Christians and science: The continuing struggle

I have wanted to blog on this topic for quite some time, but a recent post by Tim Challies gave me a foil to work from. Here goes, and I’ll hope for the best.

One of the areas of dispute among Christians (and a criticism thereof by atheists as well) that gives me the most grief is the perceived conflict between science and religion. This is most prominently seen between creationism, the most prevalent theistic view, and modern evolutionary theory (henceforth MET), the mainstream atheistic view, in my opinion (but of course not exclusively atheistic). To a degree, I understand the struggle because theists see evolution as encroaching on their territory using a widely accepted medium: science. As such, there is bound to be some defensiveness.

Tim Challies, in the aforementioned blog entry (entitled “Wrestling with Evolution”), says a whole lot about the issue, and for that, I am grateful since he typically deals with issues in a very level-headed manner. Although that is still true here, his response baffles me (while also being, paradoxically, somewhat unsurprising).

Challies (henceforth TC) first introduces the topic by noting that theistic opinion is no longer unified on the issue; there are a number of Christian scientists who hold to MET, while there are still large numbers of Christians who hold to a literal six-day creation, young earth and all it entails. Because the latter group is seen as (in TC’s words) “increasingly stubborn and outdated,” there is “very real pressure to conform.” I concede this, and I think that is part of the struggle. The dilemma, as he puts it, for Christians can be expressed thusly:

The stakes are high. As Christians we believe that God is honored when we honor the truth. Hence if God did not create the world from nothing in six literal days, we dishonor God by clinging tightly, even in the face of evidence, to a view that is wrong. Of course the opposite is also true. If God did create the world in six days, we dishonor Him by believing in evolution. Only one view can be right.

This is what I could call the “two revelations” view: Modern Christians have to grapple with an adherence to special revelation (Scripture) and general revelation (nature and the cosmos). To put it another way, for any given case where there is a discrepancy, the theist must decide that 1) the general revelation is correct and special revelation has been misinterpreted, 2) the special revelation is correct and the general revelation is betraying some human misunderstanding, or 3) that one revelatory source trumps the other in all disputes (more generally reason over revelation). These, if not the only options, are at least the most common.

Now, I think modern Christians have already wrestled with other issues and come out none the worse for wear. But TC thinks differently of this issue:

As for me, I am still an old-fashioned, out-dated, six day Creationist. My reasoning is simple: I believe we have to give the position of supremacy to the Bible. While I certainly admit that the Bible is not meant to be a scientific textbook, if we affirm its inerrancy we need to believe that where it does comment on science, it does so truthfully. Thus, until it can be proven to me otherwise, the creation of the world, as outlined in the Bible, is meant to be read literally and accepted as fact.

The language is consistent with a rejection of general revelation in this case: he says later in the same paragraph as above that “our eyes are clouded by our limitations”, implying that we depend on having the truth delivered to us regarding origins through special revelation. While I do not entirely reject the idea that human reason has limits and that there are perhaps things we must depend on special revelation for, I believe that most of the things that should be relegated to that category are places at which there are gaps in knowledge, not where this is contrary evidence.

Part of this debate gets into inerrancy, which is such a big topic as to be unwieldy for discussion here. Suffice it to say that I don’t believe inerrancy is synonymous with literalism, which is why I disagree with a later objection of TC’s:

First, if we decide that the biblical account of creation is simple allegory or a metaphorical description of what actually took place, how are we to determine where allegory ends and reality begins?

Is there not a danger in handing someone a Bible and saying, “It is important to note that the first three chapters you read really aren’t meant to be taken literally!”? Does it seem likely that God would give us His description of the world’s origins in a way that, by most measures, seems to be meant literally, when in reality it is merely figurative? What are the wider implications of reading these early chapters in a way that is less than literal?

I should clarify that TC does not seem bent on hyper-literalism – he grants several points that should not be taken literally, such as God’s seventh day rest or the creation of man from literal dust – but insists on a literal interpretation (in the non-Augustinian sense) of Genesis because of theological problems that ensue from an acceptance of MET. I will concede that there are problems that should be addressed regarding sin, the Fall, and the headship of Adam (à la Paul’s analogical argument of Christ to Adam as “first men”), but there are also problems – bigger ones, in my estimation – when you say that the epistemic methods behind MET, which are used in reaching other conclusions that we do not find so suspect whether Scripture does not speak to their regard or not, are somehow flawed, especially when you cannot say how.

Let’s face it – there are theological implications for things that modern Christians reject, but they can and have been dealt with. For instance, the Bible is universal in its description of the divine in terms of ascendancy, and not just in the “His ways are higher than our ways” sense: the iconic figures of the OT go to the high places to speak with God (e.g. Moses on Mt. Moriah), and heaven is always positioned vertically above the earth so that to get there requires climbing (cf. Jacob’s ladder) or ascension (Elijah’s chariot of fire, the Ascension of Christ). So when we became able to observe the cosmos and see that there weren’t angels hanging out among the celestial bodies and that the celestial bodies had the “blemishes” of craters and mountains (thus ruining forever the concept of celestial perfection), did that give us pause to cast doubt on all the Scriptures? What about finding out that a geocentric cosmology, while perfectly in line with Scripture (cf. Joshua 10), is not accurate based on empirical data? None of these things crippled Christianity, and it is doubtful that acceptance of evolution will, either.

I will lay my cards out on the table: I would consider myself a theistic evolutionist in the sense that I think evolution has been shown to be the mechanism by which humans arose, and I do not believe this process to be blind but rather divinely guided towards specific goals. As far as the denial of evolution – or for that matter, the old age of the universe – I agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s take on the matter:

Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts… the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.”

If you ask me, that’s a bigger problem for creation than evolution.

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