Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Slamming Down the Gauntlet, Pt. I

Today I was taken to task by an old friend for a) believing in theistic evolution (also known as 'old-earth creationism', or BioLogos), and for using humorous exaggeration to get my points across in a debate setting. Since I intend to address the former (evolution) in this treatise, I must warn/promise the reader that, while I will not deliberately belittle or ridicule anyone or their beliefs, I will nonetheless resort to the latter (satire) not because I wish to be funny or witty, but, because I must be sincere about what I believe to be a very serious issue, I must also be myself. Allow me to explain. A lot.

I was raised in a home where satire and parody were not only enjoyed, but were practically tools for survival. My mother was quick to skewer nonsense and stupidity, and since my siblings and I were non-fighters in a bullying society, we resorted to lampooning the bullies we couldn't do anything else about. Mom bought us Spike Jones records (the “Weird” Al of his day), reveled in 'Bullwinkle' (the 'Simpsons' of its day), and objected in the mildest possible terms to our discovery of 'Mad' Magazine. We soon learned that satire and parody are among the most powerful forms of social commentary, and we have been providing running commentary on society's downhill slide ever since.

C.S. Lewis describes his discovery of apologist G. K. Chesterton's works in this way:

His humour was of the kind I like best - not "jokes" imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the "bloom" on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly.

I cannot criticize that which I believe to be both deeply flawed and dangerous without pointing out the flaws and dangers in question, in my own way. That said, I will probably disappoint any who expect cleverness here. But for those who expect me to be all solemn and clinical, this would be a good time to navigate away from this piece and read something that will not challenge or offend you.

My friend asked me why I 'dig' BioLogos so much, as though it were a matter of personal taste. Can one have a 'taste for truth? Be a 'connoisseur' of truth, as though one truth were better than, or preferable to another? Well, I only prefer truth over falsehood, especially when I see said falsehood doing real, and unnecessary damage. BTW, I've addressed this issue here in two previous posts, titled 'How I Joined a Cult (Well, Not Quite, But...)' and 'Young Earth Atheism: An Idea Whose Time Has Come'. I recommend reading those before continuing here, because I'm going to get a lot more earnest in this post. If you dislike those, you'll hate this.

There is little I can add to the excellent work being done by the people at BioLogos, since I am not a scientist; rather, a musician with scientific inclinations. The attacks on BioLogos by evangelicals are rarely, if ever, leveled at its science per sé. The scientific credentials of those attacking from 'the Right' (as we will call them here) pale in comparison both with those of the BioLogos community and those attacking it from 'the Left' (i.e., the New Atheists and agnostics who attack it on the assumption that Science is the final authority on all matters.) Both face (or refuse to face) enormous obstacles posed by the proposition that all truth is God's truth, scientific truth included. At the risk of leaving gaping holes, I will attempt here to distill the conflict to a manageable size.

The theological issues with BioLogos involve an interpretation that leaves Scripture open to different levels of literal interpretation. Most mainline denominations (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) are comfortable with the idea of figurative language in the Bible, thus  also with the concept of a very old Universe. Metaphors abound in Holy Writ: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5). We're fine knowing that our Lord meant that He is our source of life and that without Him we can't do anything. "The LORD God is a Sun and Shield." (Psalms 84:11). Not even Ken Ham thinks that God is therefore a giant ball of burning gas, or a piece of armor, let alone both. I will not belabor the point; there are so many metaphors in the Bible that a lifetime of their study would yield limitless treasure and edification.

If my mention of mainline denominations caused you to roll your eyes and think of lesbian bishops or pedophile priests, fine. They (the denominations as a whole, not just the deviants) couldn't possibly be Christians. Their 'social gospel' is just a front for some some horrible conspiracy. When they affirm the classic ecumenical creeds, they really mean Mother Earth, the Cosmic Oneness, New Age blather. You're a Christian, they aren't. They're liberal. You're conservative, so you're saved. Congratulations.

I warned you – going so soon? C. S. Lewis says “Christianity is a fighting religion.” Don't wimp out on me. My faith was hard won – I was raised New Age, nearly killed myself living a rock 'n' roll lifestyle, struggled to come to grips with Jesus, and was eventually sent by Him to 22 nations to share His love. I have nothing to gain by watering down Christianity. Have none of you ever had to admit you were wrong about something? Never been conclusively refuted? Well then you're omniscient, and you're wasting your time reading a blog post by a used guitar player. Now go and spread your infinite knowledge where it will do some good, and leave us heathen alone.

I also need to warn you that I will quote C. S. Lewis at will, he being the single biggest influence on my thinking. His thoughts on understanding the various literary devices in Scripture have helped me reconcile biblical difficulties and get on with the greater good of helping people be reconciled to God. Many in Lewis' day called him a 'fundamentalist', and he made many enemies by championing basic, or 'mere' Christianity and a vibrant, supernatural faith. He did this without insisting that God is an actual blast furnace (Hebrews 12:29) or that Jesus is somehow made of wood (John 10:9). If his theology offends you, so will mine. (I recommend 'Reflections on the Psalms' or 'Miracles' for those who wish to see how one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time worshiped God 'with all his mind' [Luke 10:27].)

Both extremes in this debate are guilty of trespassing. The Young Earth Creationists (YEC) purport to refute mainstream science with theology. I agree that sound doctrine is non-negotiable, and indispensable. But not being content to affirm the Deity of Christ, the Atonement, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, etc., they seek to shoehorn what Paul calls 'disputable matters' (Romans 14) into the qualifications for REAL Bible believers. If mainstream science empirically demonstrates the existence of millions and billions of years, say, through measurable interstellar and intergalactic distances, then YEC immediately assumes that mainstream science is not only wrong, but conspiratorially so. If a scientific observation (however ordinary) contradicts MY interpretation of Genesis, then we must find an alternative, however implausible. Hence the wild YEC proposition that the speed of light has become exponentially much, MUCH slower than it was originally, allowing for vast intergalactic distances over which light has traversed over a few thousand years, rather than the observable billions of years determined by astronomers (who must all be hushing up or willfully ignoring the data supporting a universe created several thousand years after the most recent Ice Age, itself a lie perpetrated by the godless in order to make it seem that woolly mammoths had some sort of excuse to be woolly in the first place.)

And in THIS corner, the New Atheists! Bolstered by whatever scientific breakthrough (i.e., the Higgs Boson particle) is in the headlines this week, they trumpet the obvious conclusion: There is NO NEED for GOD! The Big Bang is now known to have resulted from a "random fluctuation in a quantum anomaly" – look Ma, no God! Oh, and MULTIVERSE proves that there is NO NEED for GOD!

Oh, crap, here comes a six-year old. “Cool! Where did THAT come from?” Well, kid, the laws of causality break down at that point, so your question is meaningless. “Cool! Where did the laws that broke down come from?”

I don't give a flying buttress how many answers you give that kid, he will NEVER be satisfied by your attempts to put new clothes on your emperor. You may think that “In the beginning GOD made the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) is some sort of cop-out. A fairy tale. The problem is, the Universe had a beginning, and will clearly have an end. It's finite. You don't have to believe in a First Cause, but for you to insist that there is no need for one is not only illogical, but arrogant and irrelevant. Religion addresses that which science cannot address, just as theology cannot arbitrarily contradict that which science has demonstrated empirically (as did the Church when it tried to use Scripture to refute Galileo's heliocentric solar system, for which she found it necessary to apologize, albeit not until a few years ago.)

It will be noticed that I have not touched the theory of evolution. It would be folly to talk about natural selection if anybody thought the universe were only 6,000 years old. I may try to address it in another article, but right now we're simply trying to set the stage for meaningful dialogue. My friend who sparked this diatribe insists that theology, which formerly (and rightly) had its place in the ethics of scientific inquiry, should now be the final authority for scientific inquiry. This is akin to insisting that all molecular biologists should be ordained rabbis. Both may be authorities in their respective disciplines, but the likelihood of the one being qualified to refute the other in his field of expertise is remote indeed. Religion may tell science how to explore the universe (i.e., no cruelty to animals in the name of research), but not what to find out (i.e., the Earth revolves around the Sun.). Likewise, science 'finding out that God doesn't exist' is NOT SCIENCE.

The first to state his case seems right, until his opponent begins to cross-examine him.” (Proverbs 18:17, New English Translation.) I have entreated my YEC friend to read Dr. Francis Collins' 'The Language of God', which is the best harmonization of science and Christianity I have yet read. I don't think he's interested – people will believe what they WANT to believe, and the truth is uncomfortable, even if it will set you free (John 8:32). And here is where I throw down the gauntlet. Hard.

I firmly insist that if you haven't objectively and honestly examined both sides of a controversy, YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO AN OPINION. (See the quotation from Proverbs 18 in the last paragraph.) You can criticize, jeer, vilify, talk smack all day about something, but if it's wrong, it doesn't need to be ridiculed or reviled, it needs to be REFUTED. I said, and I repeat,  REFUTED. Point-by-point. If the Hubble Space Telescope is sending us bad data, send up your own orbiting observatory and get us some GOOD data. If Collins' explanation of natural selection rubs you the wrong way, don't get all riled up – show us the errors in his logic. Expose his bad science, not with theology, but with good science. Theology is vital, but it is wildly irrelevant to a materialist geneticist, who may in fact be open to the supernatural, but not when it says things that contradict the most solid and reliable research in his own field.

Science, whether practiced by atheists or others, has no authority to speak into a realm that begins where theirs ends. (Concepts such as multiple, or even an infinite number of universes still beg the question of their origin, or the origin of their origin, ad nauseum.) One may be an honest atheist, but have you ever met one that WISHED God existed? Please let me know. Likewise, YECers (even those who have managed to obtain degrees in science) are not qualified to contradict the most empirically demonstrable data mainstream science can provide. Don't bother flaming me with rebukes about my worldview; explain, calmly, how and why Dr. Collins is wrong. And don't use your particular interpretation of the Bible. Science (good science, anyway) is based on observation and logic. I do not recognize Fundamentalism's authority to trump the speed of light, or plate tectonics, or paleontology. BioLogos has been favorably vetted by respectable Christian leaders such as Jack Hayford, Os Guinness, Philip Yancey – even Pat Robertson and the Pope himself are fine with God taking a long time to create all this. I suppose you're a better theologian than THEY are? I thought so.

I am qualified to write on this subject because I spent the first 14 years of my Christian life as a Young Earth Creationist. I read the books, wrote the letters to the editor, argued with all the right people, attended the debates. But when I was finally confronted with the compelling scientific evidence for a very old Universe, I did the only right thing – I admitted I'd been wrong. Pride will make you cling to an ideology just to be consistent. You're not consistent. You're just predictable. You value 'your' truth over God's truth. These are harsh words, and many of you will not have read this far. All truth is God's truth. If Jesus truly was born of a virgin, then that's God's truth, one that changes everything. If He rose from the dead, then the kingdom of darkness is well and truly screwed. (I originally used a much more colorful metaphor, but I toned it down because I'm afraid people would show up with pitchforks and torches.)

In 14 years I never managed to convince one single person that they could be reconciled to God by believing that the Universe had a 'Wet Paint' sign on it. (And I tried.) The Good News is that -

He came down from heaven: 
by the power of the Holy Spirit 
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
and was made man. 
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 
he suffered death and was buried. 
On the third day he rose again 
in accordance with the Scriptures; 
he ascended into heaven 
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 
and his kingdom will have no end. 

I love science, but science has nothing to say about that. Christianity is being unjustly subject to criticism that should instead be directed at fringe fundamentalism. Those outside the Faith often don't know the difference between the two. Then, when the YEC camp proposes to speak for us all, they cause unbelievers to stumble over Truth and reject her Author. It's hard to swallow one's pride and shutter the Creation Museum, but until they do (or at least change it up to reflect the most basic scientific truth), it will be just one more excuse for the unbeliever to shake his head and say, “Thank God I'm an atheist!”