Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Monarch Moments

For the third consecutive summer, one of our blog posts highlights the Monarch butterfly, one of the most remarkable animals on the planet. Last weekend I was on hand for a service of healing and remembrance entitled "Monarch Moments" for family members touched by Alzheimer’s disease. Monarch butterflies were released in remembrance of loved ones.

An extra specimen was handed to me to release from its triangular, temporary containment box. My Monarch quickly joined many other released butterflies in sampling the nectar of flowers in the rose garden before sailing off to regions unknown.

After returning home I researched the question of whether such artificially raised Monarchs suffer any ill effects from their culture and release in this manner. All information indicated they do not. The wild population they blend with is not weakened by disease, parasites, or genetic alteration. Most remarkable, they join their wild friends in normal reproductive processes. In northeast Iowa, that means they will lay eggs on milkweed plants. Within a month, those eggs will transform into the adult butterflies of the next generation. At this time of year, that generation will take off for a special, remote forest in Mexico to overwinter, using a guidance system not completely understood by scientists, but known to the Monarchs and their Maker.

At this writing I have four tiny Monarch butterfly caterpillars in a container supplied with fresh milkweeds. They were found in our neighborhood as tiny eggs on the bottom of milkweed leaves. They are now in stage two of the four-stage (complete) metamorphosis manifest by butterflies and moths. Stage three is the pupa; stage four is the adult butterfly. These generation four adults, the last generation of the summer and the only one to migrate, will soon embark on a harrowing, months-long journey to a unique pine and fir forest in the high mountains of central Mexico shared by many millions of other Monarchs. Those butterflies achieving success will have coped with rainstorms, wind, and predators, among other hazards, flying over broad expanses of land and water. Only about 30 acres in size, the destination is the same year after year.

Each Monarch starts life as a tiny egg no larger than a pinhead. In the egg are millions of microscopic cells, each containing even tinier molecules of DNA. Into this DNA is programmed the unique appearance and behavior of each of the four stages of metamorphosis. Perhaps the most remarkable programming results in the migratory scenario which unfolds each fall in Monarchs by the millions. It may be the most spectacular migratory accomplishment of any of earth’s creatures. Scientists can only point to the simple two digit DNA code of information present in all living things, and

Attributing the beauty and behavior of Monarchs to a blind evolutionary scenario is irrational beyond comprehension. How much more rational is it to accept evidence of design by an intelligent agent? Our world has millions of manifestations of intelligent design. The relationship between structure and function, one of the themes of biology, is not always easy to explain. Biologists often describe complex processes in living things, but explaining them is another matter. Therefore, the mysteries of the Monarch may never be fully known.

Psalm 104 contains creation passages of great depth. “What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made the earth overflow with your wonderful creations…All the creatures look expectantly to you to give them their meals on time. You come, and they gather around; you open your hand and they eat from it…Oh, let me sing to God all my life long, sing hymns to my God as long as I live!” (Psalm 104: 24, 27, 33 The Message translation)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Does It Really Matter?

Do our personal creationism beliefs really matter? During 2010, many of our posts have focused on various aspects of the issue of creation time scales. It seems to be a matter of intense interest both within the faith community and among others examining our beliefs. However, the subject matters more to some than to others.

Recently an acquaintance proposed the idea that the age of the earth really doesn’t matter to her. To paraphrase her statements, whether the earth is 6000 years old or 4.5 billion years old makes no difference with respect to her Christian faith, her belief in God, her embrace of Christ as Savior, or her daily experience as a Christian.

My friend made a good case. I agree with each and every point and I respect her decision to leave it at that. But I would go further because I am keenly interested in and care deeply about the origins issue. I’ll share a few reasons.

The natural world is an open book. Its pages invite inspection and reveal plentiful information about present and past conditions on this earth. How, when, and under what conditions did things happen? Active inquiry into natural history reveals how God has worked to produce our exquisitely designed cosmos and its life forms. The fact that the universe appears to have developed over an extended time scale speaks even more eloquently of God’s tender care for His creation.

Since the secular world generally accepts the findings of mainstream science, that segment of our population wishes to discover if Christian interpretations of the natural world accord with the discoveries of mainstream science. Secularists demand evidence for God’s existence. Scientific discovery of an actual beginning of finite time, matter, space, and energy in the distant past, affirmed by many independent lines of evidence, speaks persuasively of scripture’s claim of God’s existence and His activity as Creator over long ages.

It is natural for people to be curious about history--family history, community history, or natural history. Inquisitiveness often correlates with our degree of enjoyment, especially if our quest yields knowledge. Knowledge of and trust in the truths of general revelation help us clarify the meaning of scripture.

Much of my interest in creationism relates to my enthusiasm for science as a discipline and for the knowledge that results from application of scientific inquiry. It is the continuing goal of this blog to promote science as a God-given means of discovering truth, whether in the study of creation history, or the establishment of a sense of wonder for God’s created world.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Evolution of Creationism

Creationism issues have occupied well over half of our blog space since the beginning of 2010. The history of the origins discussion within the church has been spotlighted. For better or for worse, creationists of every persuasion are fond of supporting their beliefs by citing what their forebears thought. In the early days of the scientific revolution, church scholars believed the earth was only a few thousand years old. Around 1750 there began to be scientific rumblings that the earth was much older than 6000 years.

From the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, most scientists, including many who were well known for their traditional Christian beliefs, came to recognize that the earth was not young, but rather, of great antiquity. This realization rested on increasingly sophisticated, careful study and interpretation of the earth’s geological record.

Christian concerns from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century centered more on the belief that molecules to man evolution eroded belief in the reality of God’s creative acts, particularly of the creation of man in God’s image. During this time period there were discoveries such as radiometric dating and advances in cosmology which strengthened acceptance of old earth, even among Christians. Doubts about the age of the earth and belief in flood geology as theological sticking points were somewhat peripheral matters.

The latter half of the 20th century, continuing into the 21st, witnessed a stunning rise to prominence of belief in young earth, 24-hour, consecutive days of creation, and a recent, global flood. It is based on the belief that this is the only interpretation of Genesis 1-2 allowable, scientific evidence notwithstanding. Over 40% of the population of the United States identifies with this view. In the evangelical and fundamentalist church population, the percentage is much higher.

As I have prepared these blog posts, I have attempted to recall events and circumstances of church life prior to the landmark arrival of John C. Whitcomb and Henry H. Morris onto the evangelical/fundamentalist scene with their publication of The Genesis Flood. My personal experience has been combined with my research into the characteristics of the pre-1961 landscape. The writings of George McCready Price in the 1920s and 1930s gradually set the stage for the young earth creationist movement.

As a teenager growing up during the Korean War, I do not recall time frames of creation or flood geology being significant discussion topics in the church. My recollection puts Moody Bible Institute’s Sermons from Science films as popular features in gospel preaching churches back then, along with youth and adult evangelism rallies. I view the Moody Science Films as one of the original “intelligent design” promotions within the church community. This occurred even before the marvelous discovery of DNA structure in 1953, and the subsequent unlocking of the genetic code during the 1960s.

The misunderstandings between young earth and old earth believers, and the ridicule from scientists heaped upon creationists in our day, was not part of the landscape in the 1950s. Today, the term “creationist” connotes a belief in a 6000 year old earth, 24-hour creation days, and a recent, global flood.

The term “creationist” has been co-opted by the young earth community of Christians. I prefer the definition offered by Mark Noll, religion historian, in his award-winning volume The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: “The word creationism by rights should define a divine mind at work in, with, or under the phenomena of the natural world.” This definition overcomes the problem of a singular, narrow definition which allows only one interpretation of the language of Genesis 1-2.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Respect for Authority

Several months ago a group of thirteen professionally trained astronomers considered formal presentations by two other professionally trained Christian astronomers who presented their arguments on the age of the universe. Each of the thirteen Christian astronomers has earned a PhD. and is currently employed at an educational venue such as Alabama, Arizona State, California, Calvin, Caltech, Chicago, Cornell, Rice, and Valparaiso.

The two presentations were given by Dr. Danny R. Faulkner and Dr. Hugh Ross. Faulkner is physics and astronomy professor at the University of South Carolina and is one of several well-known astronomers promoting a young universe creationist perspective. Ross is a well-known astrophysicist, old universe creationist, and president of Reasons to Believe, a think tank presenting evidence on a wide variety of science/faith topics.

Civility and respect characterized the exchange. In conformity with the professional expertise of the panel, the evidence offered focused on astronomical data, not Biblical interpretation.

Ross's arguments were found by the panel to provide solid evidence that the universe is billions of years old. His view was based on several independent arguments based on a wide range of data. He emphasized the strength of the light travel time argument.

Faulkner, in keeping with the common and accepted scientific practice of looking for holes in well-established theories, presented claims for isolated inconsistencies in the old universe view, but did not actually present evidence for a few thousand-year-old universe, according to the panel's report.

In their final sentence the entire panel stated, "It is our professional judgment that the weight of evidence overwhelmingly supports a universe that is billions of years old."

This group of thirteen Christian astronomers speaks with the authority inherent among scientists when they achieve scientific consensus concerning broad knowledge in a particular field. We may say they speak with authority about conditions in the cosmos, past and present. The created cosmos is part of God's dual revelation: the general revelation of Himself through the cosmos, and the special revelation given to man in the written word, the Bible. They do not believe their interpretation of the cosmos (general revelation), contradicts the information given in the written word of God (special revelation). Correctly interpreted, the two revelations can not contradict one another. Rather, they complement and support one another.

A profound problem occurs when theologians permit their interpretations of the written word (special revelation) to control and drive interpretations of past and present conditions in the physical cosmos (general revelation). That is a formula for disaster. Interpretations in both areas of the dual revelation could be in error as a result.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Light Travel Problem

In order for the massive amount of mainstream scientific evidence for the great age of the universe (13.73 billion years) and earth (4.54 billion years) to be rejected, the accepted beliefs about the behavior of light must be called into question. I encourage readers to investigate the issue for themselves. There are thousands of resources on this topic in the literature of science. Theologians weigh in on the question with their support for one view or another.

Mainstream science discoveries of the past century support a universe of enormous age based largely on our knowledge of distances in the universe and our knowledge of the speed of light. Elapsed time (the age of the universe) is calculated by a simple formula: time = distance divided by speed. The distance to the farthest object in the universe divided by the speed of light gives us the age of the universe. Hundreds of independent discoveries affirm the findings. Scientists recognize the Big Bang event as the beginning of the time, space, matter, and energy of our universe.

Interestingly, there is disagreement on neither the size of the universe nor the speed of light. Both young earth and old earth scienstists agree on these issues. Instead, what is in question is how light behaved in the past under circumstances which may have differed, and whether what we think we observe today is really true. Stated another way, if light behaves differently now, or if something acts to distort our perception of light's behavior, our calculated time frames for the age of the universe may be in error, perhaps enormously in error.

Many theologians have realized the need for a rigorous adherence to good science as it relates to theological matters. Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) wrote, "You are compelled to think by the evidential grounds upon which you work." In Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking, Torrance stated, "I believe God has created the universe in such a way that the invariance of light in its creaturely way is a reflection of his eternal invariance, his changeableness, and his faithfulness. If light were to wobble, the universe would be thrown into complete lawlessness. If God were to wobble, if God were not utterly faithful, the same yesterday, today, and forever, there would be an utterly chaotic state of affairs in space and time."

A serious problem is denial of the reality of what we believe we observe. There are many young earth scientists posing questions casting doubt on an old universe. For example, young earth astronomer Dr. Jason Lisle of Answers in Genesis sees a so-called "horizon problem" he says throws the age issue into doubt. Astronomer Dr. Danny Faulkner of Creation Ministries International admits (young earth) creationists do not have all the answers, but the questions he raises are enough for Faulkner to place himself staunchly in the camp of believers in a 6000-year-old earth. Diverse and overwhelming evidence for an old universe is not persuasive for Lisle and Faulkner. Rather, isolated questions and uncertainties win the day for them.

Sometimes it is desirable to ask, "What if...?" Scientists ask such questions all the time, and well they should. But relentless questioning and reinterpretation of a constant such as the behavior of light may run counter to our quest for knowledge of the truth. We may then be operating outside the insights of the inspired Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 33:25) who referred to "God's covenant with day and night, and the fixed laws of heaven and earth." God requires that we examine the weight of evidence and judge accordingly.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Complete Knowledge

There are few areas of human understanding where we can confidently say that our knowledge is complete. Determining historical timelines is one of those areas. We wish to date the sudden explosion of fully modern human culture, or the age of the dinosaurs. We may attempt to refine the age of the earth as a planet or determine the age of the universe itself.

Over many years of careful scientific investigation and testing, our knowledge of these topics comes into clearer focus. The reliability of our tools and the improvements in our methodology gives us increased confidence in the truth of our conclusions. But rarely is our knowledge complete. At times a new finding strengthens our confidence in the truth of our belief. On other occasions a new discovery inspires us to rethink and investigate further. Rarely does a new discovery serve to overturn a major framework of belief.

Recently I had an extensive, high-level email exchange with a fellow Christian who cited soft tissue preservation of blood cell-like structures in about half of the preserved specimens of dinosaur bones. He claimed this was convincing evidence that dinosaurs lived recently on earth and that the earth, therfore, is very young. If this is true, dinosaurs and man must have co-existed in the last 6000 to 10000 years--a proposition for which there is no valid historical evidence.

Preservation of soft tissue in dinosaurs and also in the unique Burgess Shale deposits of the Candian Rockies is fascinating indeed. The Burgess Shale preserves many thousands of species which appeared suddenly during the Cambrian Period, dated 540 million years ago. There are rare instances where fossils are preserved having been suddenly buried alive in sediment where no oxygen was available to promote deterioration of even the soft organ tissue. In the case of the dinosaur soft tissue, my friend wrote "I think such evidence has stand-alone, deal-breaker quality." But does it?

Jeff Zweerink, Reasons to Believe scholar, has written, "A common perception is that results from a single experiment arbitrate between competing scientific models. Rarely does science operate so cleanly. Instead...scientific advance usually occurs through incremental gains in knowledge with meticulous cross-checking of assumptions and elimination of possible errors."

Knowledge is the intersection of truth and belief. Objective truth sometimes overlaps with what we believe. Such overlap is termed "knowledge." But only rarely is our knowledge complete.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Paradox of Progress

One would think the increased agricultural bounty, elevated personal convenience and comfort, and improved living standards of the last century would result in heightened awareness of the goodness of God and a greater degree of thankfulness to our Creator. In our modern society, however, it appears that just the opposite may be true.

My father was an agent for a hybrid seed company in the late 1940s. His charge was to educate traditional farmers concerning new hybrid grain varieties, inorganic fertilizers and herbicides, and new horticultural practices. When I was in grade school, the advantages of such innovations were just beginning to be discovered.

Thanks to my newly-arrived Illinois Country Living issue, a production of our local energy cooperative, I was statistically reminded of the startling increase in agricultural productivity which has occurred during my lifetime: 474 percent more corn is produced with only 4 percent more acres; 29 percent more eggs with 36 percent fewer hens; 145 percent more pork with 45 percent fewer sows; and 63 percent more milk with 68 percent fewer cows.

Improvements in agricultural technology parallel technological advances in a host of other fields during the same time frame. Who would prefer the gas-guzzling automobiles driven by our parents or grandparents to the low-maintenance, mileage-stretching, long-lasting, safe and comfortable vehicles of our day? Would we trade our smartphones or even our primitive cell phones for a return to phone booths and costly long-distance rates on our early landlines? How does a small screen black and white television receiver blinking out the World Series of 1950 compare with our current choice of any of over a dozen major league baseball games broadcast simultaneously in widescreen, high definition color via satellite or cable?

Electronic technology also enables the modern farmer to use global positioning systems to locate the precise position of his field equipment to within one meter and immediately adjust his sowing, feltilizing, and pesticide applications to account for variable conditions in his fields. GPS systems in our cars guide us to our destinations with friendly instructions in your own choice of audible voices, eliminating the need to fumble with roadmaps while driving.

The quality, variety, and bounty of our agricultural product availability inspires a sense of awe whenever I enter a large supermarket. I have reverently joked that such a visit amounts to a "worship experience" for me. The adventure is heightened when I consume the genetically improved produce which seems superior in taste and even cost to that available a few short years ago. I wonder how much larger, tastier, and cheaper strawberries can become!

Perhaps my supermarket experience captures a small portion of Samuel F. B. Morse's emotion when he sent the world's first, modest telegraph message through fragile wires between Washington and Baltimore in 1844: "What Hath God Wrought?" My exultation is tempered, however, by knowing that our modern culture credits the genius of man for these ongoing innovations. We must be mindful that inventors and innovators operate with the genius gifted to them by God who commanded mankind to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it" in Genesis 1:28.

Paul the Apostle decried the corruption of early man in Romans 1:18-32. In that passage he attributed their downfall to a lack of thankfulness, among other things. "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools" (Romans 1:21-22 NAS).

Technological progress of the last century is largely the result of application of the principles of science--principles advocated in scripture. "Subdue," therefore, could relate to the use of "applied science" in 21st century terms. The Paradox of Progress is that in our modern culture, God, the source of all wisdom and knowledge, too seldom gets the credit or thanks for His gifts to man.