Commentator and rock demigod James Poulos cut to the quick in the debate on "creation" earlier this week between the pseudoscience peddler Ken Ham and the pop-science celebra-geek Bill Nye.
Too true. The debate couldn't have been more point-missing if it tried. But let's dig into it anyway.
The Bible begins and ends in the same way. The creation narratives in Genesis and the lightning-strike visions of St. John's Apocalypse (Revelation) are primarily liturgical texts. To be a little simpleminded: They are blueprints and party plans for what we moderns now lamely call "worship spaces."
Genesis describes the created world and the Garden of Eden like a temple, and Adam's duties therein are outlined in terms of worship and priestly service. Revelation describes the heavenly Jerusalem and the worship of all the saints, martyrs, and angels in the heavenly temple. It measures this city of God in cubits of gold brick and precious jewels. These liturgical blueprints informed and inspired the construction and worship within the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem and every Christian sanctuary worthy of the name across the planet.
And let me emphasize something important: What I just described is the "literal" interpretation of these Biblical texts. When I say Genesis and Revelation are a kind of divine architecture course, I'm taking the text on its own terms. It may be spitting into the storm of common idioms, but to be a literalist is to read poetry as poetry, history as history, and parable as parable.
It took until about the late 19th century and hundreds of years of liturgical self-demolition within the Protestant tradition for this rich understanding of Genesis and Revelation to be reduced to a replacement science textbook and a ripped-from-the-headlines Michael Bay–style blockbuster. Six-day-ism, the theory of the Rapture, and even the juvenile "How many bricks?" re-reading of Revelation by Jehovah's Witnesses are all modern phenomena.
However, at the risk of looking the fool, may I offer a confession, laced with a little whimsy? In most times and most places, I have a load of sympathy and even admiration for six-day creationists, "young Earthers," and fundamentalists. As the debate between Ham and Nye unfolded, I found myself more and more disgusted with some of the self-styled "sophisticated" Christians performing their giggles at Ham for all the world to see.
There was something just a little ugly about all these Christians rushing up to their platforms, drawing attention to the sweat on their brow, putting a concerned look upon their faces, and proclaiming that fundamentalism is a "modern" error. And then when they were sure everyone was listening, lifted up their eyes heavenward to pray, "God, I thank you that I am not like this mouth-breather Ken Ham." With a great urgency, but very little understanding of cosmology or the various theories of evolution, they recited their absolute fidelity to these theories. These anxious-to-please Christians were telling important truths, but in the spirit of a lie.
It's a pose, barely more literate in science than the creationism it opposes as illiteracy. The Big Bang and evolution are subject to further refinement and perhaps dramatic refutation on evidentiary terms. To submit to the authority of science does not mean to place one's personal and irrevocable imprimatur on today's most supported theories. It simply means accepting the rational process of investigating claims about nature through rigorous observation and experimentation. What does it mean when laymen say they "believe in" a scientific theory? Must they decide between Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins on "punctuated equilibrium?" Who is supposed to be impressed by these declarations?
On the other hand, I've always found those Christians who hold to six-day accounts of man's origin difficult to refute and even more difficult to despise. There is a certain strength and flexibility to their tautology. Further, even though they're wrong on the science, they are right about the things that really matter to the human heart and to human civilization.
All orthodox Christians agree with the theological statement that God created the world ex nihilo — that is, out of nothing. And so it is a kind of nonsense to say that the fundamentalist is refuted by the fact that the speed of light travels thus and so, and we can see light from stars much, much further than 6,000 light-years away. Do we really think that a God who daubs the great blackness with burning stars cannot hang their light as well? It would be like saying a carpenter cannot paint a piece of crown molding before it is installed.
A thought experiment helps here. If we could time-warp a team of scientists to the sixth day of a universe according to the most childish reading of Genesis, the geologists would look at mountains shaped just days earlier and say they showed millions of years of geologic change in their formation. Biologists would stumble over a naked man who looks about 30 years of age, when he was plopped there a few hours ago. This conundrum belongs to all theists, not just fundamentalists. Any theory of creation, even one that leaves maximal room for today's most authoritative scientific theories about the origins of the universe and man, is a deus ex machina.
My own view is that a literal one-week creation should be ruled out because, combined with the best knowledge we have of science, it would make God into a devil, a trickster. "Haha, mortals, I only buried these dinosaur bones and set the galaxies in explosive motion so the unbelievers would damn themselves to Hell," doesn't sound like a great or loving God. It seems to me that the very idea of good, eternal, law-giving God endowing man with rational abilities was the historical prerequisite for scientific exploration.
Of today's scientific theories, at least to my untrained mind, it seems that the laws of nature are sometimes very suggestive of their origins, and sometimes rather elusive about them. There's no need for a "God of the gaps" when the universe we progressively discover testifies to beauty, order, and majesty so well.
So I do not think that Ken Ham–style creationists should get to rewrite biology textbooks according to their very peculiar reading of Scripture. But I admire their bullheadedness. They have gotten lost in the woods while trying to protect the big truths of Christianity: that God created the world, that we are dependent on him, that we owe him everything, and that he loves us even though we are sinful. In the world most of us inhabit, day to day, the world of lovers, wriggling kids, disease, war, and death, the sureness of God's love is relevant in a way that the details of early hominid fossils never will be, glorious as they are. Have some perspective, people.
In protecting that big truth of creation — that we are all made in God's image and all endowed with supreme dignity — fundamentalists zealously guard things that follow logically from that. Things like the commandment "Thou shall not murder." Anti-evolutionists often set themselves against "Darwinian theory" because they deplored social Darwinism, eugenics, and other evils that seemed to spring forth from minds overexcited by the latest theories of man's origin.
If Ken Ham is getting rich telling things he knows to be false, he's a shameless fraud. But the bulk of creation's fundamentalists are deeply sincere. And, better than that, they are willing to be, in St. Paul's words "fools for Christ's sake." They do not live for the world's esteem. And so when the world next discovers a sophisticated ideology to get around "Thou shall not murder," I'd rather have one cussed fundie next to me than the whole army of eye-rolling Christians lining up to denounce him.