Every Friday, “Science and the Sacred” features an essay
from a guest voice in the science and religion dialogue. This week’s
guest entry was written by Peter Enns. Enns is an evangelical Christian
scholar and author of several books and commentaries, including the
popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament
, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional
views of Scripture. This is the fourth of his multi-part series on an incarnational model of Scripture.
Much of the concern surrounding the Christian faith and the acceptance of evolution and modern cosmology and geology centers on how to read the opening chapters of Genesis. Very often, and rightly so, that discussion turns to such issues as how modern data, such as extra biblical texts and scientific developments affect how we read Genesis.
That is all fine and well, but let’s come at this from a different angle.
There is a factor that rarely enters the discussion among conservative readers of Scripture. It is only one factor, but it is very important.
If we want a clue as to how to read the opening chapters of the Christian Bible, we should go to the closing chapters.
At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, in the very last chapter of the last book, we read the following:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5, NIV).
The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic book, which means it is a figurative, symbolic description of what the “end” will look like. Much of Revelation is concerned with showing God’s ultimate rule over history, and how he is bringing that history to its consummation in Christ.
And note how history will end: in a garden, with a river, a tree of life, and the removal of the curse. I hope bells are going off right about now.
In a manner of speaking, the point of the entire story of redemption laid out in the Christian Bible is to get us “back into the garden,” to regain what was lost, for the obedient Second Adam to undo the disobedience of the first Adam.
The book of Revelation, however, is not a literal description of events in time and space. To be sure, God will bring history to its consummation, but the description of that consummation in Revelation is figurative or symbolic. That is the nature of apocalyptic literature in the ancient world, and Revelation participates in that literary convention.
Although it has occasionally been tried, a “literal” (meaning time-space, historical) reading of Revelation does not work at all. The message behind Revelation is something God will do in history, but the description of those events are figurative. This is especially clear beginning in Chapter 21, where we read of a “New Jerusalem” descending from the sky. Its description is a symbolic amalgamation of Jerusalem, temple, and Garden of Eden imagery. It is not a literal city crashing down on the Earth, but a theologically potent, concrete, ancient description of what God will eventually do in time and space.
The use of such imagery was a powerful communicator of theological truth to ancient peoples–and it should be to us, as well. And here is my point to ponder: the symbolic, non-literal nature of the renewed Garden in Revelation 22 should suggest to us, quite strongly in fact, that the Garden of Genesis 2-4 likewise, although communicating theological truth, is also symbolic and non-literal. Both are “true,” deeply so, but neither are literal, historical, or physical.
Discuss amongst yourselves, but try to keep it nice.
Often in discussions of science and religion, creation is viewed in terms of design. Some view the complex design on the natural world as proof of an intelligent creator. Others, however, claim that flaws in nature show that a divine creator does not exist, or else made a number of mistakes.
In his article “Darwin, God, and the drama of life”, theologian John Haught argues that religious thought can more significantly interact with evolution and the natural world if it views them in terms of a narrative rather than in terms of a design. The most important issue in discussions of science and religion, according to Haught, is not whether design points to deity but whether the drama of life is the carrier of theological meaning.
From a design point of view, evolution can appear to be a random process, staggering about without meaning. But in dramatic terms, it is clear that the story of life is in not yet over.
As Haught writes:
A theological reading of evolution, I am suggesting, looks for an alternative to the rigor mortis of perfect design, and this is why Darwin’s ragged portrait of life is not so distressing after all. Theologically understood, biological evolution is part of an immense cosmic journey into the incomprehensible mystery of God. Any possible meaning it has will reside at a level of narrative depth unfathomable by the mathematical nets of physical science, by armchair observation, or by minds fixated on design.
Haught’s full article can be found in the “On Faith” section of The Washington Post.
Despite the existence of organizations like Answers in Genesis and The Discovery Institute, should creationism or intelligent design be called unified movements? In their study Doubting Darwin: Creationism and Evolution Scepticism, public theology Theos sought to test this assumption. Their conclusion, based on interviews with 50 prominent anti-evolutionists, found that rather than a unified group with a coherent set of aims and goals, most critics of evolution differ sharply in many aspects.
According to the report:
Interviewees did not seem to be united in either a geographical or a political sense. They did not necessarily belong to or attend any creationist groups or organisations and, where they did, they belonged to different ones. They did not keep contact with their counterparts in the US and they did not necessarily communicate with each other. There were vehement disagreements over theological matters and over the means by which evolution scepticism could be promoted. Intelligent Design had not successfully created a paradigm through which all evolution sceptics might engage in the debate around evolution.
Respondents also differed in their reasons for disagreeing with evolution, challenging the theory on theological, sociological, and scientific grounds.
However, the study did find that figures like Richard Dawkins have a galvanizing effect on evolution criticism and brought more religious believers under the banner of evolution scepticism. Respondents also felt that creationist and ID arguments were unfairly biased against and not given equal consideration, leading to a sense of being on the defensive and under attack by the scientific community, rather than a sense of contributing to science.
The full report can be found here.
Due to concerns about unhelpful comments on the Science and the Sacred
blog, we have decided to block posts that do not engage the topics in a
meaningful way. We welcome both critical and supportive voices, but
request that all posts offer something relevant to the posted topic,
and not simply be inflammatory accusations or lengthy, unrelated
monologues. Our goal in moderation is to assure discussions stay civil, open, and balanced. Lengthy posts are fine, so long as they are courteous and add to the discussion rather than usurp it.
As I drank my coffee and munched on my toast I felt a little lonely as I adjusted to this new person sitting across from me. She was bitter. The Church, she felt, had lied to her. Having purposely distorted the real world, it had kept her enclosed in the bubble. Upon emergence, she looked back and saw the layers around it, not as a protective shield, but as impenetrable barriers which would forever prevent her re-entry. She would never go back. She had lived in a fairy-tale world. I was no longer her mentor. I was a perpetrator of that which she now regarded as an ephemeral event–a dream in her past.
Darrel Falk begins his paper “Barriers to Accepting the Possibility of Creation by Means of an Evolutionary
Process: III. Concerns of the Typical Agnostic Scientist” (the fourth posted white paper from our November workshop) by describing a breakfast conversation he had with a former student who had abandoned her faith after going to graduate school. As the paragraph above shows, the student felt that the bubble created by some Christians to supposedly “protect” themselves from the world outside had become a barrier to her instead, making it impossible for her to ever return to the faith of her youth.
Lamentably, as Falk notes, the layers of this bubble come not from the Bible itself, but are artificially propped up by our own Christian culture. His paper looks at five of these artificially constructed layers, which unnecessarily serve to block the entry — or reentry — of agnostic scientists into the realm of evangelicalism.
According to Falk, the five layers of this bubble are:
- The story of Adam and Eve must be viewed as history
- A God who is love would not create through a process that includes suffering and death
- Science explains it all–there is no need for God in the history of life
- Augustine’s Warning (against using scripture in matters in which a speaker knows relatively little)
- As it relates to science and faith, Christians are perceived as people who distort facts and lack integrity
The full paper discusses these layers in further detail, explaining how they come from human rather than scriptural construction. Ultimately, as Falk concludes, it is the task of the church to remove those layers that will continue to have devastating consequences on human life unless steps are taken to remove them now. Until then, many more may find that the bubble which once protected their faith now makes it impossible for them to return to it.
Falk’s essay, along with several other white papers from our November workshop, can be found in our Scholarly Essays section.