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.


Creationism vs. Evolution;
Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye “The Science Guy”

I just finished watching the 2.5 hour live debate between Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Kentucky) and Bill “The Science Guy” Nye.  The question for discussion was specifically this:  “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”  (http://debatelive.org/)

I came to the discussion neither “for” nor “against” anyone.  I just wanted to see how each would present his case. I have great appreciation for both men for their efforts and willingness to engage, and to the Creation Museum for making this publicly available for free.  I’ll give a short review and then some reflections.

Review of the Debate

Naturally, there were deep differences on fundamental issues—like how the same evidence is interpreted, the starting point of scientific investigation, the definition of terms, the nature of the Bible as a source book of scientific knowledge, and much more.  

Bill Nye advocated a 13.7 billion year old universe as evidenced by geology, astronomy, plate tectonics, and more.  He moved freely and easily in scientific data.  He admitted freely to not knowing what came before the big bang, or how to explain the origin of “conscience,” and he stated clearly that God could neither be proved nor disproved by scientific methods.  He never acknowledged that real scientists could also be “creationists,” and he talked several times about “here’s how we on the outside do things”—by which he meant outside of Ken Ham’s little circle of friends.  Although exceptionally fair handed in most matters, in this last respect, he was at least marginally condescending (if not more so).  However, when he talked about the “Ken Ham Model of Creation” he was attempting to specifically clarify exactly how he was defining creationism, since he had noted several times that creationists are not all cut from the same cloth.

Ken Ham advocated a 6,000 year old earth;  repeatedly disputed the accuracy of dating methods;  challenged the “faith” assumptions of secularists;  freely called upon scientific data;  represented the difference between himself and Nye as not about evidence, but about how to interpret the evidence, as a tug of war between “naturalism/Darwinism” over against the Bible;  and introduced a cadre of PhD’s in the scientific community who identify themselves as “creationists,” stating that nothing in astronomy or any other field (when properly assessed) disproves a young earth.  (It is important to note that he did not present scientific evidence that led to a young earth, but rather maintained that the available evidence cannot be indisputably interpreted against a young earth.)  He argued that the existence of logic, laws of nature, and order could only come from God, and that secular scientists stand on the shoulders of creationists.  He advocated a thoroughly literal reading of Genesis 1 as both reasonable and reliable, including seven 24 hour days, that there was no eating of meat (even by animals) prior to the flood, that death (even of the animals) was the result of human sin, that the flood was worldwide, and that all the “kinds” of animals that exist on the earth were on the ark. 

I’ve been highly selective here (necessarily so), others might choose other things.  For the most part, both men represented their point of view with grace.   I liked Nye’s enthusiasm for “the scientific search,” and Ham’s request to define terms more clearly.  I absolutely agree with Ham that secularism is clearly a “faith” (although in denial).  I also appreciate Nye’s willingness to enter into this discussion, when many secular scientists say this should not be done, since it gives the impression of credence to the views.  As time wore on, Ham talked less about science and more about the Bible, occasionally resembling a preacher delivering a sermon. 

The most flabbergasting statement (for me) was made by Ken Ham after stating that the age of the earth—as either young or old—cannot be proved using scientific methods.  The statement was: “The reason I believe in a young universe is because of the Bible’s account of origins. . . . when we add up those dates [of the genealogies] we get thousands of years.”   (I’ll come back to this.)

Some Reflections

1. General Assessment

Ok, now to the question:
“Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” 

Well, based on this debate alone, I would have to say no.  Absolutely not.  And the problem is that “creation” ends up getting defined just as Bill Nye says, “by the Ken Ham Model of creation,” which is an insistence on reading Genesis 1 with a particular kind of literalism.  I always enjoy listening to scientists debate scientific questions, and there was plenty of that, on one level or another.  However, as much as I appreciate Ken Ham personally and his effort (and I do), I get so completely worn out by scientists who “read the Bible (supposedly) scientifically,” as though some physicist or biologist or astronomer will know something about a 2,500 year old Hebrew text that no one else can know.

I’m not going to develop a complete argument here, I’ve covered at least some aspects of this in my book Scripture, Canon, and Inspiration where I think the real crisis among current-day Christians is:  a fundamental ignorance of the nature of the biblical documents and of the meaning and implications of “canon.”  The biggest shame in all of this ongoing debate (and it goes well beyond this one) is that highly intelligent people, highly trained in other areas, are not only continually mishandling ancient Hebrew religious texts, but then implying to parents and kids alike that “if you don’t accept this, you are actually denying God, the Bible, and homemade apple pie!”  Ham was careful to state that being a Christian was based on faith, not a position about a young earth;  even so, the “secularism vs creationism” contrast was cast in stark terms:  Ham’s creationism was presented as nothing less than the clear biblical claim. To reject this was to reject the Bible.

In contrast to this approach, many other Christians will run down all kinds of rabbit trails, like “a day equals millions of years,” and all of that stuff.  Why?  Because we are trying to salvage something:  our own faith, or the Bible itself.  We allow certain people to cast the discussions about Genesis in terms of the “science and the Bible” question, and then we get stuck in those ruts.  Then we try to rescue the Genesis text from the skeptical oblivion of the secular scientific sword (although we will say it more like:  “we show how Genesis defeats the skeptical attacks.”) 

2. A Mistake

I have a message for all Christians everywhere who are inclined to this kind of approach.  And I already know that most won’t pay any attention to this, or that I might even make some of them angry.  But here’s the message:  This is a mistake.  The whole attempt to reconcile Genesis with 21st century science is a mistake.   I kid you not, all of this plays right into the hands of the truly negative secularists (not all are negative), makes Christians look ridiculous, and sets up our kids for the biggest fall since the twin towers came down.  There are lots of reasons kids leave their faith:  and this is one of them. When they feel they got lied to, they turn exceptionally and understandably bitter.

I’m not trying to be mean or arrogant, although I will surely be accused of both.  But at this point in my life, I’m just tired of this.  Genesis 1-11 is not a 20th-21st century science book.  Period.  To use the genealogies of a 2,500 year old Hebrew document (not that we actually have a copy of Genesis that old), which was compiled from mounds of oral and written tradition, all of which grew and Ugaritic-3thrived in the atmosphere of dominant languages like Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Sumerian—–that look more like a dropped bag of golf tees than a language—–to use the resulting ancient Hebrew written texts as a way of dating the age of the earth is breathtaking (as in gasping for air).  We can’t even date or agree upon the origins and shaping of that document, let alone the earth.

To over-read the details of one specific story about God at work—–which nobody in any ancient society could have witnessed, and which at least resembled stories found in other cultures!—–reveals the real culprit lurking in the shadows:  a particular view of inspiration that insists that (1) God himself is giving this ancient story as an “historical account,” (2) that the historical account (being from God as it is) can reflect no cultural imperfections, limitations, misapprehensions, or inaccurate understandings of the time, (3) that the historical account is given as a scientifically factual account in such terms that no one until the 20th-21st century would quite fathom (showing the layers of hidden truth of ultimate knowledge), and (4) that all who don’t accept this particular view of inspiration and assessment of how that factual account came to us are in the dark and are somehow denying the Bible.

As a believer in God, and as one who also acknowledges the inspiration of the ancient scriptures of God, I simply must confess a near total disconnect with this view of Genesis and this view of inspiration.  As well intended as it is, it is even more unfortunate.  I also confess a disappointment that the “case for creation” offered was cast under this shadow.  My book will have to stand for stating my positions on such things as the nature of ancient documents, inspiration, and canon (and what that implies).  And so I now turn to some ancient realities of how this story was understood and explained.

3. Ancient Interpreters and Diversity

The funny thing is, not even all ancient readers took Genesis 1 as literal.  First, there is a competing creation story told in Genesis 2, standing right there next to the other one,  showing that the compilers of Genesis (who brought all of the disparate materials together over time) had no problem with different versions of the story.

We can also see it at the very time of Jesus in the likes of his Jewish contemporary, Philo of Alexandria, who wrote an extended commentary on the creation:

[Moses] says that in six days the world was created, not that its maker required a length of time for his work, for we must think of God as doing all things simultaneously. . . . Six days are mentioned because for the things coming into existence there was a need of order.
(Philo, On Creation 13, my emphasis)

In this way, Philo emphasized not the days or times, but “the principles of order and productivity which governed the making of it.”  (F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, Philo, vol. 1, pp. 2-5).  Philo gets even more direct here:

It is quite foolish to think that the whole world was created in six days or in a space of time at all.  Why?  Because every period of time is a series of days and nights, and these can only be made such by the movement of the sun as it goes over and under the earth.  . . . When Moses says “He finished his work on the sixth day,” we must be understanding him to adduce not a quantity of days, but a perfect number, namely six, since it is the first to equal the sum of its own fractions.
                    (Leg Al 1.2, my emphasis)

Philo then spends pages talking of numbers, and fractions, and periods of time, and how the Deity is not delimited by any of this, and he concludes with:

There is an end, then, of the notion that the universe came into being in six days.
                   (Leg Al 1.20, my emphasis)

Philo does a great deal more than this, but this is enough to show that despite what others may have thought, here is at least one interpreter that calls attention to, what for him, are logical (reasonable) problems with the idea of literal days.  After great length, Philo rejects the idea altogether.

And what about the 3rd century Christian thinker and writer Origen, who said: 

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky?
(De Principiis IV, 16, my emphasis)

And then comes Augustine in the 5th century—–5th century, but almost as though just leaving the debate last night and writing this—–and this long quote is really worth reading:

[The six days]  What kind of days these were  it is extremely difficult to say or perhaps impossible for us to conceive.
(City of God, 11.6)It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.
(De Genesi ad litteram 1:19–20, Chapter 19, my emphasis)
With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.
                    (De Genesi ad litteram 2:9, my emphasis)

There is much more, and even Jewish interpreters as late as the 12th century, like Maimonides, would warn against too literal an interpretation of the Genesis creation stories.  Certainly, many understood the days in a literal sense.  But the point is not “who is right?”  It is rather that “Bible readers have never been of one mind concerning the nature of the days of creation.”  (So says Jack Lewis after a thorough review of the topic in “The Days of Creation:  an Historical survey of Interpretation”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32(4):433-455 1989.  As with all of Lewis’ writings, this is packed with detailed information.)

The point is, even long before the rise of contemporary science (or the concerns of fundamentalist Christianity), there were, in addition to literalists on “the days,” both Jews and Christians of deep and abiding faith who understood that Genesis was about a whole lot more than some robotic recording of individual events.  And where they disagreed, the interpretations often stood side-by-side, along with others, without any felt need to necessarily eliminate them.

[Note:  although none of this came out in the Nye/Ham debate, there is a tendency by at least some creationists to note and then simply dismiss Philo, et al, as minor or perhaps too influenced by speculative Greek philosophy and numerology to pay any real attention to.   This completely misses the point.  The fact is, we’re not talking about Billy Bob, Jim Bob, and Thing-a-ma-Bob, here.  These are major thought leaders of the time.  It is clear that from a very early time there have always been interpreters who have seen the days of creation as problematic and non-literal.  These cannot be dismissed.]

As a kind of bottom line, here, it is unfortunate in the Ham/Nye debate that a defense of creation as a viable option for consideration in the 21st century was limited only to a particular kind of “creationism,” quite narrowly defined and insisted upon—–forced, even.  It would have been much better to represent creation as understood broadly by the historic Judeo-Christian world-view, even while acknowledging the breadth of opinion and the nature, scope, and limits of ancient literature—–not as “evidence,” but as a faith-system.  Since Ham continually represented the secularist position as a faith position, this would have been a stellar opportunity to compare the value of the two faith systems.

4. Genesis in Context

And so now, in the early years of the 21st century, an inordinate amount of emotional and theological baggage is attached to any and every discussion of book of Genesis.  In fact, the baggage gets far more attention than Genesis.  (Which is, of course, the nature of baggage.)  Certainly, many Christians are well beyond this.  Even so, too many Christians are much more into “defending the Bible” (almost like the crusades of the middle-ages) than they are in pursuing contextually responsible understandings. It would be far better to allow the ancient texts that we have to present their own case on their own terms.

As such, Genesis was an ancient, highly culturalized statement of faith and story (Torah) about the origins of the Jewish people, their laws, and their worship calendar.  It is important to remember that neither Genesis 1, nor the whole book of Genesis, stood on its own:  it was a part of Torah (i.e., God’s story, God’s instruction) and it existed in the service of Torah.   When we break off the prologue of the story and subject it to the invasive scrutiny of mere “historical fact” or “scientific tid bit,” we refocus the intent of the story and then gut it of its power.

Genesis was written for those who had already accepted and were following the law of Moses.  Now that statement is very important, far more important than a throw-away line.  Genesis allowed its law-following, sacrificing, Sabbath-keeping readers to see “who they were” as a people, and why they were doing (faithfully and ritually) what they were doing.  Despite whatever they might have thought about “the days of creation,” they would have instinctively understood that this story was not about the nature of the “days” in their own original “right” to be a “day,” but rather about something far more profound:  namely, what it implied about how they should be spending their own days—–a looking glass into their own identity.

  1. They would have seen that creation negated polytheism (the worship of many gods) and destroyed henotheism (the worship of one of many gods);
  2. They would have seen that their law was deeply rooted in and a part of  the cosmos—–the sun, moon, and stars (i.e., the Jewish calendar).  It is right there in the text of Gen 1:14:  “and let them indicate festivals, days and years” (NJB).  The concern here is not how long the day is, the concern is the function of celestial lights for setting fire to and illuminating  (and regulating) the worship and daily life!  It is all about the worship calendar!  So then every time they participated in a feast day event, each and every time they consulted the festal calendar, they were participating in the intent of God from creation.
  3. They would have seen that the significance of the 6 days was for pointing to the 7th day:  an “aha!” moment that their “keeping the Sabbath” was a God-thing, not just an expedience or an arbitrary happenstance.  (This is exactly the interpretation given to the days of Genesis 1 by the ruler of the synagogue in Luke 13:16: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.”  The days serve a functional purpose for the people reading about them.  The problem in Luke is not the understanding of the purpose of the days, but in turning such an understanding against the healing purposes Jesus in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.)

The creation story of Genesis 1 is about wedding the people of God to the law of God.

Genesis 1-11 is about YHWH God, his people, and how they started to become a nation.  And in such a context, ancient readers would have stood in bewilderment at the mention of millions of years, of competing timelines, of young-earth/old-earth, or the evaluation of scientific data.  Introducing such subjects into this sacred context would have been like wearing halloween masks at the Lord’s Supper table.  They would be foreign, intrusive, and inappropriate.

The idea that ancient texts can only be understood in so-called “factual or literal” terms, read in the context of a 20th century theo-scientism (else they are of no abiding value), is a fabrication of 20th century theological apologetics bleeding over into our current time.  Such concerns are not borne-out in ancient readings of those texts.  It very well may satisfy the agenda of some external theological positions today, about what the scriptures must be, but it does not best account for the nature of the ancient texts as we have received them. 

My Dream

Sometimes when I am sitting quietly, I am overcome by a dream (surely an hallucination), that I am certain will never come entirely true. Namely, that more scientists who are Christian and who want to explain technical aspects of biblical texts, would come to see the great benefit and even necessity of working more closely with a wide range of biblical scholars on the nature of ancient religious texts and how to handle them.  When scientists of any stripe bring their considerable knowledge to the Bible and then merely accept a pre-critical reading of the Bible into which they can infuse their scientific beliefs, damage is done—–every time.  The key, here, is a wide range of biblical scholars as opposed to just a few scholars who happen to agree.

In my dream, this would result in more careful attention to ancient texts.  A return to pre-critical readings of the Bible (as was demonstrated in this debate by Ken Ham) as a basis for dialogue with current day science is a recipe for disaster.  The point is not that biblical scholars know everything (hardly).  The point is simply that the more care given to ancient biblical texts as religious texts, not as science text books,  the better off we all are, including all of our kids.

There will certainly always be disagreement about every subject, including this one.  Not all biblical scholars will agree in their fields any more than all scientists do in theirs.  But I would rather deal with an ancient text on its own (as it lays there looking back) with concerns about contextual function and fit, for narrative flow, of plot and character, of implied author and implied readers, of forms and redaction by ancient editors or ancient sources, and most especially of the tracing of theological uses of story and text through the ages—–I would rather deal with all of that (for at least it is focusing on what is actually going on with a text) than enduring even one more barrage of intrusive comments about how Genesis 1 is explained by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the reading of ancient texts. 

Like I said, it’s a dream.   

Gary D. Collier

PS:  Do I accept the validity of creation?  of the Bible?  of “inspiration”?   I certainly do, if the texts are allowed to be the texts of ancient Jewish and Christian “coming-of-age and identity” they were intended to be, texts brought together in faith, by people of faith, in search of a conversation with God.  But not at all in the sense of those who would dip them in the rich, dark chocolate of 20th century theo-scientism.  Count me, in the case of such ideas, as a committed non-believer.

PPS:  I wanted to offer a more supportive review of Ken Ham’s position, as I understood it.  Surely he is a believer and one who takes action, and for both, he is to be highly commended.  I trust he will know that nothing here is intended personally.  I have great respect for what he is attempting to do, even if I cannot be a “partner in crime” with him.