Heavily revised Saturday, January 16, 2016
First of all, I’m a big fan of your work. I enjoy watching, listening to, and considering everything I have found where you are speaking. So I begin with a “thank you” and appreciation.
Along with that, I am not a scientist and will not attempt to speak as though I am one. I am, however, a trained and experienced biblical scholar, and I’m writing to ask you a favor. It would be helpful if you would show more nuance and awareness when you speak out of your field of expertise about biblical texts. Frankly, when you speak about the Bible, you don’t sound any different than many conservative Christians who speak about science. I.e., you sound just as ignorant.
In a previous post (as well as another), I evaluated some features of a popular fundamentalist approach to “The Bible and Science” by many Christians today. My concern was not so much science, but how Christians of all stripes approach, understand, interpret, and present the Bible. Here, I want to sharpen that concern and speak directly to you, Dr. Tyson, a leading scientist who continually makes comments about the Bible as though you have some right to do so. Certainly, I would like a reply, although I will not hold my breath that you will do so. Even so, I will still ask a couple of questions as though as though you might.
Context: Moyers and Tyson
First, for others reading this open letter, I need to provide some context, so I will slip into 3rd person here: In January (2014), Bill Moyers interviewed the well-spoken and entertaining astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. This popular speaker reprised the Nova series, Cosmos (of Carl Sagan fame), and has appeared on many platforms speaking for the advancement of science in education.
As an advocate of intelligent and responsible handling of the Bible, I want to go on record, first of all, that the interview with Bill Moyers was engaging and worthy of discussion. I would urge every Christian everywhere who is interested in this topic to watch this interview in its entirety, maybe multiple times. You might or might not agree, but that is not the point. I personally consider this a much better approach than the two previous approaches I evaluated above in the third paragraph. What follows is actually three interviews combined into one, and is 71 minutes long. Here it is in its entirety:
Now, Dr. Tyson, having encouraged this with enthusiasm, I’m about to ask you a few questions. However, I want to state clearly that I long ago (in my late teens) disavowed any association with the “young earth creationist” positions (so, I am not at all defending that position), nor am I defending any other so-called “biblical-scientific explanation” of Genesis chapters 1-2. (I’ve already stated elsewhere that Genesis is not talking about that and also that Genesis 1 and 2 present two different stories of creation, which means that not even the original authors/compilers of Genesis were concerned about presenting “the one right scientific view of beginnings”). Furthermore, I did not arrive at my positions about Genesis because of any scientific arguments against fundamentalist views of it. I arrived where I am because of literary and historical understandings of how ancient texts of all kinds work.
So, I am not challenging your science. I am asking you, though, why you don’t take the same care in how you characterize ancient biblical texts? Not as a “believer”; that is not the point. But simply as someone who understands and respects the value of reading ancient literature contextually in light of the genres and historical realities they attempt to address.
So now, to my questions. And to do this, I will highlight only one portion of your comments from the video above (not at all implying that they should be taken out of the context of the larger speech). Here’s a short clip from the above presentation:
Here are my questions.
First, do you think it is just possible that you are doing the very thing with the Bible that you are asking Christians not to do with science? You later say (after this clip), that the science classroom should deal with scientific issues. That if just fine. But in this clip, you are giving opinions about the nature, purpose, early understanding, and proper interpretation of a biblical story, as though you are a qualified interpreter of these ancient texts. On the one hand, you forbid others to speak in your classroom, but now you are quite willing to speak in theirs. I find this hypocritical.
For example, when you say that not until science came along did Christians start reinterpreting the Bible as not being literal on the creation: that is simply not correct. I’ve commented at length on this before, so I won’t repeat it here. Figurative and metaphorical interpretations of various parts of biblical literature are a part of the very fabric of that literature from its inception. There exist all kinds of figurative and theological applications of earlier biblical material even within the Bible. Even of the creation. Using your criteria, if you want to speak about biblical texts, don’t you think you should do so with all proper regard for the contextual study of those texts, just as you are asking for the sake of the study of science? I think this is a fair request.
Second, do you think perhaps you end up forcing a shallow and literalistic reading of the Bible as a straw man? Whether you intend to or not, you are basically saying: “Anybody reading this ancient story would say __X__.” I’ve heard biblical literalists say that kind of nonsense all my life, and it always irritates me. So now, you’re doing the same thing. Also, when you talk about the stars falling in Revelation you sound a great deal like biblical literalists (which atheistic scientists often do, since they are generally fighting a particular group or particular approach). Rather than understanding the theological nature of apocalyptic literature, you have just adopted the approach of the literalists. Actually, apocalyptic literature at its heart is less an attempt to describe the reality of nature than a use of the observable world to find meaning and hope in hopeless situations. You almost speak as if those poor dumb people writing the original material way back then had no deeper theological sensitivities or purpose than a spewing out of a shallow and mere literal view of the world. The fact is, such texts were not written as scientific statements, and not even all of those readers took them literally (e.g., Philo and Origen from my previous articles).
Is it possible that, just saying it the way you do shows that you don’t understand these texts and that you are unqualified to tell me how I would or should read them? If it works that way for science, why not for biblical literature?
What about showing sensitivity and responsibility in handling ancient texts contextually according to their genre and nature—I’m sure you agree with this in principle. Biblical literalists are horribly guilty of this offense against their own literature; why must you fall into to the same trap? It does not serve anyone, let alone the discussion, if both sides of the debate are irresponsible with the “texts” to which they are referring.
I enjoy listening to you as a scientist, but as an interpreter of the Bible, you remind me of the ones you are fighting; and I have no more interest in listening to you about the Bible that I do to Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Ohio) or any other fundamentalist “creation scientist” about either the Bible or science. You both end up sounding the same.
But finally, you make one comment at about the 45.55 mark:
If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to be more to you than just where science has yet to tread.
Frankly, I want to say, with my teenage kids, “Well, duh!” I’ve also heard a couple other of your speeches where you develop this “God of the gaps” stuff, and I just have to say that I have never believed that kind of nonsense my entire life, that “God is only God of things I can’t explain otherwise?” Anybody who believes in God as an all powerful force believes in the God of everything, whether you think you can explain it or not. This idea that God is somehow the God of the gaps, or the God of the ever-receding pocket at the edges of scientific ignorance is just silly. As an illustration: when I was growing up, just because I began to uncover the mysteries of how my dad operated, and I came to see him not as a worker of magic or with superhuman strength (which I saw as a child), but as one who loved me, this did not mean that my dad did not really exist or that the principles I was discovering were not reflective of his very character. It just means that I understood more.
Certainly, I agree that if God is more than the edges of scientific ignorance, then he must truly be more. In fact, God just might even be more than (and including) the sum total of scientific knowledge, despite its growing pockets of ignorance about God. But when you or any other scientist starts claiming that “anything that we understand cannot be God,” that is beyond your ability to say. God just might be more than what scientists are able to test, and more than some are willing to acknowledge. In that case, one wonders whether such scientists have anything at all to say about God, or why they are even trying to.
I actually do know why: because you want a more responsible, rational, and intelligent conversation to take place for the benefit of the human race. Well I, for one, agree. So why don’t we encourage the elevation of the entire conversation: responsible science, responsible handling of ancient texts, and a refusal to lump all scientists or all Christians together.
I very much liked the Moyers interview. I enjoy hearing qualified scientists speak on their field of expertise, just like I enjoy hearing qualified biblical scholars in theirs. I just wish it would result in a more responsible handling of biblical texts from both groups.
Gary D. Collier