Thursday, January 28, 2010

19th Century Creationism

During the early years of the lives of my four grandparents the last four decades of the 19th century, I have discovered that most theologians and Christians involved in science did not share the adamant belief prevalent today among 40% of Christians who call themselves young earth creationists. These modern YECs believe the earth, its life, and the universe itself is only a few thousand years old and was created in six consecutive 24-hour days, based on their view that Genesis 1-2 cannot be interpreted any other way.

My devout Christian grandparents, if they held such young earth beliefs, were certainly not strident in this regard. Instead, my extensive genealogical records show that the serious demands of supporting large families in primitive farming venues took precedence over deeper discussions they may have had related to earth origins. Among the more educated scientists and theologians of that period, the discussion was benign and assumed a character which may surprise us. The current strident insistence on six literal solar creation days and an earth only a few thousand years old was not a rigid tenet of orthodox Christian belief in those days.

Well-known Christians in the field of science during that era had no difficulty envisioning the creation days as long periods of time. Paleontologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) proposed the reality of Earth’s ice ages. The last ice age persisted for over one million years, the most recent of several extensive ice ages. John William Dawson (1820-1899) and James Dwight Dana (1813-1895), both prominent geologists, were both intense in their Christian faith. Arnold Guyot (1807-1884), physical geographer and geologist, was also a creationist who envisioned creation days as lengthy epochs. All of these well-known scientists read and respected the first two chapters of Genesis but did not stumble over a singular interpretation of the Hebrew word “yom” (day).

Science historian Ronald L. Numbers, in his lengthy volume The Creationists, fair-mindedly chronicles events in the creationism discussion and states, near the end of Chapter 1, “Thus far our survey of post-Darwinian creationist opinion, based in large part on the views of the antievolutionists most frequently cited and quoted by their contemporaries, has failed to turn up a single scientist or cleric who rejected the antiquity of the earth, denied the progressive nature of the fossil record, or attached geological significance to the Noachian flood.” Numbers names only two lesser-known figures--Eleazar and David Lord--who had greeted the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species with disapproval, “but for years to come…stood virtually alone among creationist writers in limiting the history of the earth to a mere six thousand years.”

Scientific discoveries affirming the age of the earth and our universe have multiplied exponentially since the life spans of Agassiz, Dawson, Dana, and Guyot. Biblical linguistic scholarship, allowing for alternate interpretations of Genesis “days,” was not as advanced at that stage of American history. Nevertheless, many important scientists of that day, looking at the record of nature through a Christian worldview, did not feel they were unfaithful to scripture by believing in an earth of great antiquity.

It is ironic, therefore, that 21st century young earth creationists are now faced with such an overwhelming volume of scientific evidence since 1950 that our universe and our earth are very old. Examples are numerous. Our expanding universe originated with the Big Bang, leaving its “embers,” the cosmic microwave background radiation, behind for us to examine. The great antiquity of earth materials can be affirmed by dozens of independent radioactive dating methods. There are many other examples far too numerous to list here.

Regardless of our views on the matter of earth’s antiquity and other issues, we must approach the dialog with respect and deference. The goal of all must be to discover and promote truth in significant areas of concern, both to those within our circle, and to all others we encounter.