In evangelical culture there is a constant search for idols in a person’s life. We must identify and destroy the idols, typically of luxury cars, money, television, and so on. While there is an element of truth to this, could it be that the focus on idols as a graven thing blinds us to more abstract concepts of idolatry, which would probably be best understood as religious—or at the very least, ultimate concern? We conflate veneration with worship, the protestant mind unable to differentiate between the two, but the analogous mind able to differentiate between the honor-imitative form of veneration and the transcendent-subservience form of worship which asks us to re-order our lives around a liturgy of devotion. We have mistaken one form for another, and are thus able to easily identify the idolatry of a fanatic of comics, movies, television, the idolatry of a collector of cars, memorabilia, and physical consumer products. What we miss are the abstract, conceptual forms of idolatry or world-view formation, thus missing politics (of which we are quite guilty) and the understanding of sin being that which separates us from God, which may be a physical thing or a conceptual thing. Thus we miss the theological rhetoric behind events such as Black Friday or the co-mingling of incompatible worldviews with Christian ideas. It isn’t the idol we should be afraid of, it is our daily, behavioral liturgy.
Or “Becoming Orthodox” by Peter Gillquist Part 2
I grew up in the Independent Christian Church, which means that I’m pretty far out on the rapidly spreading branches of Protestantism. I couldn’t really tell you what the Independent Christian Church believes, however, as the church I attended as a youngster was a small, country church, and I didn’t pay much attention until high school. Church or denominational history didn’t really enter in to it, although we did claim to be non-denominational. We answered to no central council or authority, in other words. All this to say, being of a Protestant bent, I have some very strong reactions to thoughts of Mary beyond what is generally shared in The Nativity Story. Praying to Mary seems rather odd and uncomfortable to me.
Well, I’ve reached the chapter on Mary in Gillquist’s book and I’m a bit surprised by some of my reactions. First, I either agree with him or at least take his point on a few issues. I understand the reasoning behind the phrase “Mother of God”. It actually makes sense to me. The gist of the phrase is that Mary isn’t so much the mother of the Trinity (as the Trinity has no mother), but that she is the mother of Jesus, who was divine. “Mother of God”, therefore, asserts that Jesus is God, not merely mortal and human as some heresies throughout church history have claimed. Okay, this makes sense to me.
I take the point that Mary is the greatest woman who ever lived due to the fact that God chose her, and he chose her due to her purity. She is also a role model of obedience, purity and faithfulness.
But what truly surprised me was when I started to see the reasoning behind the believe that Mary was Ever-Virgin. Sure, Protestants will agree that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but I think very few would say she and Joseph never consummated their marriage. However, the Orthodox do believe this, thus Mary is Ever-Virgin. Now, it seemed to me that it was quite absurd to think Joseph would be okay with never having marital relations with Mary. It seemed ridiculous to think Mary was Ever-Virgin because, well, didn’t Jesus have brothers and sisters? Church tradition asserts that James was the brother of Jesus. There are actually two things that have made me begin to waver on this idea. First, Ezekiel 44:1-2, a verse from a prophetic book, so take that for what it is worth, states, “ Then he brought me back to the outer gate to the sanctuary which faces toward the east, but it was shut. And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut. (NASB)’” The implication here is that the gate is Mary’s womb and that Jesus entered the world by her womb and “no man shall enter”. The prophetic language here is rather compelling. But it is one verse, right? Well, the second thing that began to sway me was the account in John’s Gospel when Jesus, while on the cross, saw his mother and John. He told Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” then told John, “here is your mother.” Essentially, he is providing for the care of His mother, trusting her to John’s care and provision. This seems to be quite reasonable until I realized that if Jesus had brothers, why would He give Mary to the care of a disciple. It would be the responsibility of the His brothers to look after Mary. Thus, this is a bit of an oddity. It is true that sometimes the Bible uses the term “brother” to designate a close relation (cousin, nephew, etc.), so there is room for Jesus to be an only child. There is room for her to be Ever-Virgin. The question I have now becomes, is it truly essential to believe this? Does it really change anything I believe? At this point, I’m not sure that it does, but who would have thought the whole filioque issue would mean much without the tapestry of church history to observe?
These are the things that I’m coming around on, although the Ever-Virgin idea is still new and uncomfortable because it is in contrast to my Protestant heritage. But I mentioned things that I am still unconvinced by. These have to deal with Mary as intercessor and Mary saving us, both ideas are present in prayer by The Orthodox Church. I will grant Gillquist that Christians have a part in the salvation process. Paul says we are ambassadors of Christ. While Christ does the actual saving, we can help point people to Him, we can witness to His work and kingdom. We can turn others from destructive ways. In doing this we save them, but we do not actually give them salvation. That is Christ’s alone to give. But while I agree with Gillquist on this point, why ask Mary to save us when it is Christ doing the saving? Many of the examples of Christians saving people involve the living helping the living, not someone in Heaven helping someone on Earth. Likewise with intercession, if I ask someone to pray for me, I don’t do it by praying to them. And the examples Gillquist uses on both intercession and saving could be used, it seems to me, with any saint that has gone before. Why not pray to Paul or Peter or Mother Theresa? Granted, praying to the saints does play out, but prayers in the Psalms and The Lord’s Prayer (or Our Father) show believers praying to God in Heaven. Why the middleman? And isn’t Christ our intercessor before God? I’m not sure Gillquist has convinced me on this part.
Recently I have begun to study the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity. This was due in part to feeling that my evangelical faith is feeling a bit uncomfortable, but also due to a man I respect and admire joining the Eastern Orthodox Church, which caused me to want to investigate the history and theology of the Orthodox Church. Working in a Christian bookshop has enabled me to gain access to a few books on the topic as they come in (which is not very common in the mid-western United States). My starting point has been a book by Peter E. Gillquist titled Becoming Orthodox. It is a memoir of sorts that chronicles the journey of Gillquist and other evangelical Protestants as they attempt to understand the their life in faith, which eventually led them to Eastern Orthodoxy. I finished part one tonight and wanted to write up a few thoughts.
First, I seem to agree with Eastern Orthodoxy on two of their criticisms of Catholicism and Western Christianity. The Pope, while I don’t believe him to be an evil man as some evangelicals seem to portray him, is not an office I see a lot of precedent for. I acknowledge that The Bishop of Rome was historically important as the seat of Christianity moved there after the destruction of Jerusalem, but does that necessarily mean that The Bishop of Rome should evermore be the head of the world-wide Church? I find it a bit uncomfortable, I admit, but I’m also willing, at the moment, to agree to disagree on this particular issue.
The second criticism of Eastern Orthodoxy, one that I discovered in doing some earlier research on the tradition, requires the filioque debate. Essentially, the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects a change that was made to the Nicene Creed. Originally, the creed stated that The Holy Spirit proceeded from The Father and is to be worshipped with The Father and The Son, which was in accordance with John 15:26. However, the Nicene Creed in the West was eventually changed to the Holy Spirit proceeding from The Father and The Son. On first glance, this seems to be a very minor, almost insignificant change. However, the more I thought about it and the more I looked at the Evangelical Church in America, the more I began to see how marginalized The Holy Spirit has become in all but the Charismatic denominations (and even there, the view of The Spirit almost seems to have swung completely too far in the other direction). The Spirit is discussed, but it certainly isn’t seen as, or talked about, being on equal footing with The Father and The Son. I think Francis Chan addresses this issue, albeit without Eastern Orthodox leanings, in his book Forgotten God. So, I find myself agreeing rather firmly with the Orthodox Church on the filioque issue.
Does this mean I’m Eastern Orthodox now? I rather doubt it. Honestly, I haven’t done nearly enough research to consider any changes, but I do feel drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy in ways that I haven’t yet begun to comprehend. And while Gillquist’s book makes for interesting reading for a beginner on this topic, it sounds somewhat similar to other “is church as we know it truly the historic church” books. Although, in Gillquist’s defense, his was written about fifteen years before some of these other books, and he points firmly to an ancient practice of Christianity, rather than a post-modern one. But I must confess that my knowledge of Church history is quite basic and not developed enough to really know if I can refute some of Gillquist’s claims with regard to First Century Church practices and Eastern Orthodoxy. Not all scholars in New Testament Christianity seem to become Eastern Orthodox. I rather enjoy N.T. Wright’s scholarship, and he is Anglican. But, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I know a few other traditions also claim to be The Historic Church. They can’t all be correct.
My final thoughts on the subject. Gillquist mentioned that the Western Church has continued to reform and counter-reform, dividing into smaller and smaller branches, while the Eastern Orthodox Church has remained constant. I must admit that I want to know how accurate this claim is. I have wondered in the past if the Western Church is either a) continually attempting to reform itself into something that it has subconsciously lost, or b) founded on the attitude of “no, that’s not the way to do it, my way is!”. We really do seem to keep dividing and subdividing. Is the Eastern Orthodox Church really different in this regard? If you can fill in my gaps of knowledge on this, I would certainly appreciate it.
Perhaps this will strike you as an odd statement, but often I feel that there isn’t enough magic in my life. Let me see if I can tell you what I mean.
Last week I watched an excellent documentary on writer Grant Morrison. The doco was called Talking With Gods, and it featured interviews with and about Morrison, his writing, and his life. Morrison has had an odd life, with odd experiences. He would, as a child, sneak in to top secret military facilities with his father. He claims to have been abducted by alien intelligences which opened him up to an altered view of reality. He regularly practices magic, primarily in the form of sigils. There was a bit of disappointment when, during the course of the documentary, Morrison explained how to perform a sigil. It seemed to involve, as one of my friends put it, “masturbating over word games.” But while this seemed a bit more mundane, it was also intensely practical. In fact, that describes Morrison’s view of magic, according to the documentary. He feels that magic should be practical. Do this, and you get this. There was something very odd, to me, of this marriage of mysticism and utilitarianism. However, it does seem to work for Morrison, and anyone who has read his work cannot say he isn’t clever, brilliant, or insightful. Or weird.
Upon finishing the documentary, I spiraled into a depression. This was due in part to lack of sleep the night before, but the documentary spurred it along a bit. Here was a man who worked hard to get where he was, but he also had a lot of unusual experiences, and not all of them were drug-induced. He created an avatar of himself in his comic series The Invisibles, a character named King Mob, and in order to more fully write this character, Morrison dressed like King Mob and began populating the locations and meeting the people King Mob would encounter. Possibly the most unusual experience was when Morrison wrote that King Mob got a necrotizing virus. Soon after writing this, Morrison became very ill and even had some skin abrasions (or something like that). Morrison is a proponent of using his art to manifest change in the real world, and it seems that this happened in a horrific way in The Invisibles.
Again, my depression. Morrison has had unusual experiences, amazing travels, and he is a great writer. His life seemed filled with magic, no matter how you define the word. At first I was unaware of what exactly caused my depression. My wife was who finally figured it was linked to the magic of Morrison’s life. I have often lamented about the mundanity of modern life (and by “modern life”, I typically mean “my life”). Sure, I have learned a lot about how to cope with where I am, but I often crave something more. Oscar Wilde once said that we are all in the gutter, but some of us reach for the stars (or something like that). The Brit-pop band Blur posits that modern life is rubbish. The lessons I have been learning in life seem to indicate that the world around us will move with great indifference to us and the most we can do is adjust our attitude and possibly exhibit something more positive. This is an aspect of the teachings that Christ gave his disciples. This also mirrors something one of Morrison’s friends said, that for Morrison the universe is cold, dark, indifferent, and that the ultimate act of rebellion is to be happy.
Last night I watched Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and found myself saying, “Why doesn’t this happen in real life?” For those not up on pop culture, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a movie based on a comic book of the same name. It involves a young slacker named (obviously) Scott Pilgrim, who has relationship issues and falls in love with a girl named Ramona. He sets out to get her despite already having a girlfriend. There is a catch, however. Scott must defeat Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes, people she had dated in the past. The fights take a variety of forms, from outright combat to a contest of bass playing, to a literal battle of the bands. The movie is really the most-perfect adaptation of a video game, only there was no video game to adapt. What I find great fun about this film is the message that Scott is really a self-centered jerk who must learn about self-respect and being respectful of others in order to defeat the final ex Gideon. There is a moment where Scott admits his love for Ramona, which gives him the Sword of Love and great powers, but this is not enough to defeat Gideon. When Scott finally learns that he has been a jerk and owns up to this, he gets the Sword of Self-Respect, which is much more powerful than The Sword of Love. This also prompts those around him, including those he wronged, to join him in battle. We see Scott Pilgrim do all these things, fighting Ramona’s exes, which are physical representations of her emotional baggage, the ghosts of past relationships that we must all deal with in our lives. Yes, in the movie the exes are real, but they are a metaphor as well, giving Scott Pilgrim vs. The World a certain magical quality in its analysis of modern courting rituals and the human experience of relationships.
Did you see that word again? Magical? Yeah, this movie made me feel similar, although no where near as bad, as Talking with Gods. So the question remains for me: Why do I have this craving for magic?
I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction. Even more so, I watched it on television and played it in video games. My formative years (and in turn my storytelling influences) include The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The X-Files, Doctor Who, the imagery of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and in more recent years the writing of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the ideas behind H.P. Lovecraft. It is obvious from this list that I have an interest in works of imagination and world-building. But what also strikes me as I type this is that there is only one Christian work on this list, and that work is not an overt one. Behind all of this, there are writings of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, both of which are more overtly Christian, but it strikes me as interesting that many of the formative stories from my past are not Christian. This wouldn’t make any difference if I wasn’t a Christian. I am. Yet, I don’t find much refuge in the writings of my fellow believers when I am looking for magic. Why is that?
I have started to believe we are killing our sense of wonder in Western Society. Perhaps it has come about due to our devotion to science and the scientific method. Yes, people like Douglas Adams and Richard Dawkins say (or have said in the case of Adams) that just because we can explain something, doesn’t mean we can’t look at it with wonder, and while I can understand that to a point, I think I still crave mystery, and mystery often carries with it the possibility of not knowing. What has been the most joyous experience with Lost? It certainly wasn’t in the conclusion of the show, but in trying to figure out the mystery. God is a mystery, a magical force if you will allow me this description. He cannot be fully understood. However, we have gone a long way to trying to define him, while insisting he cannot be defined. Begin studying theology, especially reformed theology, and you will start to see the concepts, terms, and rules that people believe govern existence as created by God. With the rise of the battle between naturalism and creation science, things seem to have gotten worse and for someone to make the admission “I just don’t know” seems unacceptable because it will cause ground to be lost in the debate between who is right and who is wrong. I think this is partly why the magic and wonder of the Christian faith has been eroding, because we want to be seen as the ones who are right, and therefore win the cultural war. Sometimes when you prove someone wrong, they hate you even more, and won’t listen no matter how right you are.
So, I want God to by a mystery. This isn’t a bad thing, and this type of “magic” is probably good. However, there may be a darker craving at work here.
People bring in thousands of books each week for us to look through at the Christian book shop where I work. We reject a good deal of them because we have rather strict guidelines for content, but last weekend someone brought us two books by Anton LeVay, The Satanic Bible and a book on Satanic Rituals. While I know that this form of Satanism doesn’t deal with Satan as viewed in a Christian worldview, but Satan as a force of nature and desire, there is still no place for the book in our store. Even if we put it in the world religion or cult section, there would be complaints. People throw a fit if we put a Seventh Day Adventist childrens’ book in with the other kids books. So, the book buyer threw the books in the dumpster. When we didn’t buy them, the customer decided to donate them, and none of the organizations we donate to would have taken the books either. So, dumpster. The buyer told me about the books on Monday. My reaction? I was instantly at the dumpster looking for the books. I found them and flipped through them, interested. However, I didn’t learn much more than I already knew from a few of the religion classes I had in college, so I returned them to the trash.
In his book Surprised by Joy (Harcourt and Brace. Pages 59-60), C.S. Lewis gives the following admission of his time in a preparatory school:
“No school ever had a better Matron, more skilled and comforting to boys in sickness, or more cheery and companionable to boys in health. She was one of the most selfless people I have ever known. We all loved her; I, the orphan, especially. Now it so happened that Miss C., who seemed old to me, was still in her spiritual immaturity, still hunting, with the eagerness of a soul that had a touch of angelic quality in it, for a truth and a way of life. Guides were ever rarer then than now. She was (as I should now put it) floundering in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition. Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle was full of gunpowder. I had never heard of such things before; never, except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, conceived of spirits other than God and men. I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief; even the phantom dwarf had only flashed on my mind for a moment…..But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my simple theology. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since–the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult. Not everyone has this disease; those who have will know what I mean. I once tried to describe it in a novel. It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts.”
These truly are cravings, the cravings for some form of knowledge, some formula by which the world works, a formula which society at large has not discovered. There are certainly aspects of that in the Christian religion, especially as practiced early on. However, we have centuries of tradition to mold the expression of Christianity in the West to a form that is more manageable and quantifiable. We measure our success in church attendance and offerings. But Western society in general likes to measure and quantify and be generally less mystic about things. This is a breeding ground for cravings of an occult nature and indeed neo-paganism is rising. At the same time, the center of The Church’s population seems to be moving from America to China or even Africa. This is due in part to persecution (how counter-intuitive is that?) and in part due to the decadence and comfort of the West which has a tendency to dilute The Gospel. But there is a soul ache in myself for something more, something magical. The final question is whether or not that rests in Christ or in something else. What I find particularly interesting is that as these cravings and desires (at times, even lusts) have increased, I have learned more about Christian tradition, First Century Christianity, Judaism, and read passages of The Bible with different eyes of interpretation. The faith I had in high school and college would have been destroyed by these cravings. The faith I have now, while seeming uncertain and even more fragile, is still malleable and I believe that these answers may indeed lie in the truth of who Christ is, not the perception of who he is based on what I have been told.
To wit, there may indeed be magic in Christianity. We may have just neutered it in The West.
How many times have you gone on a pilgrimage? I don’t mean vacation. A vacation is altogether something different. They differ because of intention. A vacation is a break from our life, an interruption of how we have chosen to live. This interruption can be refreshing and leisurely, or it can be stressful as we pack more into it than can possibly be done. A pilgrimage seeks a destination that, should we reach it, we will have gained greater knowledge or character. While both necessitate a break from how we live from day to day, a vacation can quickly be lost and forgotten whereas a pilgrimage informs and empowers us when we return. By and large, in The West we have neglected the act of pilgrimage in our walk with Christ. Church has by and large become our spiritual act. We go to a building once or twice a week, gathering in community to sing songs to God, and while this isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage requires time, it requires movement, and it often sees us following in the footsteps of those who have come before.
In the book of Exodus (specifically Exodus 23:14-23), God instated a set of three sacrifices to be offered throughout the year. At this time, all the men must present themselves before God. Upon construction of The Temple, this meant all men throughout Israel must make the journey from their homes to The Temple in Jerusalem. What an inconvenience to have to make the journey to Jerusalem three times a year. Yet, it was commanded, and as this is the same God that had destroyed Pharaoh’s armies, it is best to do as He says. Granted, He had also just freed the Jews from captivity in Egypt, so paying tribute three times a year is not an unreasonable task. But what I am interested in here is the fact that all Jewish families were required to make this pilgrimage to The Temple. The very act of repeating this journey year in and year out is at once a way to connect the current pilgrim to those who came before, but also a way of affirming identity to a culture or belief. The pilgrim, in this case, becomes displaced from the trappings of every day life in order to pursue a religious goal or act.
Both Jewish and Christian tradition believe Psalms 120-134 were sung by the travelers to Jerusalem. These psalms have come to be known as The Psalms of Ascent, so named because Jerusalem was on a hill. However, the symbolic act of turning one’s face toward God is also not to be missed. These psalms also have a fascinating progression that mirrors the pilgrim’s journey from earthly discontent to pursuit and love of God.
In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!
–Psalm 120 (ESV)
Eugene Peterson has a wonderful quote in his devotional on The Psalms of Ascent A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Peterson says, “It is nearly as hard for a sinner to recognize to recognize the world’s temptation as it is for a fish to discover impurities in the water.” (Peterson, 15) I would also say this can be true of knowledge. We can’t know what we don’t know. And yet we can often sense when something is wrong, when a thought or argument just doesn’t seem to work. Sometimes it takes someone from outside of a culture to be able to see clearly what is wrong. This is what is happening in this psalm. Faced with the lies and deceitful culture surrounding him, the psalmist cries out to God. God is the ultimate Other, the Entity which exists outside of us and our culture that can give true knowledge and wisdom. However, He is not an impersonal force, for it does no good to cry out to someone who will not answer. The pilgrim cries out to God for knowledge, cries out to find truth among the lies and deceit that blind so many.
This seems so counter to our concept of reason. Yet, in my studies of logic we often ascribe to traditions of thought. We appeal to knowledge based on a philosophical worldview, be that Judeo-Christian, existential, naturalism, agnosticism, or any number of other worldviews. We become immersed in a tradition of thought, an appeal to a lens through which we can process and interpret the world. However, if we have made the choice to follow God, then God defines our reality and existence. As a Christian, I believe He defines our reality and existence whether we choose Him or not, but if we choose Him, we must follow Him. Therefore, we cry to God for knowledge. We cry to God for guidance. We can seek wisdom from those around us, family, friends, co-workers, even other Christians, but each of those people are still human and still very likely to interpret matters through experience. And while experience isn’t necessarily a bad guide (to keep touching a hot burner is foolish once burned), experience may at times be subjective knowledge rather than absolute. This is why a relationship with God is essential because God can help us discern these things. If we are not in relationship with God, it is harder to discern and we start leaning harder and harder on man’s wisdom and reason.
The first step of the pilgrim is to see that something is wrong. This can be incredibly difficult to do. We can grow easily distracted. Sometimes we’ll see something on TV and that takes our mind off our strife. Maybe we just go out for coffee and that assuages the discontent. Perhaps we feel a new job or a new car or a new wife will make things better. Even these pursuits show we are not yet ready. The psalmist here is sick of where he is. He has an ache that penetrates to his soul. He will go anywhere, do anything to find a better way. If we do not have a direction, we cannot move forward. We will find that direction next time, in Psalm 121.
Peterson, Eugene. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. InterVarsity Press. 2000.
So here is one of my problems with most young earth/universe theories: certain evidence does not seem to be in their favor. It isn’t so much the young earth that I have an issue with. There are some interesting theories that offer workable explanations for why the earth looks old. Quite possibly, the biggest evidence against them at this point are certain methods of dating which have grown more refined. Young-earth advocates have criticized radioactive dating and perhaps rightly so. However other effective dating methods have developed, methods that present greater accuracy. (Rubidium-strontium dating is, at this point, a more accurate method of dating extremely old rocks than previously used methods such as carbon dating.)
But the evidence of an old universe is much more compelling. Triangulation against points in the sky is one method of determining distances celestial bodies lie from one another. Measuring observable movements of the celestial bodies is another. Then there is the problem of the speed of light. Knowing the distances of the stars and galaxies from us, we can calculate how long it took the light to reach us. These calculations lead to billions of years. It is much more difficult to argue that our preconceived worldviews are causing us to interpret the math incorrectly.
So where does this lead the young creationist? Certainly the existence of an old universe doesn’t demand the existence of an old earth, but if we can be wrong about one, we can be wrong about the other.
I have come to believe that the Bible and science can be harmonized so long as we understand we approach both subjects with preconceived notions (usually based in a cultural bias) and do our best not to make either the Bible or science say something they do not say. Vern Poythress’ Redeeming Science has been extremely valuable to me in this.
Poythress is a professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary and he has three loves: science, math, and God. He loves the order and rationality of science and math and believes these attributes reflect God’s order and rationality. He also seems to believe that both creation scientists and naturalists, in their zeal to prove their particular a priori assumptions about the nature of existence, tend to make Genesis 1 and scientific data say things that neither says with certainty. Starting from our own a priori assumption, if the Bible is true and nature is a form of God’s revelation of Himself, then any contradiction between the Bible and science implies that we are either misinterpreting the Bible or misinterpreting scientific data. The controversy with Galileo and heliocentrism (Earth orbits Sun) versus geocentrism (celestial bodies orbit Earth) is a much-vaunted, over-used example of both. I don’t mean to indicate that the Roman Catholic church didn’t make some mistakes in the Galileo incident, but the issue was more complicated than the religion vs. science view that most people have regarding the incident. People within the church (especially in some of the Jesuit community) had begun theorizing that the Ptolemaic (fixed earth) system was incorrect. While many in the scientific community agreed with Galileo, the switch from geocentrism to heliocentrism came as an affront to the scientific knowledge at the time, which was largely based on the ideas of Aristotle. Since this is a tangent I don’t wish to go on at the moment, see “What Really Happened with Galileo and Darwin”, an excerpt from John Polkinghorn’s book Science and Theology for a brief discussion on this topic.
Ultimately, even Galileo was only partially correct. While the Earth is not a fixed point and it does indeed revolve around the sun, the sun itself is NOT a fixed point either, which runs contrary to his theory. The Milky Way Galaxy itself rotates. Galileo’s theories had to be updated once the scientific tools to measure such things had developed. This is a key distinction regarding science: it is not static. It can be refined in detail or completely re-written given exposure to the right data. (Quantum physics is an area where much enthusiastic study is being done that could usher in a new shift.) Thus it is sometimes unwise for scientists to ascribe to any theory the designation of ‘ultimate explanation’ for why or how something is. It could eventually be overturned. Likewise, it is unwise for creation scientists to latch on to a theory that “proves” God did things a certain way, thus upholding a specific view of Genesis 1. If that theory is debunked, you have hurt not only your own reputation, but possibly caused disillusionment to those who cited you without studying or following the evidence themselves. I believe that it can be dangerous to place too high a significance on the creation account for this reason. Certainly it is important, but again, we shouldn’t read more into it than is necessary.
How should we then approach the creation account? Much of these views will be paraphrases of ideas from Poythress’ Redeeming Science. Genesis 1 has two main purposes. The first is to establish God as the sole creator of all, and the second is the establishment of a pattern of work and rest, the model of the Sabbath and natural rhythms. Genesis 1 is not a scientific text. Quite the contrary, I would say it is deliberately obscure for two main reasons. First, it was written to counter pagan, polytheistic creation stories. Genesis 1 is unique in its monotheism, and it deliberately plays on the creation myths of Babylon and other near east peoples. These myths typically involved the earth being fashioned from the corpse of one of the gods. Humans were typically created to serve these gods. Genesis 1 is largely the antithesis of these creation myths because it tells that humans were created due to God’s providential generosity, rather than for selfish servitude, and that suffering and disorder is from humanity’s fallen, rebellious nature, not due to quarrelling gods. Even in our modern, “enlightened” age, we can have little difficulty understanding and agreeing with these concepts. We no longer intellectually believe in multiple gods (in the West), and even atheists would ascribe human suffering to humans, not to petty, vengeful gods. Therefore, this story is attempting to illustrate a truth about who we are and about our relationship to God.
The second reason Genesis 1 is deliberately obscure is so it is easy to understand regardless of culture. It is deliberately simplistic. Genesis 1 uses phenomenal language, which means it describes how an event is perceived, not necessarily the exact nature of the event. Examples of phenomenal language are with the words sunrise and sunset. We know that this is a geocentric observation. At dawn, the sun lifts above the horizon, then at dusk it moves below the horizon. For someone who lacks the scientific knowledge or language to describe something different, sunrise and sunset have great meaning and are unambiguous. We now know that the earth orbits the sun and the earth also rotates on its own axis, which is the reality of the situation, but introducing this concept to a culture that lacks certain scientific advancements would result in misunderstanding and communication failure. The brilliance of the Genesis account is that it transcends cultural understanding. It uses phenomenal language that is universally accessible. Why else would it be debated in the West thousands of years after being written if it wasn’t so approachable. Less scientifically advanced cultures can still understand the text. They can see and perceive the text in the same way the original readers and hearers understood it. It is truly a timeless story.
Where does all this stand with science? It certainly allows us more leeway in our interpretation. However, further commentary form the Bible itself adds another item for consideration. The Sabbath is modeled on God’s pattern of creation. So do we interpret the days in Genesis 1 as literal, 24-hour days or as symbolic days? There are many theories presented by science-minded believers. The two most interesting (to me) are the 24-hour day theory and the analogous theory.
The 24-hour day theory is pretty much how it sounds. By itself, however, it doesn’t take into account the apparent age of the universe and earth. If everything was created within six 24-hour days, why does everything look so old? This is usually combined with the mature creation theory, which states that God created everything with the appearance of age. I’m not sure I entirely like this theory, because it would seem to indicate a reality that is partially illusory. We would have every evidence of The Big Bang, of a universe aged billions of years and an earth aged millions of years, yet it wouldn’t be true because it just looks that way. I have trouble with a concept that says you can’t follow the evidence because the evidence reflects a reality that does not exist. This opens the door to further doubt about what can and cannot be observed and the very nature of reliable evidence, a concept that would even seem to undermine the Christian field of apologetics. It seems partially deceptive. I would much more readily believe in a young earth that achieved an aged look via cataclysmic events (such as volcanic activity or the Genesis flood) than an artificially “aged” creation. But I fully acknowledge that my personal comfort with a theory is no sort of standard by which to judge its truth or worth.
The analogous day theory posits that the days are not literal 24-hour days. In truth, the Hebrew word for ‘day’ (yom) in this text has at least two distinct meanings, one of which is 24 hours, the other is “a vague period of general time”. (from The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 1980. Moody Press) Analogous day theory says that the days are not identical to man’s days (24 hours) but analogous to them. God set a pattern of work and rest that was to be emulated by man. Each yom therefore designates the amount of time that each act of creation took. This also takes in to account that the first three days of creation would have had no objective, external measurement of time. We tend to measure time by the movement of the heavenly bodies, the creation of which didn’t happen until day four. Analogous day theory also retains the chronological progression of Genesis 1. What is also fascinating is that this chronological arrangement roughly corresponds to the order mainstream science says various aspects of our planet came in to being. I personally like the theory, but I understand it is only a theory. It is a hard reality that Genesis 1 lacks the scientific detail to study and evaluate it, but if it did, it would have remained incomprehensible to its original audience and many who approach it even to this day.
Why is this debate necessary? Certainly there are those in the scientific community who wish to disprove Genesis 1 (and believe they have) because they feel Christianity and religion in general creates an anti-science bias and prevents mankind from attaining potential by being bogged down and concerned with religious concepts and warmongering against opposing beliefs. But this attitude is nothing new. It is not unique to the 21st century, so why the urgency to debunk such beliefs now? I’m not sure I have an answer to either question (although I do have a lot of speculation, much of which is unflattering to both sides and possibly more than a little unfounded). It can be a fun, intellectual debate when separated from the passion and vitriol. This debate has been going on for centuries, however, a debate between science, philosophy, and theology with each trying to assert ultimate authority, an ultimate answer. In fact, there are those in science who would like to discover a comprehensive, all-encompassing theory (quantum mechanics again coming in to play). But despite lasting centuries, the debate continues. We must continue to attempt our own harmonization of the various schools of thought (and as Christians, allow our standard of analysis to be scripture and be clear what it really does and does not say). The debate will continue, likely long after we are gone. As Poythress says with dry understatement, “the discussions continue among theologians with no signs of increasing agreement.”