Monday, April 26, 2010

Choosing Our Beliefs

Several years ago an acquaintance acknowledged that the issue of the age of the earth and our universe did not bother him. Previously, our discussions about creationism issues had not dealt in specifics. I had incorrectly assumed that his statement signaled his belief in an ancient universe. Only when I began to quote specific time frames and events did he clarify his strong belief in recent creation events lasting six solar days. He dismissed my citations of plentiful scientific evidence and fully allowable scripture hermeneutics with the statement, “I know what I believe.”

Historically, from human culture many different forms of belief acquisition have evolved. If a person states he believes something, he holds that belief to be true. How one’s beliefs are acquired and why those beliefs are held to be true have been topics of philosophical debate for centuries. In modern times subjective truth is more highly regarded than objective truth. The oft-used phrase “That works for me” may capture the essence of this reality. Stated another way, what we believe is true may be more dependent on us as believers than on the truth or falsity of what is believed.

On another occasion, during my introductory remarks in an adult Bible class, I introduced our topic of study for the next several months: Creationism and the spectrum of creationist beliefs in the church. One class member defined her position on that belief spectrum by proclaiming, “This is what I was always taught.” It may well be true that what we were taught as children is true. In addition, “knowing what we believe” may also overlap with “knowing what is true.” Our diligent study of the intersection of belief and truth is of vital importance, whether we are studying creationism or any other area of human knowledge. Our 5/10/2009 post remains relevant:

The disciple Thomas has been scorned for his unbelief, earning the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” Jesus’ loving solution for Thomas’s doubt (John 20:24-29 NIV) was to present him with explicit physical evidence of his wounds: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

In the field of science, physical and empirical evidence are necessary to affirm a hypothesis. Such evidence may not always rise to the standard of absolute proof. In the physical and archeological sciences, however, reasoning from physical clues helps provide preponderance of evidence for establishing the truth of our beliefs. Truth discovery based upon evidence was as useful in Bible times as it is today.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Asteroid Ardor

The Midwest meteor, dubbed the Livingston (Wisconsin) meteor, which spectacularly illuminated the skies over a large portion of several states on April 14, 2010, is an occasion for reflection on the greatness and splendor of God and His creation. Even questions such as “Where did the space rock come from?” trigger a cascade of even deeper questions about the origins of the Solar System and how it acquired the characteristics we now observe.

The Solar System is structured like a disc. Its planets orbit the sun in roughly the same plane and all of them revolve in the same direction. This accords with the best theory of star and planet formation which posits that great, diffuse clouds of cosmic dust condense under their own gravitational attraction, spinning more rapidly as the condensation proceeds. A disc of material forms around a central star. Within these discs, additional accretion may eventually occur, forming one or more planets. Since 1992 when the first of over 400 currently known extra-solar planets was discovered orbiting a distant star, we have observed other stars where this process still seems to be occurring.

Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, several hundred thousand asteroids have been catalogued ranging up to several hundred km in diameter. Perhaps one million exist larger than one km in diameter. Much smaller objects like the Livingston meteor number in the uncounted millions. Instead of becoming a planet as did Earth and seven other bodies, the gravitational effects of the more distant gas giant Jupiter acted to prevent coalescence of the asteroids, according to current scientific thinking. Jupiter now functions like a vacuum cleaner in space, preventing frequent comet and asteroid bombardment of earth. Our solar system’s largest planet, therefore, acts as a shepherd, keeping most wayward asteroids harmlessly corralled.

The model described harmonizes with the concept of a solar system of great age. The Creator certainly could have created Earth with its present characteristics and resources in just six days several thousand years ago. In one millisecond He could have created the millions of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter as well as the millions of additional objects discovered orbiting in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune. The Kuiper belt is a recent discovery. Its objects are composed of ices of frozen gases while the asteroids are mostly rocky and metallic. A Creator capable of speaking everything into existence in an instant showed equal creative power seeing to it that our solar system acquired the hundreds of fine-tuning characteristics necessary to support the requirements of complex life.

Many scripture passages affirm a history of God’s progressive creative activity, such as Amos 4:13 (NASB): “For behold, He who forms mountains and creates the wind and declares to man what are His thoughts, He who makes dawn into darkness and treads on the high places of the earth, The Lord God of hosts is His name.” Davis A. Young, in The Bible, Rocks and Time, claims that geologists like 19th century orthodox Christian Hugh Miller “evidently believed that an earth of great antiquity proclaimed God’s glory with greater intensity than did a recently created globe.” Numerous Christian authors writing on the scientific discoveries of the last two centuries have expressed the same sentiment.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Meteor Madness

Last week my wife and I witnessed the spectacular demise of a space traveler. A large chunk of space rock weighing perhaps a half-ton, arrived at Earth after its long journey from the asteroid belt, the large region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Chicago Tribune reporter William Mullen printed a scientifically accurate description of small portions of the object which are still being found: “A meteorite is a surviving fragment of a disintegrating, fiery meteor as it plunges from outer space through the earth’s atmosphere.” Millions of people were aware of a startling, sudden illumination of the sky, although few observers immediately knew what caused it.

We had been seated on our sofa watching the late evening news. Our northwest picture window shade was fortuitously in the “up” position. A brilliant flash of light appeared suddenly, seemed to dim momentarily, then brightened again, illuminating the entire window. The sky show lasted a few seconds. We assumed it was lightning. I immediately checked our weather radar to determine the proximity of the approaching storm. Radar showed no trace of rain or significant cloud cover within 200 miles. I assumed our radar indicator had malfunctioned, but no storm arrived.

The next day reports of the meteor filled the news media. The light show was seen across at least five Midwest states. Internet video and police webcam shots were common, as were my personal inquiries to friends: “Did you see the meteor?” Many answered affirmatively. One neighbor reported the light was accompanied by a booming sound--a sonic boom. The point of impact was Livingston, Wisconsin, a mere 46 miles from our home. It will likely be named the Livingston meteor. We had visited Livingston a few weeks earlier to make our periodic visit to its famous popcorn outlet.

As I write, abundant news releases have appeared describing the “feeding frenzy for sharks,”--the intense search activity by people focused on science, fame, or a monetary payoff. Only a dozen meteorites have ever been found in the state of Wisconsin. A Field Museum planetary geologist, Paul Sipiera, president of the Planetary Studies Foundation (PSF) and adjunct curator of the Chicago Field Museum’s new Pritzger Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies, has been quoted widely concerning the meteorite fall and has been coordinating the search for fragments. He is a neighbor in my hometown of Galena, Illinois. The PSF has donated an invaluable collection of meteorites to the Field Museum, which now boasts the largest collection of meteorites held outside a government agency.

What is the connection of this phenomenon to our blog’s focus on science and faith? As an individual, I marvel at the opportunity to observe spectacular displays of God’s created world, whether it be a wondrous meteor, volcano, earthquake, or aurora. I also revel in mighty blizzards and to a lesser extent in the great impact of floods, hurricanes, and tornados which are a part of Earth’s natural cycle. I have personally experienced all of these events. Other more benign events such as brilliant sunsets, unusual cloud formations, gentle rains, renewal of the landscape in spring, and the uniqueness of animal behaviors are also a source of spiritual celebration and revival. Recall the famous passage in I Kings 19:12 where God came to a discouraged Elijah on Mount Horeb. The Lord demonstrated a strong wind, an earthquake, and a fire. But in that setting, God also manifested his presence with a “still, small voice.” (KJV) We may say the Creator manifests Himself in multidimensional ways.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ramm's Retrospective

Two of the most significant books, arguably, setting the tone for creationist debates in the last half-century, were produced just a few years apart back in the mid-20th century. Publication of Bernard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954) and The Genesis Flood (1961) by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, set orthodox believers on diverse paths with respect to the meaning of Genesis 1-11. The fallout is still with us, helping contribute to the division of orthodox believers into “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” persuasions.

In 1979, a quarter-century after Ramm’s volume appeared, Walter Hearn, editor of the newsletter of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), interviewed Dr. Ramm. The ASA is an organization of professional scientists who share a common fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science. In his book Ramm had identified himself with progressive creationism. Russel Mixter, an early active member of the ASA, defined progressive creationism as “meaning that God created many species and after their creation they have varied as the result of mutation and selection so what was once one species has become a number of species, probably as many as are now found in an order or family.” Mixter later taught at Wheaton College. He died in 2007 at the age of 100.

During the interview, Ramm seemed to retreat from the naturalistic “mutation and selection” explanation for the diversity of species. He stated “… but the more I know of DNA and so forth, and the more complicated life becomes, the more I’m puzzled that it could ever happen on its own in such an intricate, complicated chemical way. Something of the order of 100 sets of Encyclopedia Britannica is coded into those molecules. I’m sure that people like Darwin had no idea of how incredibly complex the germ plasm is.” In 2006 a post by Gil Dodgen, contributor on Michael Behe’s weblog Uncommon Descent, stated “Now one might ask, What is the chance of producing, by random mutation and natural selection, the digital computer program that is the DNA molecule, not to mention the protein synthesis machinery and information-processing mechanism, all of which is mutually interdependent for function and survival.” Evolutionists, despite their very public, optimistic theorizing, have not demonstrated that mutation and natural selection really work together to produce a new species in large animals. This cornerstone of evolutionary theory remains an important question mark.

Ramm expressed concern about “how few evangelicals had ever reacted with the philosophy of science.” He also decried the tendency of some Christians, when science makes conclusions not in harmony with their presuppositions, to claim “Well, they’re unbelievers, so we can expect that of them.” Many creationists who insist on a hyper-literal, simplistic interpretation of the Genesis account, are unaware or unconcerned about how God’s word “does come to us in ancient languages and in ancient cultures,” and that “Genesis was the same kind of genre of writing as those ancient creation accounts and yet how, especially in its pure monotheism, it’s different from them.” Often missing in the discussion of what Genesis means is an understanding of the theology of creation. An understanding of this theology would overwhelm the concept of Genesis as a modern-day scientific account of creation events.

To close this discussion of the Ramm/Hearn interview, I will quote verbatim a portion which highlights one of my main concerns upon hearing some young earth creationists dismiss mainstream science as an agenda-driven, atheistic, creator-denying, biased discipline. Ramm states: “What disturbs me the most about the most rigid creationist views is that they drive Christians and scientists millions of miles apart. Some of them amount to a total denial of anything significant in geology…You can’t just pick out geology and say, ‘Science is all wrong there, but it’s right in all these other territories.’ Take the use of atomic materials, high speed atomic particles, X-rays, and so on; going to the doctor to get an X-ray is one piece of the science, but it spills over into geology. It’s odd if you have to say that almost 100% of the world’s geologists are wrong, but once you get away from geology the scientists are pretty right. This seems to be something creationists have to come to terms with.”

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Scientific Creationism

My public school teaching career was launched in 1959 at the beginning of a period of intensifying social and political tumult. The early 1960s marked a social watershed perhaps more profound than anything preceeding. Into the mix came John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris with their landmark volume The Genesis Flood in 1961. These were the days when John F. Kennedy was president. It marked the birth of a movement some call The New Creationism.

Ronald L. Numbers, skilful chronicler of creationist history, rightly makes a surprising claim: “Few biblical creationists before the 1960s would have included an appeal to geological catastrophism. Scientific creationists, in contrast, identified the flood of Noah as the real crux of the conflict between the evolutionist and creationist cosmologies.”

The term “Scientific Creationism” was first used formally by Henry M. Morris in 1970 when he taught a course so named. Many young earth flood geologists had longed to give their movement a scientific cachet, even though they had rejected mountains of mainstream science knowledge acquired in the previous two centuries of geological discovery. Many in the creationist camp were justifiably concerned about moral and spiritual decline. They tried to connect rejection of their creationist proposals (recent creation, recent worldwide flood, no death of any creature prior to the fall of Adam) with the moral downslide they claimed resulted from belief in an old earth and uniformitarianism. They claimed old earth, evolution, and societal moral decay were bound together in the same bundle. The scientific support for this paradigm needed effective packaging.

The “science” turned out to be largely the science of unique hermeneutics. The leaders promoted their own versions of tightly inductive scripture interpretation. The meaning of scripture texts, they claimed, is determined by their contexts. The most “obvious” and “literal” meanings of the texts should be plain for all to see. The more traditional scientific data from the world of nature were always interpreted to support young earth viewpoints. Even today, these are claims I have heard repeatedly in my many written communications with brethren from the young earth camp. Today, however, their interpretations of “new data” even cast doubt on traditional applications of formulas for light travel as determiners of elapsed time. As a result, they claim the entire cosmos is only a few thousand years old.

A popular book entitled Scientific Creationism was published in 1974. When I became aware of this book in 1980, the book was in its 7th printing. My wife and I were both public school educators. As teachers of a high school Sunday School class, we enthusiastically purchased a copy for use in our class. At that time I had not followed this issue closely. In my church it was barely ever mentioned. The book was useful in refuting many of the assumptions of evolutionary belief and in supporting the presence of design features in nature, such as the incredibly complex, information-packed DNA molecule.

On the other hand, the volume offered denials of many sound evidences supporting an ancient earth, including radioactive dating. The authors admitted their refutation of radioactive dating “may seem presumptuous.” The “technical staff and consultants” who prepared the volume for the Institute of Creation Research claimed “None of these (dating) processes gives any very good evidence, and certainly do not prove, that the earth is very old.” They went on to claim “The only real evidence for a long history of the earth is its necessity to support the evolution model.” Their vision of “scientific” evidences for a recent creation is substantially at odds with virtually the entire community of contemporary scientists. It is certainly at odds with the particular findings of geologists of the past 250 years.

My review of this 30-year-old volume took me to one of the last pages. On p. 252 the writers proposed “If the system of flood geology can be established on a sound scientific basis, and be effectively promoted and publicized, then the entire evolutionary cosmology, at least in its present neo-Darwinian form, will collapse.” Next to that paragraph in that long-ago used book I had penciled in a modest comment: “It can’t.” In the succeeding three decades the creationism issue and several other important issues have been combined to become, increasingly, a banner waved by the most conservative wing of the evangelical church. It has acquired prominence in the cultural and political realm as well as in the kingdom of the moral and spiritual.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Baconian Compromise

When we hear the term compromise, we feel one side or the other loses something important. This may or may not be true. Compromise is often a gain for both sides. Francis Bacon (1561-1627), one of the earliest scientists to describe scripture and the natural world as two revelations from the same Creator (the “two books” doctrine), was also one of the first to propose a compromise between those who believe scripture interpretations dominate over the findings of science and those who propose the opposite.

Bacon viewed God’s works as “a key” to understanding God’s word. But he did not believe man's interpretations of the words of scripture should regulate our understanding of nature. Theologians of the time insisted the earth was at the center of the universe and that heavenly bodies revolved around it. The poetic imagery of Psalm 93:1 was interpreted to mean the earth was fixed and unmoveable. As the scientific revolution progressed, the relationship of science and religion changed. The findings of science provided clarity for the meaning of scripture.

The Baconian compromise was still in effect in the nascent days of the science of geology--the early part of the 19th century. Challenges to the compromise appeared with the recognition by many geologists that the earth and its fossil remains were of great age and that a recent globe-covering flood did not really happen. Mainstream geologists became autonomous in deciphering nature’s record.

“Scriptural geologists” felt competent to interpret earth history from the Book of Genesis alone. Their professional expertise and experience ranged from theology to linguistics, logic, and history. Their expertise did not include much science or, in particular, geology. As the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the secularization of higher education, and other significant changes in the post-Civil War period developed, defenders of the centuries-past literal biblical interpretations feared negative social and spiritual consequences.

In the decades following the Civil War, concerns about evolution were more significant than either the age of the earth or flood geology. Belief in molecules to man evolution, after all, was seen as a more serious threat to a Christian belief system than disagreements about earth’s antiquity or the occurrence of a recent flood. In our last half-century, however, promotion of a singular view of Genesis interpretation, belief in a young earth, flood geology, and no death before the fall, have been totally woven together as a fabric by members of the young earth creationism community. An outcome of acceptance of old earth, they say, is a slide toward belief in evolution resulting in all manner of social and moral evil.

Compromise between creationist believers of different persuasions in our day is difficult to achieve. In spite of calm and reasoned appeals, some discussions result in suspicion and misunderstanding. One ongoing purpose of this blog is to understand the history of this topic and its dynamics in depth. Where have we been? How did we get here? How do we resolve our conflicting beliefs? Are mainstream science and scripture really at odds? Our young people and the secular world are listening to this discussion. They await a harmonious resolution.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Theology's Scientific Support

Statements concerning the danger of repeating the mistakes of history have been made by many authors. So it is with the quality of the contemporary Christian response to science in general and, in particular, the attitudes of creationists with respect to earth and human history. In our last post we discussed Augustine’s surprisingly persuasive 5th century arguments for Christians to be astute in matters of science and to let its wisdom inform their theology.

This theme has recurred among many early figures in the scientific revolution beginning four centuries ago. Francis Bacon (1561-1627), father of the inductive method of science discovery, saw science as the “most faithful handmaid” of religion and connected the acquisition of scientific knowledge with Daniel 12:4: “Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.” He believed scientific knowledge increased man’s “dominion over creation,” in fulfillment of God’s instructions to man in Genesis 1:28.

Galileo (1564-1642) also counseled respect for science in order to assist the Christian in his understanding of scripture: “…and so it seems that a natural phenomenon which is placed before our eyes by sensory experience…should not be called into question, let alone condemned, on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning.”

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) also viewed science as “the handmaid of religion.” Bacon, Galileo, and Newton all deeply respected Christian theology, each having a powerful vision of the interrelationship of science and religion. To Newton science was the Te Deum (hymn of praise to God) of religion; there existed no fundamental conflict between them.

There was eager acceptance, therefore, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, for the gathering excitement generated by geological discoveries. Orthodox Congregationalist theologian Leonard Woods (1774-1854) could write that the best Bible study method was “that which is pursued in the science of physics…by the maxims of Bacon and Newton.” Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878) believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, but defended “the proposition that the Bible must be interpreted by science.”

The drift away from acceptance of the equal truth value of God’s two books--the Bible and the Book of Nature--has prevailed and even intensified since the birth of fundamentalism around the start of the 20th century. My personal conversations with believers in recent creation have concluded in a variety of ways. Some dismiss the findings of modern science out of hand. Others say the science pointing to an old universe is driven by preconception, presupposition, and a faulty world view and should be rejected. Many challenge me to “prove it using the Bible only.” And finally, there are alternate explanations offered under the umbrella of “creation science.”