I have recently spoken at an Australian conference that happens every couple of years called the Conference on Science and Christianity (COSAC), held this year in Melbourne via digital media. I spoke on the historical interaction of science and Christianity in the specific medium of the proto-scientific literary genre, ‘theories of the earth’, which have long interested me. They flourished around 1700, particularly in Britain. As they slowly morphed into the beginnings of the science of geology in the early 1800s, they provided several examples of quite different approaches to the intersection of science and Christianity. There is a focus on the use of Genesis, especially Genesis 1 and the flood narrative. Here is the video of my talk for those interested:
I recently conducted a class on Creation, Fall and Redemption, with the emphasis on creation, for a colleague’s Essentials of Philosophy class. Our conversation ranged over a number of important issues in the Christian philosophy of creation, helped by some particularly sharp and engaged students. I offer the Powerpoint here in case it’s of help. (Just discovered I have to upgrade if I’m to include the audio.)
Note of a change: I’m putting the file directly into WordPress, so anyone who couldn’t reach it before should be able to access it now.
I’ll have to look into that audio! I received some very intelligent questions.
The key philosophical question about creation in my mind over the past 12 months or so is, “How long of a leash does God give the created order?” That is, is every event in the world God’s doing quite directly, as Luther tended to think? Is apparent cause and effect in nature really something of an illusion? Jonathan Edwards was quite strong on this too, and the classic figure who really unplugged natural events causally from one another, I understand, was William of Ockham with his ‘occasionalism’, as it’s called. Natural law, in this model, is a way of describing the regularities in God’s actions. Then if God chooses to be ‘irregular’ and do miracles, he’s not breaking any higher law, as it were. It keep the Lawgiver in charge of the laws. That’s attractive, and protects the sovereignty of God.
But there’s also something to be said for God giving creation its own, robust existence – allowing the natural world enough autonomy that one thing can really lead to another. Billiard ball A striking billiard ball B will send it off at the appropriate angle and speed without God needing to ‘micro-manage’ that interaction. Creation is programmed to behave regularly by God, in the way it will need to if human and other life is to be possible:
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night,
will never cease.
Gen. 8:22 (NIV)
Genesis 1 perhaps hints at God’s delegation of causal power to creation when it says, “Let the land produce vegetation” (Gen. 1:11), or animals (1:24). In any case, there are theological virtues that may be argued for this position as well, e.g. that it gives better assurance that we as human beings are given real existence involving genuine moment-to-moment continuity. If we follow a full-blown creatio continuua model, we might find ourselves saying that God effectively creates the world anew moment by moment. The risk there is that we become like video images, an illusion created by a rapid raster scan rate.
So for God to give natural bodies and living creatures a real moment-to-moment existence and continuity would be a true condescension and giving on his part – to introduce into existence other real entities where previously there had been none besides Him. Pondering that will rock your philosophical socks. But there is risk at this end too. Make the position too strong, and you have a creation that, once made, no longer needs God in order to ‘do its thing’. Further still, and you’re into process theology, where God is another cork in the stream of time, trying to manage things as best He can, like a very good chess player who still doesn’t know exactly what the opponent will do. I get that there are bits in the Bible where God speaks of a future that’s unresolved because of the human freedom factor (e.g. Jer. 26:3; 36:3), and we ought to take those seriously. But to imagine God as lodged in the stream of time just because we are is small-minded. I recommend Crysdale & Ormerod, Creator God, Evolving World, for an intelligent treatment of this issue. For a scientist out near the edge of a creation that’s too independent, in my view (i.e. risks dabbling with deism), but raises the same sorts of issues check out:
The wise old monkey in The Lion King told the young lion character, whatever his name was, that the whack on the head he had just applied with his stick was “in de past,” so it didn’t matter. I’m like someone who has had a good whack on the head when it comes to things further into the past than about 10 minutes, so forgive me if I’ve already posted this, but in May I had a post about Basil (‘the Great’), the Cappadocian church father who lived c. 330-379 AD/CE, published online by the Creation Project, operating out of the Henry Center, an arm of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, USA. It went by the above title, and its concern was to explain how Basil viewed creation in his famous nine-part Lenten sermon series on the subject, dating from about 376. It’s the first stand-alone piece of speaking/writing on the creation week or ‘hexaemeron’ in Genesis 1:1-2:3 to have appeared in the church, and gave birth to an entire genre of similar writings, as well as embedded treatments within Genesis commentaries and other types of writing, that lasted for more than 1,000 years. Basil was no dummy, and though he regularly disparages secular philosophy in this sermon series, he utilizes quite a bit of it as well.
Here’s the mug shot of Basil from the Henry Center page, with Basil looking suitably transcendental, if not somewhat spaced out. Hey, he did have his mystical side…
So you might find this an interesting read, if you’re following discussions about historical Christian thinking about creation and/or Genesis:
I recently completed a four-part series on Science and the Bible for a suburban Melbourne church, Eltham Baptist. Here are the links to the four entries in the videos taken of the series:
I didn’t hold strictly to my titles at all points, but you may find something interesting there.
This video features a talk that I gave recently at Melbourne School of Theology, where I tried to put Christian debates about science and the Bible into some historical (and at a basic level, philosophical) context. On some points I have more thinking left to do. It was a follow-up to a visit by the CEO of Creation Ministries in Australia, Dr. Don Batten. I wanted to agree with him on some points, disagree respectfully on others, and generally to point out that all of our schemes for reconciling the Bible/Christianity with science involve interpretation and rationalizing.
So, here it is for your judgment:
Here is a talk by Creation Ministries’ Dr Don Batten that took place a week prior to my own talk and forms the background for some of my comments: audio on YouTube.
Otherwise, as audio file for downloading:
This is a talk I am due to deliver to ISCAST (Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology) at the University of NSW tomorrow night, 4/6/15. It is based on my research into interpretations of Genesis 1 down through time, with an emphasis this time on unpacking the way certain interpreters treated the relationship between scientific knowledge and Christian teaching.
Please note that the formatting of the graphics is a bit corrupted when viewed as an online PowerPoint, but it displays fine when downloaded. View with the notes showing to see my sources. If you prefer, try the PDF version:
I have recently given a thorough browse to this attractive work from our college (Melbourne School of Theology) shelves. Let me tame my prolix (verbose (wordy)) ways and give you a few pros and cons:
- Really well presented, with lots of colour, diagrams, pictures, great layout, visual differentiation to make it easy to face each page. Books have come a long way in user-friendliness in the last century! If only my book looked like this!
- Reasonably bite-size portions, with many 1- and 2-page treatments of science and religion issues.
- A great coverage of such issues, offering a really useful overview of what might be debated under the heading of science and religion.
- Scientifically well-informed, as far as I am qualified to tell.
- Currency – it’s right up to date.
- Evangelical Christian standpoint. (If you’re not an evangelical Christian, you might put this under ‘Cons’, but I still encourage you to check it out.)
- Naturally, there is a sacrifice in depth where there is gain in breadth of coverage. So this is really an introductory volume, designed I think for the college student as an introductory science and religion textbook (but what a textbook!) or for the interested layperson.
- We might wish for a deeper and more determinate handling of texts like Genesis 1 (though see pp. 152-153).
- This makes a great starting point for your research into science and religion. It will orient you to the issues and get you pointed in the right direct. With lots of eye candy along the way.
- I would recommend following up with some deeper reading on the issues of concern to you. There is a good-length list of further reading in the back of the book, so you won’t be short of ideas.
Time is short in graduation ceremonies. Here is what I would say about The Days of Creation, if time permitted. What can we say about Genesis chapter 1?
Genesis 1 existed in relative obscurity when the Christian church was born, though it was far from being unknown, as passages like these remind us:
For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6 Holman Christian Standard Bible)
As centuries passed, Genesis 1 became the focus of increasing interest, including becoming the subject of a burst of preaching and commentary by figures such as Basil the Great and Augustine around 400 AD/CE. Soon it provided the dominant paradigm for Christian explanation of the origin and nature of the physical world (and a lot of other things!).
This remained true throughout the Middle Ages and through the Reformation era. But eventually a combination of philosophical currents old and new and a weakening of traditional authority structures began to undermine this intellectual dominance. It began to break down in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth, studies of nature that once would have been carried out with reference to Genesis became independent from it.
The causes for this sombre trend are manifold, and are explored somewhat in the book. In part they have to do with a burgeoning sense of the age of the earth from the late 1600s onward – the increasingly widespread belief that the earth, like humanity, had a history whose relics could be studied, and that in fact the earth’s story significantly pre-dated the human story. One term for this is the ‘discovery of time’, and attitudes to the days of the creation week, in simplified form, can be plotted to show a trend from a time when six literal days was felt to be too long of a time for God to create (Augustine and Origen) to a time when schemes for creation days that were figuratively extended to stand for years or even ages began to be proposed.
Learning of this trend often prompts Christians to wonder, “How then should I regard Genesis 1 when I read it now?” In my experience, the meaning of Genesis 1:1-2:3 (as well as that of Genesis 2:4-25) has been clarified by the perspective of ‘discourse analysis’, which simply means paying attention to the literary shape of the narrative and the language signals that communicate to us how the story is moving forward. Reading Genesis 1 with this awareness shows that when creation begins, three things are lacking that prevent a world as the Old Testament would perceive it from existing.
What is missing in Gen. 1:2, which is needed to make a world, is 1) form or distinction, clear zones in which various life forms could exist; 2) fullness, i.e. living populations, inhabitants, including humans; 3) light. Light is fittingly the first thing provided, after which increasing distinctions provide places to live, and then beings are created to live in those spaces. If you’re familiar with the scientific concept of entropy or the ‘heat death’ of the universe, where temperature (energy) and other distinctions are gradually ironed out until there is nothing in any meaningful sense, creation in Genesis 1 is exactly the opposite! Creation reaches its highest distinction with the arrival of humans, the image-bearers, on Day 6.
Such an understanding works very well for following the story of human creation in Gen. 2:4-25 also.
I would like to say, then, that Genesis 1 is not only a God-inspired biblical text, but is extraordinarily versatile, given that it stems from an ancient culture in what from our perspective is an ancient world. What other creation story thousands of years old survives as unscathed as the creation week of Genesis 1? What other example presents God’s authorship of all categories of the known world while importing so little of an obsolete cosmology, while avoiding mythology, which is so prone to obsolescence? What is simpler and more practical than to categorize life by its medium, air, water and earth?
Where we do sometimes get into trouble sometimes, I believe, is when we read Genesis as if it was written in our time, or if that’s implying too much ignorance, as if it was written just for us, just for our time in history. We sometimes ask it to make perfect sense in the twenty-first century, to sound utterly modern. This is actually selfish; it is in effect to ask that it make little or no sense to the people of God in eras other than our own, or even people in non-Western cultures in our own time. It is an ancient text, and it shows this in various ways, not least in the way it speaks about the ‘expanse’ (raqia) and the waters above it. But in its God-givenness it transcends its ancient birth in a unique way, retaining its ability to proclaim God’s authorship of and sovereignty over physical and human creation to people of every era.
The fact that we forget how ancient it is may be a sign of just how well it succeeds at this purpose.
Received the first box of print copies this week, and I’ve checked and found that the title is available for purchase:
Here’s a better view, though I enjoyed the first one, too:
Here’s the rider: it only covers up to around 1860! (Perhaps I should have put that on the cover!) Stay tuned for the sequel. I hope you’re in good health…it’s gonna take some time!