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A theology based on science

This is divergence: the same day that the New York Times publishes a (not quite) credulous review of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, Jerry Harp explores what it would mean to develop a “theology based on science.”

On the one hand, the Creation Museum is a monument of narrative invention. Tableau after tableau tells a story of how the world came to be as it is today. In the Garden of Eden, even after the Fall but before the Flood, men, women, and children lived in peace with the dinosaurs; together they frolicked in the forest. But sin ate at the world, and it needed to be cleansed by the Flood, which had unintended consequences of creating millions of fossils as well as the Grand Canyon. God’s testimony is passed from generation to generation, to Israel, to Jesus, to Martin Luther, even to the Creation Museum, which witnesses to the world against Science. Whatever claim Science makes the Creation Museum cries “Not so!”: “Chameleons change their color to survive, you say? Not so! They’re really God’s mood ring. And they talk!” “You say that the story of creation is a story that may be more metaphor than fact? Not so! Your metaphors destroy the very foundations of faith!” The Museum’s story of the world claims God’s creation is best so long as Science isn’t part of it.

Harp argues that science reveals God’s creation to be significant. Necessary in a theology based on science are two understandings. The first is that theophany takes place within history; the second is that history continues. Knowing how God was revealed in the past helps shape, but does not finalize how God is revealed now. Harp explains,

Articulating a theology based on science means carrying out the enterprise of theological reflection from within a sense of the universe that science has disclosed to us, a universe in which our planet is billions of years old, one in which the basic elements that make up the earth long ago began to combine into basic organisms that increased in complexity through a long evolution, an evolution that still goes on, leading to the very human consciousness that develops theories about the earth, writes novels, makes movies, and so on…. A theology that takes seriously what science has disclosed about the universe, a theology that lives within the contemporary moment… is one that emphasizes process, multiformity, multivalence, complexity, and the human person as embodied consciousness.

A theology based on science allows science’s descriptions of the world to ground God in the world, even to call into question the very notion of transcendence itself. It allows the ancient metaphor of God walking through the garden to be an act which doesn’t end with the advent of sin: God walks now as God walked then, always present and accounted for.

It’s obvious to me that the former is cold: creation museums will eventually collapse; their animatronic dinosaurs will fall still because the story they tell is contrived, its interpretation of creation itself too shallow to last. The other, though still in infancy, is necessary if the church is to be at all relevant to the world.



one could say, that this is the tack taken, even before the advent of Christ, in such books as parts of Proverbs and Psalms and Ecclesiastes, that is, the Wisdom tradition, with its close ties to Creation and Creation history, were not just the philosophic voice of the Hebrew tradition, but one that validating the knowing of God through the world and the knowledge one gained from observation.

of course, to link up with this tradition means eschewing the O.T., except as allegory and prefiguration of the N.T., hermeneutics… and, even, expanding the borders of the cannon to include apocrypha and rabbinical writings.

Yay! What I do is important! Thanks hermits!

Relevant here is a review, by Steven Pinker, of Natalie Angier’s The Canon (the book, too, is relevant). Too many people, Pinker argues, are scientifically illiterate. There are significant costs to this illiteracy:

Though we live in an era of stunning scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. People who would sneer at the vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics. Most of our intellectual magazines discuss science only when it bears on their political concerns or when they can portray science as just another political arena. As the nation’s math departments and biotech labs fill up with foreign students, the brightest young Americans learn better ways to sue one another or to capitalize on currency fluctuations. And all this is on top of our nation’s endless supply of New Age nostrums, psychic hot lines, creationist textbook stickers and other flimflam.

The costs of an ignorance of science are not just practical ones like misbegotten policies, forgone cures and a unilateral disarmament in national competitiveness. There is a moral cost as well. It is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it’s made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse.

Much of what places like the creation museum offer is misunderstandings and distortions of science itself—its claims and its processes, its very intentions. This is the case not simply because Christians are scientifically ignorant, but because most people, American and otherwise, are.

2: Your increased relevance is our gain!

at the danger of stating the obvious, that was a very well-written review article.

I thought the same as I was reading. It’s rare that I feel like the reviewer has assessed a book’s value as thoroughly—and as succinctly—as that.

The part about the vulgarians, etc. reminded me of a quote from Pinker’s ally, Larry Summers:

“We live in a society, and dare I say a university,” Summers proclaimed, “where few people would confess to not having read any plays by Shakespeare or to not knowing the meaning of the categorical imperative, but where it is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome or the meaning of exponential growth.”

I’m starting to wonder now, is Harvard really that snooty? Outside of the English department, no one in Oxbridge would ever disdain a person for not having read Shakespeare, Woolf, or Kant.

Come to think of it, you would actually be much more likely to be disdained for not knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome. And you don’t understand exponential growth?? What are you, retarded?

@5 & 6 Agreed. I’ve been reading all these usability books lately, and I’ve begun to think that what is true of machines may also be true of text: if I don’t understand it, it’s not necessarily that I’m stupid—it may be that the machine is poorly designed or the prose poorly written. (Of course, my students were always complaining to me that they didn’t understand the things they were supposed to read, so I’m not sure about that last one.)

@Steven Pinker, I totally beat you on this point.

Your link in 9, L, makes me wish for you to have a column, again. While both of your teachers had successes to point at, the latter appears to have been most adept at limiting her population. In the department where I work we see differences like that all the time, especially among math teachers, as if they hold the assumption that one either has a natural affinity for math or one doesn’t; encouragement is unheard of as is adjustment and development from the bottom up.

7: You’re right, Summers does his best to make it sound like Harvard’s snootier than a rich kid at Christmas. People admit never having read Shakespeare all the time in Iowa, too.

When the subject comes up, that is. Which it doesn’t, often.

The Guardian covers the Creation museum, too. (I like how New York’s deranged and deformed homeless help explain away Australopithecus.)