The Creationist Crisis (Part Two)

After a recent blog post about the Ken Ham Bill Nye debate at Liberty University ( ), I had a brief exchange with a commenter who identified as Paul. Paul took issue with my calling Ken Ham a biblical literalist—and my saying that this was the reason he could not look at the scientific evidence honestly.

In our subsequent exchange, Paul made the following assertions:

If you interpret Genesis as figurative, that cause problems with what the Bible says elsewhere (example: Romans 5:12 says that death is a result of sin, but if evolution is true then death existed before Adam and Eve existed).

 Of course the days in Genesis 1 are 24-hour days. If they weren’t, you’d have problems with Exodus 20:11, Exodus 31:17, as well as other verses. So, yes, it is natural to read Genesis 1 as literal 24-hour days.

 Like I said, when Ken Ham responded with “I’m a Christian”, I think he means that there is no scientific or historical evidence that would contradict the Christian worldview.

My friends who were not raised in a Conservative Evangelical church do not understand this logic—or, from their perspective, illogic. What does one part of scripture’s relation to another have to do with an analysis of the scientific evidence?

I want to explain to them the basic theology behind this insistence on young-earth creationism.

Premillennial Dispensationalism was developed in the late 1800s by John Nelson Darby, and it harmonizes the entire Bible into an all-encompassing history of not just God’s dealing with humanity, but the story of the entire universe from start to finish. It is a map of world events and a guide for looking at history, judging present crises, and knowing with certainty what will come in the future.

According to this system, the purpose of all creation is God’s relationship with humanity, which he carries out according to seven different governing systems or dispensations:

1. Innocence: begins with the literal six-day creation and ends when Adam and Eve screw up

2. Conscience: everyone screws this up and has to be drowned, except for Noah and his family

3. Government: this takes us from Noah to the promise that Abraham will father nations

4. Promise: from Abraham to Moses and the Law

5. Law: this dispensation takes us from Moses to Jesus

6. Grace: the dispensation in which we are living right now

7. Millennial Kingdom: after the Rapture and the seven years of the Great Tribulation

Before the first dispensation is eternity past, in which only God exists; after the thousand-year rule of the Millennial Kingdom, is eternity future, in which human beings exist consciously in one of two places.

I remember Sunday school charts in the dank church basement explaining this system of human history. There were some variations–and I remember some hot controversies over disagreements regarding things like whether or not Christians would have to suffer through the Great Tribulation–but they all followed the same basic pattern. Here is one done by Clarence Larkin so you can get an idea:

This tightly structured harmonization of the entire Bible into one big story of universal history, coupled with the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy—the Bible does not contain one iota of mistaken or false information—makes it impossible for Conservative Evangelicals (Fundamentalists) to look honestly at the scientific evidence. If one tenet falls, the whole house collapses.

Several years ago I blogged about a group of former Liberty students here in town who have left their childhood faith:

The belief system they’ve been taught all their lives is a theology of one calcified piece, each point taught with the same absolute certainty as every other. They begin to notice oddities in this theological landscape. A stone seems fake, held in place unnaturally—say the doctrine of verbal, plenary biblical inspiration and its subsequent inerrancy; or the prohibition against women in the ministry; or the insistence on a literal, twenty-four-hour, six-day creation six thousand years ago—and they get suspicious, start to kick around.

 They kick away a stone—decide, for example, that they cannot believe in a literal talking snake causing all the world’s woes any more than they could believe in a literal, historical Pandora. The one stone falls away, and then another falls after it, and with that the collapse begins.

 The ground crumbles from beneath them in outward circles like ripples on water. Everything their lives were built on falls away until they are floating, totally unmoored, casting about among the twisting and drifting fragments of their childhood faith, trying to cobble something together that they can live with.

Young-earth creationists cannot look honestly at the evidence because the specter of this happening to them looms over the whole conversation—and what do they have after that? They have staked their entire life on this system’s being historically and scientifically factual, every jot and tittle of it.

I was in a discussion once with a longtime pastor, who slammed our discussion closed by yelling at me, “So you think I wasted my life all those years at that church?”

I have been personally attacked (in Christian love, I am assured) in private emails by individuals with whom I have not spoken in thirty years and more. They feel betrayed. I was raised better than this. There is judgment in their words, yes, but I believe most of it comes from a place of fear.

I haven’t thought of these things for a very long time; I settled them years ago for myself, and not without a great struggle—I would say it is not unlike getting yourself disentangled from a cult. Because of the company I keep, I actually thought Fundamentalist theology and its biblical literalism was in decline.

It might be in decline, I don’t know. If it is, it is not going quietly.

Choose Your Paradox

I was riding with my daughter in the back of a friend’s car the other day, heading home from a music festival. My wife was up front. My friend, who is weird and fun and loves everything quirky and new, put on the latest They Might Be Giants CD for children called Here Comes Science. The sing-along melodies and catchy hooks were just what you would expect from the nerd rockers.

My daughter liked it immediately. The songs were little lessons about things like the scientific method (“If there’s a question bothering your brain that you think you know how to explain. You need a test. Yeah, think up a test.”), and what various scientists do (“I Am a Paleontologist”).

Then the song “Science Is Real” came on. They sang that they “like the stories about angels, unicorns and elves,” but, “when [they’re] seeking knowledge, either simple or abstract, the facts are with science.” They set up Science against religion and the arts as having a surer claim on reality, on “the facts.”

My friend and I are both products of extremely conservative religious homes—I remember sitting in Sunday school as a child, swinging my feet to the rhythm and belting out, “I’m no kin to the monkey. The monkey’s no kin to me. I don’t know about your grandpa, but mine didn’t swing from a tree”—and we both chuckled a little as TMBG poked fun at some of the beliefs we have left behind.

Then I noticed that at the end of the song, TMBG switches from “the facts are with science” to “the truth is with science.” With this, they go from offering science as a paradigm for trying to understand reality to holding up Science as reality itself.

The song is staking a metaphysical claim.

From the Symphony of Science worship videos praising Science, to Richard Dawkins calling Science “magic” in his book for children, to “Science Is Real,” it appears that some are trying to fill with Science what Albert Camus calls “an appetite for the absolute and for unity.”

It’s understandable, but their problem is this: the metaphysical claim made in “Science Is Real” is a claim that cannot be proven by the method they admonish young listeners to use. They sing, “If somebody says they’ve figured it out. And they’re leaving room for doubt. Come up with a test.” But “science is real” is a claim which lies outside the bounds of any empirical test, which is the price of admission into Science; using their own rules they cannot verify their most basic truth claim.

I think Gödel’s incompleteness theorem is pertinent here. According to the theorem, every system is either incomplete—there are true statements which cannot be contained within it—or it has internal inconsistencies or paradoxes (antinomy is the word they used in theology class: two assertions that, if true, negate one another, and yet are both still held to be true)—places where things do not fit.

Though Gödel is referring to formal mathematical systems, it is worth applying this to religious and philosophical systems because none that claim universality are without paradox.

There is, for example, for Christians the problem of evil: how, in a world where evil exists, can there be a God who is all good and all powerful both? To believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God in a world where evil doesn’t just exist but flourishes, is to hold on to a paradox. It is perplexing and troubling, these places where we are drawn up short, where we cannot go any further logically.

Some cultures are more comfortable with paradox. In The Bhagavad-Gita the warrior Arjuna despairs that if he does his duty and kills his kinsmen in battle he will bring evil upon himself. He asks Krishna “how can we know happiness,” which is his heart’s desire.

Krishna tells him he must do his duty, but “relinquish attachment.” He instructs Arjuna that he can achieve his desire for happiness, “when he gives up desires in his mind, is content with the self within himself.” When Arjuna can act without desire, when for him “suffering and joy are equal” his actions will not affect his happiness. You want your heart’s desire, Arjuna? Give up desire and you will find it.

Believers in Science make an absolute claim, one that cannot ever, even in theory, be subjected to their own empirical method. It is beyond the realms of science, is a paradoxical truth claim that must be accepted on faith.

It seems to me that where we find these paradoxes are the very places something major is at stake. These aren’t minor glitches that can be ignored; they are the load-bearing points, the capstones that hold the whole structure together. The deep places of mystery.

It is no good to throw up your hands and say you are finished with the whole game, all of them are equally nuts, retreat into relativism. As Rush sings, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice,” and absolute relativism has its own glaring paradox right up front.

You simply cannot believe in a system that is not held together by paradox, a place beyond logic and reason—a place of mystery. My friend Beth Bevis said to me, and I believe she is right, that we want that sense of mystery, we’re hard-wired to seek transcendence.

Does it come down to which paradox, which mystery, you can to live with?


This post first appeared on the “Good Letters” blog, Thursday October 27, 2011.