4th of July, Biblical Civilization, Atheism, and Conversation

To all US citizens, happy 4th of July. May this be a time of reflection on the best of our hopes, while we also consider the worst of our failures as a diverse and imperfect people.

In honor of this day, I recently recommended to the very energetic online Coffee With Paul Bible Study partners two fairly recent academic (you have been warned) discussions:

Biblical Criticism and the Decline of America’s Biblical Civilisation, 1865-1918  by Mark Noll, 2013 Astor Lecture, Oxford University.   The lecture is a detailed and probing history of post American civil war readings of the Bible, centering around the key date:  1876.  If you listen carefully, there are plenty of applications for why people read the Bible the way they do in any era.  Mark Noll is a prominent evangelical historian and theologian who also is the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995) which states:  “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,”  and which asks, “why has the largest single group of religious Americans, who enjoy increasing wealth, status, and political influence, contributed so little to rigorous intellectual scholarship in North America?”  The audio is not about that topic.  (1 hour, audio only).

The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin. A stimulating panel discussion by atheist Richard Dawkins, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and philosopher Anthony Kenny.  Although all three accept evolution as a fact, that is not the point of the discussion (and is not the point of my sharing this).  The point is rather with the way in which the discussion was conducted and the stimulating way in which questions were asked and engaged. This was held at Oxford University in Feb 2012. (Video 1.5 hours).

The Question

So I presented this to my online study partners, and one very astute member of the group, after listening to the first recording, commented and asked (in part):

Q:  “Critical thinking should not cause a person to lose Faith or discard the Bible as myth. So what would a true Biblical Civilization look like?”

This is a great observation and question. When faith is afraid to face honest and legitimate questions with reasonable answers, it is “chicken faith,” not Christian faith.  While I don’t want to accuse people of this (and sit in judgment on others), I also don’t want this to mark my own faith.  Hence the book:  Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration.  That is the entire concern of that book.  Christians need to be able to face up to realities about the Bible and AT LEAST engage in reasonable discussions about such things.

This reminded me of something I saw on space.com recently: a beautiful picture of the “stunning new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 2467” (an actual star nursery)—a picture that would make any astronomy enthusiast beam with joy—right next to the most unlikely ad for this page. Here it is:


Astrology and Astronomy. What a combination!

It immediately struck me that this aptly represents just how Christians often (or normally) read the Bible—in popularized, hop-scotch, horoscope fashion. The fact is, many might define “Biblical Civilization” as just such a thing! However, Bible readers should have no more patience for this kind of approach to the Bible than astronomers do for astrology.

A Biblical Civilization

This is why I also liked the second listed video (above).  In that video, atheist Richard Dawkins asks a very legitimate question to the Archbishop about “why God waited 4.7 billion years (or whatever) to finally get to the point,” and then again, “why should we turn to ancient sources in the first place?”  They were running out of time, so a good answer didn’t happen, but I still respected the way the question got asked and how the Archbishop (quickly) replied.

Part of my own answer (because I DO accept a 4.7 billion year span) is that Dawkins, who does not believe in God in the first place, is making all kinds of unwarranted assumptions about “what God would have to be like.”  In other words, even accepting a 4.7 billion year time before humans (which you might not accept, but that is not the point—let’s stay on this point!), I am not bound by somebody else’s opinion and assertion of what God must be like or what he must do, or what must be important for him, especially by somebody who thinks God is a “ghost” anyway.

Who says that God did not or could not “delight in” or enjoy every single minute of the 4.7 billion years that existed before all of the kids were born?

Now, I’m attempting to offer some levity, but the point is quite serious.  I am respecting Dawkins’ question and asking him right back:

Accepting your assumptions about time, who are you to say that there could be no divine purpose to a long creative process, or that purpose can only exist when humans come along? Or what God can or can’t be? Or how God must act? And who are you to tell me that the Bible must be read in such a shallow way?  I get that enough from Christians, I don’t have to accept those kinds of assumptions from them OR you!

Again, the question Dawkins asked is a good and legitimate question and deserves a good and reasonable answer from believers.  (And my answer is, the Bible makes no claims about such things and was not written to such questions. So I don’t have to submit to your forced opinions about such things any more than I do from some Christians.)

So, I offer this as food for thought: A “Biblical Civilization” would NOT be one that is bound by only one particular view of how the scriptures apply to current questions.  (That means that a “Biblical Civilization” will be one of disagreement and discussion, not lock-step conformity!) Rather a “Biblical Civilization” would be one of vibrant, open discussion of this question: “How do we apply ancient texts to current contexts?”   And that right there is the most important question current readers of the Bible have to deal with.

Now, in that enterprise, Dawkins is ill equipped and totally off base.  But so are most Christians!   Dawkins (and most atheists I am aware of) fight against one particular kind of Christian viewpoint about the Bible, and then call it “the Bible!”  Most Christians comply by accepting that approach!

I absolutely do not.  A responsible and contextual reading of the scriptures considers first and foremost two things:

(1) Why these texts came into existence in the first place.

(2) Why they were kept and handed on by others.

It was NOT because the questions we are asking nowadays were being asked by them.  It was because other questions were being asked, and we have largely forgotten those questions and those contexts.   Genesis is not addressing the questions that science is asking today.  And whenever Christians accept that platform (which most conservative approaches do), they have already shown that they don’t understand the nature of their own book!  This is exactly why Christian teachers sometimes use texts out of context when they know better.  It is because they are often more motivated by the “right answers” they already know are true than they are by the integrity of the texts they have right in front of them.

I suggest that a “Biblical Civilization” would be comprised of people energetic and responsible in discussion about our ancient and precious texts.  And it would carry on this conversation without wrangling or frothing at the mouth.  A “Biblical Civilization” would be a searching civilization.


12 thoughts on “4th of July, Biblical Civilization, Atheism, and Conversation

  1. Gary,

    As always well written thoughtful conversation. You continue to bring your readers into the place they need to be when studying the Bible. We need audience relevance if we are going to properly understand and apply the message. I have to confess I had not thought of how all of that applies to the billions of years that transpired in the creation. I too have concluded the age of the earth is, as I like to say “is a gazillion, two billion, three years and a month old.” I believe Romans points out one of the great evidences of God is seen in the things he created. For us to deny the physical evidence of the earth’s age is to deny one of the evidences scripture says he gave us.

    Again, thanks for such a thoughtful article.

    Jack Gibbert

    • Thanks, Jack. I appreciate your comments and it is nice to hear from you. I would like to think that whether or not a reader agrees with “how old the earth is,” she or he will see past that issue to the more fundamental concerns of the assumptions we often make when speaking of God, and the manner in which conversation is carried on. Many will, of course. I pray that more and more will.

  2. Thank you, Gary — both for recommending this lecture and for offering some provocative, solid, discursive commentary on it. I like the questions you pose to Dawkins and hope he and other intelligent atheists will continue to come across intelligent, thoughtful, probing believers such as yourself.

    The phrase “Biblical Civilization” is an odd one to my ears. What about “FDA-approved Grocery Store” or “Musical Populus”? I simply don’t think “biblical” ever laid claim to modifying “civilization,” despite the fact that the former relates to, or deals with, a portion of the latter. If there were to be a Biblical “Civilization,” I’d hope it would be as you describe — energetically searching, responsible, and peace-filled. And, I suspect, that’s what we both want in all our slices of the civilizational pie where we live and operate.

    • Thanks Brian. As you likely know, Dawkins is not always so gracious and circumspect in his comments. But neither are many Christians. I am not a “specialist” on Dawkins (or all Christians), I simply think that, sometimes, he is a mirror image of a rabid Christian. In this particular panel, I thought the entire discussion was exemplary and the questions were good and worthy questions.

      As to Biblical Civilization”, it is not my phrase but Mark Noll’s. I personally don’t think it is as non-descriptive as you say since adjectives can have many functions. A patient civilization might merely describe a characteristic, so I guess a “biblical civilization” might describe a civilization which is inclined to reflect on the Bible responsibly. But forget civilization, I’d like to see this characteristic in churches!

      I think maybe “FDA-approved” is more like the phrases “a fundamentalist-biblical” or “a leftist-biblical” in which some kind of specific agenda or control is intended. And that is the problem, I think. The word “biblical” itself to some people implies a particular agenda (usually a more fundamentalist than other). So “biblical” has become a four letter word with some.

      Thanks for your comments. Always a pleasure.

      • Gary,

        Yes, people may hear “biblical” as though it means “fundamentalist,” so I do all I can, in my little corners of “civilization,” to combat that impression. 🙂

        To go a little further with my reaction to the phrase (and, yes, I did know it wasn’t your phrase here) “biblical civilization” . . .

        If believers were intentionally to attempt to divorce “biblical” from “civilization,” it might actually keep thoughtful atheists from assuming that all of us believers want to make the secular world a Christian world. In other words: atheists seem (rationally) threatened by Christian extremists who want to make God out to be a rightist political tyrant. Given that this is not the era of God’s having one national group that receives His special care, to move decidedly away from ill-begotten daydreams of theocracy might help matters in broader civilization, whether we’re talking about the American Family Association (whose commentator I heard on the radio this morning was so woefully off-base as to have things completely backwards), Phelps in that Topeka church, or Muslim extremists.

        I did react to using the adjective “biblical” to describe “civilization,” although portions and aspects of civilization may surely be improved by responsible attention to things in scripture. It would be good to start, as you note, in churches.

        Personally, I don’t look for this world to improve substantially, but if a secular civilization were to reflect on the Bible responsibly, that reflection would doubtless accompany other, positive actions and attitudes — all of which would help in matters of this life and the next.

  3. This is a thoughtful nugget of a response and I am interested in your own personal reply to Dawkins and am not exactly certain what it is. My reading is that your answer to why did God wait so long to get to the point is because he did and you don’t know why God does the things he does all the time or what he gets out of it, doesn’t tell you why about some things, and the bible isn’t housing some encoded answer to that question, formulated and based in assumptions of a completely different time from a completely distinct discipline. If I am putting words in your mouth I apologize; this was my reading. I do think looking at the challenges that disciplines can put to one another can be very revealing and ought to be considered, if not fully answered. Something the scientific method has done for religious folks is to challenge notions of “belief” (as in the acceptance of scriptural statements on an empirical basis) as defining one’s faith. If a religious claim goes categorically against the available evidence, evidence being “evident,” not contrived but with the best methods we know of mitigating the influence of our biases; and if we remember that we are looking at the world ostensibly created by God–we may or not accept that God isn’t trying to fool us with his creation, but I see no reason why I should think so–then following the evidence to better understanding seems like a closer relationship with God to me than blindly accepting stories which do not compute. God, I think, if she is God, is probably not injured by her creations asking questions and trying to understand. But this is a secondary issue. What seems to me to reveal itself in the discussion is how scientific method and its proponents (for which I count nearly everyone who wants their computers, cars, and microwaves to work properly) are insulated from too many absolute statements because they can fall back on the method itself. Science isn’t about having answers, but about a practice that considers observations and makes guesses about those observations and continues to test its universe with rigorous honesty and loyalty to the results rather than a predetermined belief. I think much can be gained from this method as applied to other disciplines.

    Dalai Lama says…“Please practice your own religion seriously and sincerely.” And to non-believers, I request you to try to be warm-hearted. I ask this of you because these mental attitudes actually bring us happiness. As I have mentioned before, taking care of others actually benefits you.” And there are many attitudes to focus on in the statement, but for me, in this moment, the key word to examine towards a relationship to a scientific questioning of God’s purpose and a challenge to the religious beliefs of many (if not you) is “practice.” As scientists and skeptics will tell you, theirs is not a system of belief but of rigorous practice, one never stops and says, “there, now we know everything.” In the same way I think it could be useful to think about a relationship with God not as being some correct belief one finally comes to after study or revelation, but a continual process of practice within one’s discipline: a seeking of God in daily action and concern which does not need to be right, only to be right with itself. Honest. Forgiving of mistakes and mis steps. Willing to always challenge previously held notions because it is not God who implanted those notions, it is we (we the people) who found some use in the answer at some point along the way. A look at the discussion between science and religion is less a debate for me about who has the best story about the origins of life, but about whether there is something we can learn from applying young disciplines to older ones and vice versa and whatever permutation you may imagine.

    To Dawkins question part of your reply is that God doesn’t necessarily need humans to have a purpose. I would further daydream, why assume that “purpose” is god’s ultimate playground and not an aspect of one of the animals inhabiting God’s universe? Humans may be the animal of purpose, but a large percentage of the cosmos seems to me not to follow the line of intention. Why then assume God is made of purpose? Why not think perhaps god made us with purpose and so understands it, but is not necessarily limited the way we are by its constraints and results?

    some thoughts alongside yours, or under. enjoyed the article.

    • Thanks for the reply, Craig. No, you did not put words in my mouth. You pretty much got it. I’m in agreement, pretty much, with your entire response. Even the part about “purpose.” I was replying to Dawkins who sets up the scenario as purpose: “Why did God wait 4.7 billion years to get to people?” My reply is, the question is not so neutral. Who said God waited for anything? But here is the thing: That is not a scientifically motivated question. Nor is it designed to test or evaluate ancient texts. The fact is, he can’t speak to it any more than I can.

      I would quibble a bit with the statement that the practice of science “is not a system of belief but of rigorous practice.” In theory, maybe; in claim absolutely; in practice, hardly. Also, biblical studies has been pursuing rigid critical methods for as long as there have been Bibles–and scientists. But this is just a quibble.

      I think this is a very insightful comment: “A look at the discussion between science and religion is less a debate for me about who has the best story about the origins of life, but about whether there is something we can learn from applying young disciplines to older ones and vice versa and whatever permutation you may imagine.”

      Thanks for the comments.

  4. It’s after 11 o’clock on a beautiful West Texas night. I had a ‘high’ blood glucose test just now. The Rangers (MY Texas team) and the Houston Astros are fighting for the cellar in the American League West. My lovely and faithful wife (Ruth) is peacefully sleeping in our bedroom. I was about to respond to an e-mail from a fellow Christian/soldier/preacher in the Province of Prince Edward Island, Canada when I decided to read (and respond to) your thoughts sent to me a couple of days ago, Gary.

    I have read your essay, an most of the responses. My comment: I believe that Jesus is the Christ, and I am grateful to God for His gift. I am grateful for my life in Jesus, and for all the other blessings given me here in West Texas (my part of His universe). And…I don’t have a clue what you guys are talking about.

Leave a Reply to Gary Collier Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *