful.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There are certainly many who claim to take the Bible seriously, but seem to actually take something else seriously, using the Bible as decoration. It is commonly believed among evangelicals that any giving of ground as regards the interpretation of scripture leads inexorably to abandonment of the central beliefs of the faith. I tend to think that way myself, having been a Lutheran before being a Covenanter and watching the erosion of core doctrines there.

But I don't know, come to think of it, that the erosion came because of less-literal interpretations of the Bible. That's what all the evangelicals said was the reason, but I don't know that it is really true. It might be an effect rather than a cause, with some other reason (such as worldliness) driving both.

If you read Collins I don't think you will get any impression he is giving up a literal Jesus or belief in miracles. For that matter, neither did Lewis. The latter would take a stern view of your idea that abandoning the literal interpretation has to mean treating Genesis as "only" symbolic.

As to the wives, it would be odd of Yahweh to so quickly forbid incest after starting off with it. It's not an impossible idea, to make new rules as circumstances change. But it would seem an odd way to arrange things, as if God had backed himself into an uncomfortable corner with the way he made us.

terri said...

The Law didn't come into being for many, many years after the beginning of Genesis. Would marrying your sister be any worse than reproducing with the female version of yourself?(Eve)

Abraham and Sarah were half-brother and sister also.

As far as backing Himself into a corner.....we could only say that that was what He did if we perfectly understand why He implemented certain rules. For instance, is every law and rule in the Old Testament in existence for the sole use of glorifying God, or do some rules exist as a way for God's chosen people to co-exist with each other and the world? Certain things might have been put into place as relational principles rather than as fundamental spiritual laws.

The law says you shouldn't marry two sisters, but we clearly know that Jacob did, albeit unwillingly.

I don't mean to monopolize this post, but it touched on several things I have been thinking about lately.

What keeps me from abandoning the literal Adam and Eve is the New Testament. If I take the view that the references to them in the New Testament are only there because the apostles simply didn't know any better, and couldn't conceive of it being any other way, then I have shot myself in the foot. If they are putting forth theology based on faulty beliefs, at which point can I discern what has theological merit and what is simply a first century mind's attempt to understand the universe in first century terms?
Everything becomes unstable.

If the writers of Scripture are undermined, as far as motivation, intent, and understanding go, then what use is putting their theology into practice?

Maybe, as some scholars say, Jesus wasn't really born of a virgin. The gospels just proclaim that to fit this historical man into their messianic narrative. Maybe, as some scholars say, he was just a conglomeration of first century mystery cult myths that were formed into Jewish personage.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I guess I don't see that the doctrines of the virgin birth and the necessity for the resurrection, or the other doctrines of the faith are at all compromised by Adam and Eve being a parable based on some reality of which we know little. Augustine, Jerome, and the rabbinic commentators did not find a literal Genesis 1 through 3 necessary for them to retain the doctrines, centuries before Darwin or any other scientific controversy arose.

terri said...

hmm...well, I'd probably have to read the book and see how Collins works it all out.

While I have not read everything that Lewis has written, I have read a fair amount. Is there a particular book or essay that he has written that addresses his view on Creation, naturalism, and Adam and Eve?

I only have a smattering of knowledge about Augustine, so I would have to check out that too.

Are you saying that they didn't believe in an historical Adam and Eve whatsoever?

Anonymous said...


At the time of the earliest translations of the Bible into English, the word "apple" did not exclusively connote one variety of tree fruit as it does today but was commonly used to refer to any tree fruit distinct from nuts and berries.

In many ancient mythological storytelling traditions fruit represents fertility, especially female fertility. Perhaps the second story of Genesis is a kind of coming-of-age tale.

The reckless curiosity of a female leading to disaster even after she has been forewarned is not a universal myth but it is found in many cultures. Compare the afflictions resulting from Eve's action with the ancient Greek myth of Pandora.

Part of the Eden story also hints at a tale of tragic love: After Eve has eaten of the forbidden fruit, her man Adam has to choose whether to abandon her to death and live on eternally without her; or remain with her faithfully and share her doom.