“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Two: Science, Christianity and Bibilical interpretation

In-the-Beginning-slideThis is the second in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.

I have presented each session as an account of what I took from each presentation (and the panel questions afterwards), and inserted my own comments at the end of each. I am working from the notes that I made during each talk, so I apologise if I have misrepresented any of the speakers on what they were trying to say; I have written about each talk as I understood it.

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Session 2: Science, Christianity and Bibilical interpretation

Chris Mulherin

The first speaker in this session was Chris Mulherin, and his talk was entitled “Conflict? What conflict?” He said that although there emay be the perception of a “war” going on, it is at most a culture war between the so-called “New” atheists and people of faith. In his opinion, it really boils down to a communication problem.

Mulherin pointed out that, although the word gets a lot of press, “proof” is something that only fundamentalists deal in. Scientists don’t really talk about proof, and you shouldn’t trust anyone who says that they can “prove” Christianity. In the end, we make a judgement based on the best evidence that we have. He observed that if science could “disprove” Christianity, there would be no thinking (and scientifically-literate) believers, pointing to John Houghton (head of the IPCC) and Francis Collins (head of the National Institutes of Health in the USA) as just two of the many obvious counter-examples.

As illustrations of the compatibility of science and Christianity, he mentioned two quotes: the first, from Francis Bacon as quoted on the front page of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species:

“To conclude, therefore, let no man … think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”

The second was from Stephen Jay Gould:

“To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time … science simply cannot adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

And yet, Mulherin continued, beliefs matter. He pointed out that our beliefs on what humans are doing to the climate will have profound effects over the next 50-100 years. And while science is great, we can misunderstand it in important ways. Most importantly, science is not religion. Although science is excellent at answering particular types of questions, this does not mean that it can give the answers about everything. And the universe of science is ultimately futile, with no answers on questions of meaning. The universe of “blind pitiless indifference” that Dawkins famously described is the best meaning that science can offer. In the search for meaning, he quoted Robert Jastrow, the former chief scientist of NASA:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Mulherin spoke next about methodological naturalism as a necessary presupposition of science: when we do an experiment, we need to assume that God is not interfering. (In response to a later question, he pointed out that this is why so-called “prayer experiments” are absurd: they rely on a concept of prayer as a formulaic and automatic process. Science requires that a process under investigation be rule-governed, but prayer is governed by the (free) will of God, so such an experiment makes no sense).

He took some pains to distinguish between questions of “meaning” and questions of “mechanism”. For example, why is the kettle boiling? This can be answered either with a thermodynamic explanation or with “because I want a cup of tea.” Likewise, he said, the question “why are we here?” can have multiple types of answer.

He also stressed the impact of worldviews, which he described as a set of ideas or beliefs that make sense of the big picture: they are about meaning. Christianity is a worldview, but science is not. The Christian worldview is about the creator God, the meaningfulness of history, purposes of humanity, the coexistence of good and evil, and the resurrection of Jesus as the most important event in history.

He went on to point out that science is based on faith. The vital presuppositions of science include:

  • That the universe is governed by laws.
  • A dependence on induction: multiple observations of white swans lead to a conclusion that all swans are white. This theory can be disproven, of course, but remains the working theory in the interim.
  • There is a real, objective world out there.
  • That world is knowable.
  • That human thinking leads to truth.

Science is also based on trust: every scientific statement is made by a human being who believes it to be true. He quoted Richard Feynman:

“Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.”

He then contrasted science with scientism, a blind faith in science: a belief that only scientific knowledge is true. Lawrence Krauss, for instance, when asked if there was a problem with a physicist wading into philosophy and theology, replied that you don’t need philosophy and theology to understand the universe, you just need physics. Similarly, Daniel Dennett has stated that, “When it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town.” This is, of course, a self-refuting statement and unscientific statement. Saying that “science gives us truth” is fundamentally different from saying that “all truth must be scientific”. The presuppositions of science don’t allow the space for science to be the sole source of truth.

My comments:

I really enjoyed this talk, but regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by that. The material was very much in line with how I understand the relationship science and Christianity. I thought that the illustrations were clear and well presented.

More broadly, I thought that is was great to have this talk included in the symposium: as we consider the different viewpoints on origins, it is important to clear up our understanding on what science and Christianity really are. In a way, it was an expansion to the definitions that Colin Groves included at the start of his talk yesterday.

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Andrew Brown

The second speaker in this section was Andrew Brown, a lecturer in Old Testament at the Melbourne School of Theology. His talk was entitled: “In the beginning… a history of interpretation of Genesis 1”, which was also the topic of his PhD.

Brown started off by discussing the literary form of Genesis 1. It doesn’t quite fit the norms of classical Hebrew poetry, but it’s certainly not prose narrative. It has a highly structured style; “elevated prose” is probably the best description. He also observed that it was very unlike anything else written in a similar time period, and that curiously little reference is made to Gen 1 within the Old Testament itself.

He then gave a quick sketch of some common 20th century interpretations of the chapter:

  • A 6-day, 24-hour creation week (the YEC position). The roots of this interpretation are mostly in the 19th century, but it is also influenced by 16th century Protestantism (the Westminster Confession includes this view).
  • The “Gap theory”, or the Ruin-Restitution hypothesis. Essentially, the view that everything was created instantaneously, after which an indeterminate period of time passed (when creation was “formless and void”). This theory is partly drawn from the story of teh Garden of Eden: if Satan is the serpent, then there must already have been an angelic fall before the garden, which implies a passage of time.
  • Day-Age or Periodic Day. The roots of this paradigm are found in 18-19th century understanding of deep time, and it puts creation into long epochs that cover each day. Brown noted that you need a bit of forcing to try and get the sequence in Genesis 1 to match up with current geological and cosmological theory.
  • The “Framework Hypothesis”, or the Anthropomorphic Creation Week. This is a non-literalistic interpretation, based on the literary form of the text (for instance, the parallelism between days 1-3 and days 4-6). This interpretation has a long history, dating back to Peter Lombard in the medieval period, and Jewish philosophers before that.

Looking further back in time, Brown outlined some other traditions from the past 2000 years:

  • The Idealist/Platonist interpretation. In this framework, following the Platonic idea of forms, the non-real “ideal” world is what really matters. The creation account refers to non-real , timeless, eternal things.
  • Christological Allegory. Anastasius of Sinai (who died after 700AD) wrote the Hexamaeron, a 12-book commentary on the Genesis narrative. He was not even remotely interested in the history of the universe, but he saw Genesis as allegory that could be used to uncover theological truths (Adam and Eve, for instance, represent Jesus and the Church respectively).
  • Historical Typology. In this interpretation, the creation week functions as a kind of outline or program for God’s redemptive plan for human history, dividing it into seven periods of about 1000 years each, punctuated by figures like Noah and David (and based on the Psalm 90:4, “a thousand years is as a day in your sight”). So this schema works as a kind of “key” to “unlock the code”.
  • Cryptic/Enigmatic interpretation. This is similar to allegory, but using a heavy gnostic or mystical grid that contains truth that only the mystical insider can understand.
  • Moral Allegory (typology). In this framework, everything has a life application (for example, the waxing and waning of the moon represents human instability). So “birds of the air” in Genesis 1 are would be used for their symbolic application for human life, rather than a more literal meaning.

Brown moved on to the important issue of hermeneutics, noting that the answers that people get are often based on the questions that they ask of the text. Some of the questions that people have asked of Genesis 1 include:

  • Physical questions: natural philosophy, etc.
  • Metaphysical / philosophical questions: timeless creation ontology. How do we interpret Gen 1 in the context of an Aristotelian timeless worldview?
  • Human redemptive / historical questions.
  • Questions on the nature of God.
  • Spiritual ascent: how do we live a virtuous Christian life? The Gen 1 week becomes a metaphor for seven steps for the ascent of the soul. (Bonaventure wrote in this vein).
  • Hermetic/occult knowledge: how can we unpack hidden meaning from this cryptic text?

Importantly, Brown noted that the modern age began to shift the questions that were asked. Perhaps most importantly, the modern age started the push for a singularity of meaning. In contrast, Augustine was quite happy with simultaneously having multiple understandings of a text. He also noted that the historicality of nature, the idea of nature having its own history independent of humans, was a major shift in the way people understood the world, and as a results, the way that they read Genesis 1.

Brown closed by discussing some false expectations that he feels people have brought to Genesis. In particular, he highlighted the idea that it must contain all truth about natural origins, about human origins and the history of civilisation, and the whole geographic scope of humanity.

His final comment was to note how remarkable it is that the creation account in Genesis 1 continues to speak to people all time periods, even 4000 years after it was written. For the opposite scenario, he noted the Babylonian creation account of Enuma Elish, which is probably the best contemporary equivalent text. Unlike Genesis, this no longer has anything useful to say to anyone.

My comments:

This was a really thought-provoking talk. I found it particularly fascinating that all these diverse viewpoints were the result of people who were sincere in their faith and earnestly seeking the true meaning of the text. That they came to such a broad range of conclusions should, perhaps, give one pause before claiming any monopoly on “the one true meaning” of the passage.

Also fascinating was the degree to which interpretations were coloured by the dominant worldview of the time. None of us today, as a rule, are Platonists, so we perhaps find the interpretation of “forms” vs “reality” as an amusing historical quirk, easy to dismiss. What unconscious assumptions are we making today that are simply a product of our current worldview?

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Panel discussion (Chris Mulherin and Andrew Brown)

The first questions were directed at Andrew Brown, who was asked what views were dominant in about 400AD. He said that Augustine was most influenced by the allegorical view of Origen and Clement (of the Alexandrian school), which concludes that the text has to be allegorical because things like the sun and light are created separately. Augustine wanted to be more literal, however, and his final attempt at reconciling the two was an idea that the “days” were periods of increasing awareness in the angelic host, and that time was not involved. Pope Gregory the Great took the view that creation was instantaneous, and then the arrangement of matter took six days afterwards.

He further noted that the Day-Age view became popular from about 1760-1770, as geology kicked off seriously as a field of study, and the “ages” became geological eras. He also pointed out that most of the Biblical-period interpreters viewed it in an eschatological sense, as the outline of a plan for human history. However, multiple interpretations were the norm in previous times, even from the same authors, and this was not seen as being contradictory.

Chris Mulherin was then asked, “Don’t evolution and cosmology inevitably conflict with Genesis?” He replied that there was certainly conflict if you’re convinced that Genesis and science are answering the exact same questions. But as with “why is the water boiling?”, we may actually be asking different questions without even realising it. Also, he said, if we buy the myth that “Science is about certain proven truth”, and then we take that wrong view of science to our faith, we are tempted to try and apply that (false) view of science to “prove” our faith by scientific methodology. This is problematic for our faith, and based on a misunderstanding of what science can even offer.

The next question was also directed at Chris Mulherin, and concerned the historicity of Adam and the Fall. His reply was that, using the resurrection of Jesus as the interpretive key for the Bible, and also believing that in the main, science is getting things right in as far as it can go, he personally doesn’t feel that there is a need to commit to many of these questions. Do we need to scientifically be able to track an historical Adam and Eve? No. But having the idea that humans are different, “made in the image of God”, is essential, even if the details do not necessarily need to be resolved.

Chris Mulherin was the asked, “To what extent to the science / Christianity questions overlap?” He said that Christianity is an historical faith in that it is rooted in specific historical events, most importantly the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This could conceivably be explored scientific ally, but it’s not really a big overlap. However, even if there was a clear and well-documented evolutionary lineage from the earliest living organisms to us, that would not really impact Christianity. It would still say nothing about the will or involvement of God in that process.

Finally, Andrew Brown was asked how he personally understands Genesis 1. He said that he sees it as a schematic: it conveys true information about the real world, but not in a literal detailed sense.

My comments:

The questions were good and both the speakers handled them really well. I thought that the types of questions indicated that both speakers had communicated their points well and engaged the audience effectively. The session as a whole was an important one for setting some definitions straight and establishing more grounds for discussion and debate.

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2 thoughts on ““In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Two: Science, Christianity and Bibilical interpretation

  1. “proof” is something that only fundamentalists deal in.

    I certainly hear plenty about issues of “proof” from fundamentalists of scientism. I don’t even recall the last time that I heard a Christian fundamentalist raise it!

    A 6-day, 24-hour creation week (the YEC position). The roots of this interpretation are mostly in the 19th century, but it is also influenced by 16th century Protestantism (the Westminster Confession includes this view).

    And by the everyday man in the street. I doubt that the impression of your blue-collar fishermen today is much different from those circa 30 AD — or 2000 BC for that matter.

    if Satan is the serpent, then there must already have been an angelic fall before the garden, which implies a passage of time

    …but itself presumes that the fall happened within the chronological span of the universe. Since God existed “before” his creation, likewise could “prior” creations such as the angels.

    The Idealist/Platonist interpretation.

    This seems to be the odd one out here to the extent that it imports a philosophically alien framework and attempts to synthesize harmony.

    Do we need to scientifically be able to track an historical Adam and Eve? No. But having the idea that humans are different, “made in the image of God”, is essential, even if the details do not necessarily need to be resolved.

    This I think speaks to the central point: the objective of Genesis 1 is to explain man’s place in the world and his relationship with his creator in a way best understood by all men.

    • Guardian:
      The Idealist/Platonist interpretation.

      This seems to be the odd one out here to the extent that it imports a philosophically alien framework and attempts to synthesize harmony.

      The same could, of course, be said of the scientific framework.

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