September 23, 2020

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 5.

Chapter 7 is entitled, Not Even Wrong: How Science Releases the Bible from Literalism. This is an important chapter for Wallace’s target audience; which is Southern Baptists.  Wallace himself was raised in Atlanta, Georgia in a conservative Southern Baptist church.  He was taught in Sunday School that the Earth was created in six twenty-four hour days, that Adam and Eve were the first two humans on the planet and the progenitors of the entire human race, that Noah gathered all the animals on an ark and God flooded the entire planet to the top of the highest mountains while killing every other living thing other than Noah and his passengers. To take an opinion contrary to the literal reading of the Bible was to call God’s honesty into question, to compromise the faith, and to side with unbelievers: tantamount to apostasy.  As Wallace noted in Chapter 1:

During high school and college, I thought I had to choose between these two options, and I chose science, which struck me as grown-up and real.  Beside it, faith seemed childish and made-up, like a crutch for people who couldn’t handle facts.  God, I thought, was something you’re supposed to believe in until you learn physics.

The problem is literalism.  The problem is not taking the scriptures as inspired or “God-breathed”.  The problem is not having an atheistic worldview versus having a Christian worldview.  The problem is not taking the word of infallible men who weren’t there versus the infallible word of God who was there as an eyewitness.  The problem is interpreting the Bible with a hermeneutic that assumes the modern (post-Enlightenment) rationalistic viewpoint and treats the scriptures as modern documents.  As Chaplain Mike said in this post the proper interpretation of scripture with regards to science follows these guidelines:

My first commitment is to reading the Biblical text carefully. I believe the narratives of Genesis 1-11 are: (A) Theological in nature, not scientific or even “historical” in the sense that we have come to expect in modern terms; (B) Written in the genre of Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies that reflect the “science” of the day, not of our time; (C) Written to be read in the context of the story of the entire Torah with language and lessons appropriate to its target audience, and can therefore be understood fully only by appreciating the setting and author’s intention; (D) Written primarily to point us to Jesus Christ, the Gospel, and the New Creation.

Wallace gives a brief description of the time dilation effect as predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  He then notes Gerald Schroeder (Orthodox Jewish physicist, author, lecturer and teacher at College of Jewish Studies Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Seminar, Essentials and Fellowships programs and Executive Learning Center) use of time dilation to reconcile the age of the universe with the six days of Genesis. Schroeder attempts to reconcile a six-day creation as described in Genesis with the scientific evidence that the world is billions of years old using the idea that the perceived flow of time for a given event in an expanding universe varies with the observer’s perspective of that event. He attempts to reconcile the two perspectives numerically, calculating the effect of the stretching of space-time, based on Einstein’s general relativity. Namely, that from the perspective of the point of origin of the Big Bang, according to Einstein’s equations of the ‘stretching factor’, time dilates by a factor of roughly 1,000,000,000,000, meaning one trillion days on earth would appear to pass as one day from that point, due to the stretching of space. When applied to the estimated age of the universe at 13.8 billion years, from the perspective of the point of origin, the universe today would appear to have just begun its sixth day of existence, or if the universe is 15 billion years old from the perspective of earth, it would appear to have just completed its sixth day.   Wallace says:

It’s possible to look at the Bible this way, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  Schroeder’s attempt at reconciliation through relativity reminds me of a remark once made by Wolfgang Pauli, one of the architects of quantum mechanics.  Late in Pauli’s career, a colleague brought him a paper written by a young physicist who hoped to hear what the great scientist thought of it.  After taking a look, he handed it back to his colleague and said sadly, “It’s not even wrong”.

Wallace says that sometimes an answer to a question comes from a perspective so removed from and so out of touch with the question itself that it cannot even be said to be wrong.  Imagine asking someone the meaning of life and their answer comes back, “Forty two”.  Or imagine asking someone how far it is to the next gas station and they reply, “The Battle of Hastings”.  Such responses do not even rise to the level of being wrong.

Schroeder makes a similar mistake when he applies the intricacies of twentieth-century theoretical physics to an ancient religious text.  The book of Genesis emerged out of a particular cultural context and was written for a particular theological purpose.  It tells us who we are and who God is.  It aligns us with the deepest truths about ourselves — our creativity, our joys, our hopes, our fears, our capacities for great love and great evil – and it accounts for the beauty and rationality of creation.  It does all of this using the primary mediums of its age: prose and poetry, not the abstractions of contemporary mathematical physics.

cosmic microwave background

Scientists have concluded the universe is about 13.8 billion years old based on measurable evidence.  The three main ones are (1) observations of white dwarf stars; (2) details of the cosmic microwave background; and (3) the recession velocities of distant galaxies.  A different group of observations tell us that the universe is far older than 6,000 years.  These include (1) measurements of the distances of nearby stars; (2) surveys of radioactive nuclei found in the Earth’s crust, and; (3) the drifting of continental plates.

Important assumptions lie beneath all of this.  For example, we assume that the speed of light is constant; that it was the same a billion years ago as it is today.  We also assume that rates of radioactive decay have not changed over time and that the physics that applies way out there is the same as the physics that applies here on Earth.  Scientists are keenly aware of these and other assumptions and test them constantly.  So far, the assumptions have stood all tests.

Only one argument remains available to anyone who wishes to hold onto a literalistic understanding of Genesis: God could have carefully constructed the cosmos to appear to be much older than it is.  But why would God deliberately tweak the cosmos to appear – in every detail and from every scientific angle – not just old but precisely 13.8 billion years old?  Wallace says:

That’s not even wrong. Any God that would manipulate the universe in such a way – just to examine human beings with a senseless test of our dedication not to God but a particular and strained interpretation of the Bible – cannot be trusted.  That anti-rational agent of disorder would not deserve our devotion and trust.  That God roots for us to reject our own God-given capacities for reason, imagination, and creativity.  That God bears no resemblance to the Lord of life and love and reason and wonder to whom the Bible ultimately points.  That God contradicts Scripture in ways that really matter.

We have plowed this ground many times on Internetmonk.  Once you realize that you haven’t been defending the Bible, but you have been defending one “particular and strained interpretation of the Bible”; you’ve been defending one view of the Bible that the Bible doesn’t even have of itself, then you are set free to appreciate the Bible for what it really is.  What is the Bible really, and what is the best way to interpret it?  Let’s use a metaphor the original Imonk himself proposed:

 Ever think of the Bible as….a grocery store? I worked at grocery stores for a long time. People come into the store with their grocery lists, and they know what they are looking for. They need some bananas, ice cream, a case of root beer, a head of lettuce. They run up and down the aisles finding what they want, find everything on the list, check out and go home.

That’s how evangelicals increasingly approach the Bible. They have a list of what they need. Parenting principles. Verses for healing. Advice for marriage. Rules for children. Stories to inspire. Challenges to give. Information on Heaven. Predictions of the future. We run into the “Bible” looking for these things, and when we find them, we leave.

This “grocery store” view of the Bible is built on the idea that the Bible is an inspired “library” of true information. A “magic book” as some have called it, where passages contain unquestionable information and authoritative rules. This approach to the Bible is flattering to the human ability to catalog information, and it is used in many churches to build confidence that the use of scripture puts a person on a foundation of absolute certainty.

In this approach, interpretation is important, and good interpretation is common. But the problem is fundamental. Scripture is not a grocery store. It’s not a place to run in and find principles for parenting or prophecies about the future, even though the conversation contains discussions about these things.

No, the Bible is a cooking show. And if we are going to interpret any part of scripture correctly, we need to get out of the store- the encyclopedia of true things in a magic book- and get to the kitchen.

And, amazingly, here we are! If you look on the counter, you will see all the ingredients for a cake. This cake is really going to be magnificent, and we have all the ingredients to mix together and create this wonderful creation. Eggs. Flour. Salt. Sugar. Butter. Vanilla. And many other bowls of ingredients.

All these ingredients, of course, are the contents of the Bible. The eggs are Genesis 1-3. The flour is Leviticus. The salt is Proverbs. The sugar is Psalms. And so on. These are good ingredients. Crucial ingredients. Now…we need to ask an important question: What are we baking?

The cake the Bible is baking is Jesus Christ, the mediator of our salvation, and the Gospel that comes in him…

The first Christians didn’t use the grocery store method. They put it all together and said “Christ!” They found every part of scripture was, in fact, an ingredient in allowing us to see and understand the bread of life.

It is important to remember that Jesus’ existence isn’t determined by the Bible. He doesn’t need it to be God. We need it to know God. We need the language, the pictures, the law, the examples….the whole recipe that gives us Jesus and the Gospel. We need the whole Bible so we can start to understand Christ, his person and work, his Gospel and what faith means. All the complexities of the great conversation are for our understanding of Jesus and the Gospel. When we interpret, we need to avoid literalism and find Christ, who is the truest of all truths. Literalism that lessens the saturation of the scriptures by Christ is as bad as liberal criticism that denies Christ.

Amen, Michael, and thanks…

Comments

  1. One of my professors in seminary was find of telling the story of how one of his colleagues came to him one day in a state of utter excitement about a new book. When he asked what the book was, his colleague replied “It’s all about how all the laws of mathematics can be extrapolated from the Bible! Isn’t that *fantastic*?” Said professor would then do one of his theatrical groans which are best translated as “Lord what fools these mortals be”.

  2. Good article Mike. Thanks.

  3. When asked, “What did God do before he created the universe?” St. Augustine replied, “he was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions.”

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “””Parenting principles. Verses for healing. Advice for marriage. Rules for children. Stories to inspire. Challenges to give. Information on Heaven. Predictions of the future….”””

    I used to use the analogy “Scripture is not a Chilton’s manual”. I used that until (1) nobody knew what a Chilton’s manual was and (2) I just gave up and moved on.

  5. I’d actually like to push back against that “interpreting everything through the lens of Christ” idea, because it can too easily turn into an attempt to shoehorn some insight about Jesus into every text.

    Instead, I’d suggest a slightly different hermeneutic: Jesus is our most perfect representation of who God is and how God works, and what Jesus shows us is that God works through incarnation: coming to us wrapped in frail and imperfect human form, and transforming us not through force but through love, relationship, sacrifice, and resurrection. So the hermeneutic we should use is not trying to match every text to the story of Jesus, per se, but rather seeing *incarnation* in every text.

    That is, in *every* part of the story of God’s interaction with human beings, God has chosen an incarnational mode of relating to us. That’s why the Israelites sometimes misinterpret God – because God is not shouting down commandments from on high, but is among them in the form of prophets and dreams and the Spirit’s presence. That’s also why the Bible is so “human” – because God’s presence is always cloaked in human frailty. And the story of Creation, as well, is a story meant to tell us that God has been incarnate in the world since the very beginning: God’s breath inside us, God’s image borne by us, God’s hands shaping all that exists.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      I don’t think Michael Spencer would have disagreed with you.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I’d actually like to push back against that “interpreting everything through the lens of Christ” idea, because it can too easily turn into an attempt to shoehorn some insight about Jesus into every text.

      The textual equivalent of the Wretched Urgency Witness for Christ in the seat next to you on a six-hour flight.

  6. Fools rush in… I’m not a licensed professional but it’s hard not to see a psychological component to YEC. The YEC universe is small, safe, bounded and comfortable It’s limits are reassuring. Our place is central. Contrast that with the appalling view of scientific cosmology which is none of those things. If our balance doesn’t teeter a bit in the face of Deep Time and an Infinite Universe, well, I don’t think we’ve thought about it long enough.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Yep.

      There is a lot that sounds like treating life as an RPG or literally critique.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      Once again, I think you all are being deeply uncharitable to Biblical literalists. All but a handful of us have had it beaten into us since earliest childhood that there is only one kind of “TRVTH”. The kind of “TRVTH” that is really, really true is the kind of “TRVTH” that is used in the newspapers, the courtrooms, and pharmaceutical laboratories.

      If someone who has assimilated this epistemology subsequently has an encounter with the Bible and its profound insight into human behavior, perhaps they could be forgiven the impulse to make the truth of the Bible into the kind of “TRVTH” he has been conditioned to expect, and to defend it against the shoulder-patch sweater clad legion who he doesn’t like very much telling him what an idiot he is.

      Can we please, please, please hie us away from this idea that conservatives are conservatives out of fear. I know it’s a deeply flattering and consoling feeling for you “progressives”, but I feel when I contemplate modern society and its morés is closer to the gag response of disgust than the galvanic skin response of threat.

      • ” The kind of “TRVTH” that is really, really true is the kind of “TRVTH” that is used in the newspapers, the courtrooms, and pharmaceutical laboratories.”

        Ugh. Can we have the kind of truth used in scientific papers and laboratory experiments instead? 😉

        Seriously, though, you are correct, enlightenment rationalism is a hard habit to break. But break it we must if we are to resolve this issue. And it seems to me that it is the conservatives who are having the hardest time breaking the habit. And it is legitimate to ask “why?” Now, fear may not be the only emotion at play in that process, but it does certainly seem to be a factor for some people. Perhaps disgust with modernity is another (though I fail to see how that is much of an improvement over fear)? I would actually be interested to hear if there were other less objectionable emotions and factors that explain the vehemence and close-mindedness of the fundamentalists as a whole, and YECers in particular.

      • Mike the Geologist says

        Point taken, Mule. However, for the record, my viewpoint is not the shoulder-patch sweater clad legion who tell people what idiots they are; it is more in line with Father Freeman’s sentiments as articulated here- https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/?s=biblical+literalism

        • Burro (Mule) says

          I was not accusing anyone in particular. Just channeling some friends. Although I do have some not-very-charitable caricatures of progressive Christians on my mental shelves that I pull out and dust off like HeroClix when I think they’re needed.

          The way Father Freeman discusses these issues make me rejoice he is a priest, and that he enjoys some notoriety in my communion . He has away of explaining the role of the Bible in the Orthodox tradition that is both faithful and therapeutic for those who come from rationalistic Christianity.

          In my own case, it was 200 mg of relatively pure mescaline ingested in my late teens that left me shaken and most definitely Not A Positivist. I would not recommend that to anybody except under the severest controls (maybe accompanied by a very well-trained doctor, a very sensitive artist, and a very prayerful priest). Cast out amidst the flotsam and jetsam of late twentieth century and left to construct an epistemology-on-the-fly out of the bits and pieces found on the beach after the withdrawal of the tide, I can perhaps be forgiven some idiosyncrasies.

          • I will be happy to forgive your idiosyncrasies. The price? That you respond to my actual comment.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Imagine asking someone the meaning of life and their answer comes back, “Forty two”.

    At least then you know you’ve got a hoopy frood who won’t panic and knows where his/her towel is. (And is probably touring the inner solar system in Elon Musk’s old roadster.)

    Or imagine asking someone how far it is to the next gas station and they reply, “The Battle of Hastings”. Such responses do not even rise to the level of being wrong.

    Or the Evangelical answer of Chapter:Verse Chapter:Verse Chapter;Verse like some Divine Twitter Feed or Calromenes quoting the Poets. (Unless the someone is cage-phase Orthodox, at which point the answer is always “ORTHODOXY! ORTHODXY! ORTHODOXY!” Or cage-phase Truly Reformed, where the answer is always Pious Piper Tweets of Chapter;Verse from Calvin’s Institutes. Or Calvary Chapel-bots, where the answer is always The Plan of Salvation with or without The Rapture…)

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