July 6, 2008

Christian Agnostic, Part IV: Science and the Bible

One of my biggest pet-peeves is when a Christian or a Church says "the Bible is the scientifically-accurate word of God." Now, I do understand the context for such a qualifier - science has challenged a lot of what Christians through history have assumed to be true. Galileo noticed that we're not the center of the universe, and then Einstein showed that we could be, depending on our perspective. Darwin noticed that organisms adapt to their surroundings as they change, challenging the notion that once creation happened, nothing changed afterwards.

But the context doesn't seem to prevent my irritation.

It's ironic that so much of the debate is over a book that isn't actually a science textbook. On what level do we think that Moses was thinking "biology 101" when he compiled the accounts of creation in Genesis? Who writes a science text thousands of years before the idea of sceince even existed? Who, for that matter, would do so in poetry? Poetry is reserved for the things we can't explain, not the things we can!

I also find it ironic that many of the Christian notions challenged by science are actually cultural and not really biblical; many came from medieval notions of truth, which originated in their theology. For example, the medieval notion of the earth as the center of the solar system came from theology, not the theology from the evidence. The idea was that God made man last, therefore humanity is most important (interesting that they didn't extend this to gender). Now, from a certain perspective, no, the earth is not the center. The Earth revolves around the sun - we can look up (and even GO up) and see this to be so. However, Einstein being the genius that he was, changed all that. Because of perspective, we can literally be the center of the universe again; the universe, from a certain perspective (one with its fixed reference on our planet), quite literally revolves around us. But it is ALSO true that, from another perspective (one with its fixed reference outside our planet), the earth rotates and then orbits around the sun along with seven other planets and one planetoid (sorry Pluto), along with countless moons, comets, asteroids, etc. It's not either/or because of perspective. Western culture is actually one of the few cultures concerned with what literally happened in the past; most other cultures are more concerned with how we are to act NOW, and so they tell stories FROM the past in order to instruct the PRESENT.

And so I ask, must we think that scripture is scientifically accurate? Is the reason for scripture to show HOW things are, or to show WHY things are? Science and scripture are not necessarily incompatable. Science, for example, is quickly concluding that the universe was made out of nothing, that the Big Bang had to create matter from literally nothing in order for it all to work. Christians think that too - we call it "ex nihilio" (the fancy latin term for "out of nothing") except we say that the whole thing had a cause - God. Science is still "agnostic" about the cause. But are the two fundamentally incompatable? No. Scripture never says HOW God did it, only WHY He did it (and that He did it at all). But imagine you're a person ignorant of quantum mechanics and chemical microbiology (just imagine ... it shouldn't be too hard to imagine this) and living after all of this creation stuff has happened, and then think: how do you explain it to future generations? Of course:

Poetry!

And so to extend the argument further, when we say that organisms evolve and change and adapt to their surroundings, is that fundamentally incompatable with God breathing life into Adam? Only if you have a very narrow view of a God who doesn't work with what's present to change it. And if things can't change and adapt to new circumstances, what makes you think that people can change? Why bother with evangelism or mission if we think that people will always stay as they are, born sinful? I think that evolutionary theory is quite compatable with the story of the gospel, when told a certain way:

In the beginning was The Cause, and He created the universe out of nothing. He created it with order and purpose, with complex and intricate governing rules so that the atoms and molecules would know how to interact. The universe expanded to fill the space He had created, and by His hand, the planets took shape around stars, some around several stars. One planet was just right for a particular plan, and so he made it form in a certain way; volcanoes parted the waters and created fertile dry land. The volcanic activity also cleared the poisonous atmosphere, and in a puddle of green goo, God began moving the molecules into proteins, and the proteins into cells, and the cells into all sorts of organisms. God is like a potter, molding and forming a shapeless lump of clay into a masterpiece of artistic harmony, form and function. The animals grew ever complex, until one day, in the sixth age, God's last creation came to the point where He was ready for His best creative act yet: he breathed His own life into men and women. The two enjoyed the paradise of a planet God had created, until one day, something happened that changed all that ...
Is it perfect? Of course not, but like all things, it's open to interpretation, change, and refinement. God is ever creating, building life from chaos and confusion. Retelling it this way is very risky, but in the end, after refining it, I think it will be worth it. We need to retell anew the stories for our culture in a language that makes sense to each generation, lest they become old, stale, irrelevant.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

Jeff Rudy said...

One of my college Bible profs (notorious for "stirring feathers" by believing in evolution) once said that the Church of today will have to learn to embrace Darwin as the Church of several centuries ago had to learn to embrace Galileo. Interesting re-telling of the creation story you had there, too. Made me realize how small our planet is in comparison to the vast cosmos and that there is something in Scripture about how God sees and acts on behalf of the "small," "insignificant," and so on.