Vinoth Ramachandra

Rescuing Creation-Talk

Posted on: April 20, 2012

Two years ago the American molecular biologist-cum-venture capitalist Craig Venter and his research team made a spectacular breakthrough. After years of painstaking work, they assembled in the laboratory a complete DNA molecule, consisting of about one million nucleotides of a micro-organism, and then inserted the synthetic DNA molecules into cells of another micro-organism from which the DNA had been removed. Those cells functioned, grew, and divided as if they were the species represented by the synthetic chromosome. Venter gave the name Synthia to this new life form, and went along with the excited media hype that he had “created life”.  This was not, of course, creatio ex nihilo, as the experiment required there to be pre-existing cells into which to transfer the DNA. However this did little to dampen the popular media’s enthusiasm for claims about the “creation of life”.

I was in London at the time Venter’s results were announced and I was greatly bemused to hear on BBC Radio, not only about the “creation of life” by Venter and his team but also a moral philosopher claiming that this was a resounding “proof of evolution”!  The philosopher had evidently forgotten that this self-replicating cell had not arisen through random mutations but by purposeful experiments planned by super-intelligent forms of life that were already on the scene! The BBC also went on, with its typically mischievous bias, to state that religious thinkers would bemoan this act of “playing God” (a much misused term) without giving a single instance of a respected religious leader or theologian in Britain who had indeed done so. (And I couldn’t find anyone who did so).

Walk into any major bookstore in a Western city, even in university centres, and you will find more books on Gnosticism or the occult on public display than Bibles or serious works of Christian theology. Open a major astronomy or physics journal and you will occasionally find a discussion about “multiverses”- the possibility of an infinite number of universes of which our universe is only one. This is metaphysical speculation, strictly non-science as it is beyond empirical observation and testability. Yet if somebody joined the conversation to suggest that seeing our universe as a creation also accounted for the “fine-tuning” of its physical properties that render the emergence of carbon-based life-forms possible, she would be derided and excluded for bringing “religious metaphysics” into physics.

Ignorance and its close cousin, arrogance, are found on all sides; and this is what makes talking about such matters in the media difficult. On the one hand there is a popular Christian media in the USA, with well-endowed institutions and publishing houses that still vilify evolution and promote either six-day creationism or Intelligent Design. Many evangelical churches in the non-Western world are influenced by them, partly because serious works of theology that distinguish the doctrine of creation from “creationism”  (and evolution from “evolutionism”) are not well marketed. Also, just like the BBC reporters, most Christians too prefer “sound bytes” and easy answers to complex questions. Writers like myself who have dealt with these subjects at length (in both my Gods that Fail and chapter five of Subverting Global Myths), or the websites of the Faraday Institute (UK) and the Biologos Foundation are competing in a popular church culture that is largely anti-intellectual and fearful of dialogue. So much easier to just lob grenades over the church fence, even at other Christians, than engage in serious study and genuine conversations.

On the other hand, this defensive and hostile posture is an understandable reaction to the kind of mass media hype described above, or the aggressive rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett and others who have become the poster boys for Darwinism. A biochemist friend of mine in Cambridge once told me that his biggest complaint against Dawkins was that he had made many Christians reject evolution simply because he had tied it to his militant atheist project. Some scientists think that their competence in one field qualifies them to speak with authority about other fields.

Exaggerated claims for science and the authority of scientists produce equally exaggerated defensive reactions. Creationism is a product of exaggerated claims for biblical authority (treating the Bible as if it were a sourcebook on biology or geology, something it never claims to be); while Intelligent Design is simply poor theology disguised as science and thus gets whacked by mainstream theologians and mainstream scientists. But I would still defend their right to say what they believe in universities and elsewhere, provided they also welcome and listen to criticism from their fellow Christians and secular scholars.

It is a great pity that the language of creation has come to be focused today on debates about cosmology and biology. This muddies the waters. Men and women in the arts and humanities are unlikely to confuse different levels of causation, or ontological dependence with chronological origin, or think that creation implies determinism and control. However, as the British theologian Frances Young has proposed, with echoes of Karl Barth, a better analogy for God’s creative agency is not that of a master-craftsman or sculptor producing a perfect work of art, lying entirely passive in the creator’s hands; rather, “It is the father letting go, allowing the son to go to a far country, abandoning power over all that has come into existence, while waiting and encircling and enfolding it all in love.”

All such models and analogies are limited. What are the better ones that you have come across to describe the Triune God’s creative agency?

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10 Responses to "Rescuing Creation-Talk"

Thanks for this post Vinoth. Is it me … or do you not clearly articulate what your personal view of “creation” is in this article? You seem to be against both those who are radical evolutionists as well as those who are ardent creationists — thus I am led to believe that your view lies somewhere in the middle of these two poles. Nevertheless … you may have been crystal clear regarding your view and I may simply be too ignorant to notice.

Matthew,

I think you can get a better understanding of Vinoth’s view in God’s That Fail. As for myself, I grew up in the American South as a Southern Baptist. You were told that if you did not believe in a literal six-day creation, you were not a “Christian”. The more I studied and with help from people like Vinoth, I came to see that we impose our own modern scientific view on Genesis. Of course, imposing such a view on an ancient text is dangerous and does a disservice to the text. I would also suggest N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God. Thanks and let us continue the mission of God!

Thanks Zachary. I don´t want the blog to become a full-fledged debate on creation (unless of course that´s what Vinoth intends) — so I´ll be short. My view has always been a six-day literal creation, although I am aware that there are other views out there. I didn´t come to my conclusion by imposing a scientific view on the Genesis account, but rather I allowed Genesis to speak for itself. If God is in fact God, why couldn´t God create the world in a literal six day event(s)? Why couldn´t intelligent design be a plausible theory of causation and creation? Overall, though, I would not go so far as to say that if one holds to a different view of creation that they are not a Christian. The Bible is a theological/historical book more than it is a science book.

Also … I too come from a pretty conservative American evangelical background, but I don´t think I fit into the box most others place us in. I now live in Europe.

Matthew,
I’m not saying this to pick on you. I also grew up in a conservative church and believed that the six-day account (and young earth creationism) was the ONLY way to read the bible with any seriousness. I also thought that it was what the scriptures were saying themselves. But as I began to study and learn about older methods of reading the scriptures – such as through the Church Fathers and Jewish rabbis – I found that NONE of them thought the literalness of those passages were in the least important. They saw the meaning as important, and they did not confuse that – as we have in the modern age – as a means of writing factual history. To read it as a factual history is to read it in such a way that it wasn’t meant to be read or understand.

@jasdye: It´s a matter of interpretation and hermeneutics. If one is more (or mostly) literal in one´s interpretation(s), then one believes as I do. If one is less literal, then one assumes or believes something different. The argument then becomes whose form of interpretation is the most correct? John MacArthur would say literal/historical/grammatical and I assume Vinoth Ramachandra would say something different. Also … simply because the early church (i.e. church fathers) and Jewish rabbis saw the biblical revelation in a different light compared to that of modern day evangelicals, doesn´t make them more correct.

Also … I think these discussion about creation and evolution certainly have their place, but they often distract from the greater discussion about Jesus and knowing Him.

hi vinoth, very much agree on the need for a robust doctrine of creation.

on your last question, my vote would be for Herbert McCabe’s doctrine of creation….as with the rest of his work, well worth a look.

He manages to safeguard God’s complete and utter transcendence while not reverting to deism or God being powerless. Everything becomes a creative act of God not just creation itself or the so called miracles. God sustains all creation in being, all the time.

(interestingly, he is no fan of frances young, or the other ‘myth of god incarnate people…)

Are any of you aware that there is serious science being done by young earth creationists? Or are any who assume a literal 6-day creation considered too biased?

In teaching your children the scriptures, which Paul says Timothy was taught “from infancy”, do you see any dangers in giving your children the impression that they cannot sensibly understand the scriptures unless they consult historic interpretations of the scriptures? Is then God to be faulted for not providing these helpful insights in the first place?

Wouldn’t it be truly safer to rather teach children the pure scriptures, without regard to the “new ways” of looking at them?

In the U.S., many believers reinterpreted Genesis, during the time of the Scopes trial, based on supposed “facts” proving common descent; these same facts are now repudiated by *evolutionists” (vestigial organs and the like).

It seems I’ve found this post a year late but nevertheless I’ll respond.

I find it unhelpful that the term ‘creationist’ is often used synonymously with ‘young earth creationist (YECs)’. I affirm evolution and I am a creationist because I believe that YHWH created and continues to sustain his creation. Evolution is simply a process, whereas ‘naturalism’ is a philosophy which dispenses with God; and you can have one without the other.

When Christians dialogue, the foregoing is simply stated because it is uncontroversial, the issue is how we read the biblical text. For instance, Genesis One gives us a poetic account of creation. This is not a weakness or liberalism, the Psalms are the most frequently quoted Old Testament text within the New Testament, and they are songs and poetry. We need to start by recognising the genre we’re reading, and make sense of it accordingly.

Moreover, if you read the sermon on the mount you’ll notice that Jesus makes use of a lot of figurative language and poetic devices. However, it has been my experience that fundamentalists (those who chose to read all texts literally) are aware that Jesus doesn’t actually expect his followers to self-harm (chop off hands or gouge out eyes etc). Thus, even fundamentalists know how to read poetic language (if only when they don’t want to have to apply it literally).

All I ask of those who grew up in sheltered fundamentalist bubbles is that they seek to be more consistent in how they read the bible.

Klein,
The possibility that there are YECs doing serious science is not questioned. For instance, a given New Age practitioner may believe that everything in existence is an extension of the divine, and following from this belief, they may conclude that they are therefore god. The suggestion that someone could be incapable of engaging in serious science simply on the basis of what they believe is quite absurd (compartmentalising is not the only workaround available).

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