Perspectives on Faith & Science

Off the keyboard of Ashvin Pandurangi

Published inside the Doomstead Diner on August 1, 2013

Discuss this article at the Spirituality & Mysticism Table inside the Diner

Finding the Proper Perspective on Faith and Science:

A Rebuttal of John Michael Greer’s, The Quest for Common Language

*All quotations attributed to John Michael Greer in green are sourced from the following two articles, and all emphasis on such quotations are mine – 1) Held Hostage by Progress ; 2) The Quest for Common Language

In two back-to-back articles, John Michael Greer of The Archdruid Report has strayed away from his general rule to avoid making arguments about specific religions. Here is a clear case, in my opinion, in which rules are NOT meant to be broken…

In Greer’s view, conservative Christians who interpret the Bible “literally” are not accurately representing the Faith. Instead, they are inserting scientific assertions into the Bible where, in fact, there are none. I understand that this is a very common view among “liberal/progressive” Christians and religious non-Christians. BUT, I have yet to come across ANY Biblical evidence to support such an ahistorical and simplistic view of the rich Biblical traditions that have been preserved for posterity.

While denigrating the Christians who find scientific truths in THEIR religious traditions (i.e. the Bible), Greer seems to take great pride in alleging that HIS religious tradition promoted biological evolution before Darwin even came on the scene. Apparently, what’s good for the goose is not what’s good for the gander. As support, Greer quotes “part of a ritual dialogue” that features prominently in his religion:

“The traditions of modern Druidry, the faith I follow, actually embraced biological evolution even before Darwin provided a convincing explanation for it. Here’s part of a ritual dialogue from the writings of Edward Williams (1747-1826), one of the major figures of the early Druid Revival:

“Q. Where art thou now, and how camest thou to where thou art?”

“A. I am in the little world, whither I came, having traversed the circle of Abred, and now I am a man at its termination and extreme limits.”

“Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man in the circle of Abred?”

“A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of man along the circle of Abred.”

Greer then explains that this ritual continues on, but the above is enough to “give the flavor and some core ideas”. OK… now compare this ritual dialogue with the opening verses of Genesis Chapter 1 (NIV, 1-13):

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.”

(like Greer’s Druid ritual dialogue, this descriptive narrative continues on at some length…)

Can anyone look at these two sources of religious tradition and honestly claim that one contains scientific assertions while the other does not? It strains all reason and credulity to claim that the author of Genesis did not INTEND to make positive assertions about the origins of the Universe, the Earth and life on Earth; assertions that are clearly within the remit of scientific inquiry. Contrary to prevailing opinion, the principle of “Biblical literalism” has always been centered on the INTENDED meaning of Biblical texts rather than a wooden interpretation of specific words used. Greer attempts to sweep away this centuries long-tradition of interpretation with the following claim:

“Third, the value of the Bible—or of any other scripture—does not depend on whether it makes a good geology textbook, any more than the value of a geology textbook depends on whether it addresses the salvation of the soul. I don’t know of any religion in which faith and practice center on notions of how the Earth came into existence and got its current stock of living things. Certainly the historic creeds of Christianity don’t even consider the issue worth mentioning. The belief that God created the world does not require believing any particular claim about how that happened; nor does it say in the Bible that the Bible has to be taken literally, or that it deals with questions of geology or paleontology at all.”

The loosely constructed straw-man used above claims that the Bible is not a “geology textbook” – the implication being, anyone who finds scientific assertions in the Bible is treating it as such a textbook and failing to notice its primary theological purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any serious and considered reading of the Bible reveals that Biblical theology cannot be artificially separated out from culture, politics, history, science or anything else. While the theology may not “center” on how the Universe, Earth and life came into existence, those issues are certainly featured FRONT AND CENTER, and the Biblical authors make no qualms about doing so.

JMG wrote the following in his first foray into the hypocritical bashing of “conservative” Christians:

“Nonetheless “Thou shalt not evolve” got turned into an ersatz Eleventh Commandment, and devout Christians exercised their ingenuity to the utmost to find ways to ignore the immense and steadily expanding body of evidence from geology, molecular biology, paleontology, and genetics that backed Darwin’s great synthesis.”

Although Greer is specifically dealing with Darwinian evolution here, the implication is that Christians are going way beyond the scope of the Bible’s intended message when they make scientific debate a part of their evangelical ministry or mission. It makes you wonder, when is the last time JMG actually read the Ten Commandments??

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20: 8-11)

Who can read the above and yet still claim there is no connection between the origin narratives of Genesis 1 and the theological discourse of Exodus, specifically Moses’ interaction with God on Mount Sinai. Regardless of whether you believe any of what is described in the Bible actually happened, it’s nearly impossible to deny that the author(s) of Genesis and Exodus intended to communicate a great intersection between God’s creation of the Universe and God’s personal relationship with humanity. We find this intersection between God’s creation of the Universe and DELIVERANCE of humanity repeatedly reinforced throughout the traditions of the Biblical prophets:

It is I who made the earth and created mankind on it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts. I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness. I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward” (Isaiah 45:12-13)

On top of ignoring such clear assertions in the Bible, Greer, in what can only be best characterized as a gross neglect of Christian history, cites the “historic creeds of the Christian churches” as evidence that the Bible was not intended to contain scientific truths which reflect on core theology. He claims that conservative Christians should get back to the primary message of these creeds, but fails to mention the wealth of historic Christian theologians and scientists (usually both) who read their Bibles and concluded the exact opposite of what Greer professes. After all, the rallying cry of the Christian Reformation movement was sola scriptura – that core Christian theology is not based on the Creeds of any church, but rather on scripture itself.

Leading “natural philosophers” of the Reformation era, with increased access to scripture and confidence in God’s word, confirmed that the study of the natural world is not distinct from the study of God’s glory and love revealed in scripture, but instead that the pursuit of both studies are INEXTRICABLY linked together as we ask the basic metaphysical questions about human existence, nature and purpose. The following are quotes by some of those courageous Christians who were at the forefront of the Scientific Revolution.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543)
“To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1627)
“It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it needs fly to Providence and Deity.”

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
“Geometry is one and eternal shining in the mind of God. That share in it accorded to humans is one of the reasons that humanity is the image of God.”

Gelileo Galilei (1564-1642)
“It seems to me that it was well said by Madama Serenissima, and insisted on by your reverence, that the Holy Scripture cannot err, and that the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. But I should have in your place added that, though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways”

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
“Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate, and justly convinced. But to those who do not have it, we can give it only by reasoning, waiting for God to give them spiritual insight, without which faith is only human, and useless for salvation.”

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
“The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
“The human mind is placed above, and not beneath it, and it is in such a point of view that the mental education afforded by science is rendered super-eminent in dignity, in practical application and utility; for by enabling the mind to apply the natural power through law, it conveys the gifts of God to man.”

Robert Boyle (1791-1867)
“shewing that, being addicted to experimental philosophy a man is rather assisted than indisposed to be a good Christian.”

The quotes above only scratch the surface of what these men believed about the role of God’s word in science and vice versa, and obviously the list of people and number of quotes could continue. The point here is not that the Bible is inerrant when it deals with scientific matters, but that, contrary to Greer’s assertions, it DOES deal with scientific matters. As proof of fact, we see that all of the scientists above relied heavily on Biblical assertions when conducting scientific investigation – i.e. that the material Universe had a distinct beginning, was created by an Intelligent Mind and therefore it was governed by fixed, uniform and intelligible laws that humans could use to understand its workings and, more importantly, personally relate to its Creator.

It was only the Modernist era which gave rise to the widespread (and dangerous) belief that science and religion must be kept in separate “containers” of consideration and discussion, where never the twain shall meet. Greer, perhaps without knowing it, is simply reinforcing this artificial dualistic or “binary” mode of thinking that he often laments when discussing other topics. The question is not whether conservative Christians are right or wrong about Darwinian evolution based on modern scientific evidence, but whether there is any Biblical basis for them to argue that certain scientific theories are in tension with Biblical theology, and therefore make such arguments a part of their Christian ministry or mission in life.

The answer to this question from Greer’s perspective is a resounding NO. His only support for this answer, however, is the artificial duality that he imposes on the Bible and those of faith. It is true that many Western conservative Christians ignore proper scientific inquiry and simply attack theories on the basis of what they have been taught to believe. That fact is clear enough from the widespread conservative Christian critique of Big Bang cosmology. This critique is just as harsh if not more harsh than attacks on evolutionary theory, despite the fact that Big Bang cosmology supports the Bible’s claim of a beginning to all space, time, energy and matter!

Many of them have simply been taught to equate the Big Bang with “evolution”, thoroughly mixing up the sciences of cosmology and biology in the process. So it’s true that such ignorance and blind passion is prevalent, but Greer’s assertion here is also trite and irrelevant. He is trying to base an entire argument about historic Christianity, Biblical interpretation, science and theology on this one trite observation. Therein lies the binary mentality he fails to recognize in his own thinking (the following is MY take on his thinking):

“Either you are ignorant and blindly impassioned like THOSE Christians, or you are ‘progressive’ and well-versed in modern science like US”…

“Either you read the Bible ‘literally’ like THOSE Christians, or you read it metaphorically and allegorically like US”…

“Either the Bible is a scientific TEXTBOOK or it has ABSOLUTELY NO relation to science at all”…

The truth about the Bible is not so dualistic and simple. Like most good literature, it contains many different genres and literary devices – historical narratives, biographies, apocalyptic writing, military accounts, love stories, poetry, parables, metaphors, allegory, etc. The intention is not to create fiction or obscure reality but to convey truths about reality in brilliantly impactful ways. There is no reason to say that these truths are limited to “theological” truths rather than historical or scientific ones, or that those fields do not overlap and complement one another in the Bible. Such an argument presents an artificial and unnecessary duality, one that was NEVER incorporated into the historic Christian faith.

On the contrary, and as the evidence above makes clear, the historic Christian faith held to by many “conservative” members of the Church today has made no qualms that its theological messages are deeply intertwined with its historical and scientific assertions (or data points, if you will). Nowhere is this Biblical truth made more evident than in the very heart of Christian doctrine – the incarnation, ministry, death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in the region of Palestine during the first century AD. Christians assert that the entire Bible from front to back revolves around and points to this one God-man – the divine Logos, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), through whom “all things were made” (1:3).

Greer asserts that the core of Christianity is faith and grace, which is TRUE, but then requires Bible-believing Christians to greatly suspend their disbelief when asserting that the Christian faith is not compatible with, or cannot be based on, intellectual and rational inquiry into other fields of knowledge.

“This, of course, is what a great many religions have been saying all along. In most of the religions of the west, and many of those from other parts of the world, faith is a central theme, and faith is not a matter of passing some kind of multiple choice test; it’s not a matter of the intellect at all; rather, it’s the commitment of the whole self to a way of seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms”

The above is an exceptional encapsulation of Modernist dogma regarding religion. Greer has now thoroughly associated himself with the thinkers and pundits of the last few centuries who have attempted to quarantine spirituality from logic, reason and empirical evidence. It should be readily apparent how absurd this dogma really is when stripped down to its bare essentials. But, seeing as how I stand on the shoulder of pre-modernist giants, I will conclude this rebuttal by quoting Paul’s famous argument in 1 Corinthians 15, which flatly contradicts much of what Greer has asserted in his recent articles. Paul takes Greer’s grossly misleading, ahistorical caricature of Christianity and puts the Faith back into its proper historical perspective.

“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (12-19)
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