Sunday, November 15, 2015

Thanksgiving Two: Creation

Last week I set out to give thanks for God’s provision, and found myself tripping over a simple word I use with gratitude: creation.
Just the mention of creation sets off triggers in many minds. Creation: images of anti-science legislation, arguments against global warming, accusations that the fossil record is a vast atheist conspiracy, ongoing insistence that the earth was created in precisely six days, precisely six thousand years ago.  Guilt, anger, confusion. Dread at the very mention of dinosaurs.

I wrote several weeks ago about binary thinking: the idea that there are two ways to see things, and if you aren’t one, you’re automatically the other. 

So, to a black-and-white sort of brain, Christians are anti-science, tied to a view of the world that ignores all evidence of change.

And scientists are anti-Christian, teeth set on edge by the very mention of “creation.”

Both views, of course, are nonsense, straw men propped up by sloppy rhetoric and loose ad hominem attacks.

There are many Christians who are well-respected leaders in their scientific fields.

Many scientists who are unapologetic in their expression of Christian faith and praise of the creative mind that set the universe in motion.

As I wrote last week, the fine-tuning of the universe to accommodate fragile human life has prompted a small wave of scientists to lose their faith in chance and converted to Christianity, or more confidently and publicly affirmed the faith they started with. 

In the same way, accumulating evidence in for a Big Bang beginning has narrowed apparent gaps between science and faith in the worlds of cosmology and astronomy.  Less than a century ago, most secular scientists believed in a Newtonian physics, and the underlying assumption of a universe that always has and always will be as it is today.  According to that model, the Judeo-Christian creation narrative was a laughable myth.

In 1927 Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest trained in math, physics, and astronomy, posited an expanding universe dating back to a single point in time. While many contemporaries dismissed him, Einstein found his ideas “interesting,” and in the decades since, his theories have been tested and refined, to the point that most astronomers and physicists now speak of the Big Bang as a proven moment of creation, or, as Arno Penzia, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics describes it: 
a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, and delicately balanced to provide exactly the conditions required to support life. In the absence of an absurdly improbable accident, the observations of modern science seem to suggest an underlying, one might say, supernatural plan. 
According to Robert Jastrow, founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies: 
Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover….  That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact. 
Of course there are scientists who insist the universe began without outside intervention, through events still unknown, with natural causes science has yet to find.

And there are Christians who insist that the days of scripture are twenty-four hours, not unbounded periods of time as Hebrew scholars have long suggested, that God spoke and all was immediately accomplished.

Even so, the discourse between science and faith on cosmological origins seems far less contentious than the questions surrounding life forms and human ancestry.

Binary thinking suggests we choose between godless Charles Darwin and the literalist James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, who in the mid 17th century added ages and dates of ancient kings to deduce that the first day of creation began at nightfall on Saturday, October 22, 4004 BC, near the autumnal equinox.   

Ussher was not the dunce sometimes portrayed, but a seeker of truth in his own time and context. 

And Charles Darwin was hardly the godless atheist Young Earth Creationists attack. In letters, essays, and diaries of his travels, he consistently expressed belief in a creator who intervened in natural processes in ways beyond human understanding, and confidence that humans are in some way unique: 
Amongst the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the [Brazilian] primeval forests … [for they] are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature. No one can stand unmoved in these solitudes, without feeling that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.  (Beagle Diary 1836) 
He was troubled that his work was claimed by secular materialists as occasion to jettison belief in God, while attacked by fundamentalists because he was willing to explore natural mechanisms God might have used in creation. In Descent of Man, he wrote:  
I am aware that the conclusion arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction. The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance. 
In letters, essays, books, Darwin probed the idea that God could use mechanisms he designed to yield results not explicitly determined. Does God ordain every leaf that falls? Every change in every creature in every place and time? Caught by demands that he renounce science in favor of a literal Genesis account, or renounce his faith in favor of a materialistic universe, he wrote: 
With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. … On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. … I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design. … Again, I say I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle. 
Like every scientist who has stretched the boundaries of what we know, every theorist who has struggled to see beyond the easy answers, Darwin was pressured from every side, pushed to flatten mysteries into platitudes easier to understand.

I grew up in a church tradition that saw Darwin as evil, science and Christianity as inextricably opposed, and pursuit of secular knowledge as a common route to spiritual ruin. Yet my grandmother’s Bible holds curious margin notes throughout the book of Genesis, and an interesting little outline listing “literal view,” “gap theory,” “day age theory,” “pictoral day.”

I’m thankful for her example of struggling to harmonize what she learned and saw with what she read in scripture.

Thankful for Darwin’s difficult journeys of discovery, Lemaître’s bold and brilliant challenge to the status quo.

Very thankful God lead me to a Christian liberal arts college that taught and practiced “all truth is God’s truth,” with a robust science department unafraid to grapple with available evidence: the implications of fossil record, the astounding discoveries in physics, biology, archeology, anthropology.

I’m thankful for the gentle wisdom of my college Classics professor, who graciously tried to pry his students from a too-literal view of Biblical interpretation, grieving at the way words of scripture were misread to hold women to a narrow role, misinterpreted and zealously misused to portray God’s actions in simplistic ways that missed the broader point.

I’m thankful for Christian scientists from the days of Copernicus to now who have built on the premise that truth is knowable, universal principles apply, and, as Copernicus said, it's our “loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.” –

I’m thankful for groups like American Science Affiliation: A Network of Christians in the Sciences xand their faithful work in understanding this amazing universe we’re given.  And BioLogos  “inviting the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith.” 

I’m thankful for family and faith community willing to live in that “muddle” that Darwin described: confident that there is a Maker, deeply aware there is much we don’t know, can’t explain, may never understand about the intersection of observable fact and the God who says “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
Most gracious God, by whose knowledge the depths are
broken up and the clouds drop down the dew: We yield thee
hearty thanks and praise for the return of seed time and harvest,
for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of its fruits,
and for all other blessings of thy merciful providence
bestowed upon this nation and people. And, we beseech thee,
give us a just sense of these great mercies, such as may appear
in our lives by a humble, holy, and obedient walking before
thee all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom,
with thee and the Holy Ghost be all glory and honor, world
without end. Amen.  (Book of Common Prayer)

This is the second in a short Thanksgiving series.

The first: Thanksgiving One: Provision, November 8, 2015.