Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sound science and sound biblical interpretation are the means and the end

I am refreshed, as I reflect on these matters, by a growing sense that answers to these questions of biological origins in relation to understanding the Bible and its teachings concerning moral culpability and redemption are not only solvable, the solutions are likely right under our nose, even if we have not consciously clarified them in our own minds or agreed upon them! Of course I can't prove this to the satisfaction of skeptics, short of actually arriving at solutions and clearly articulating them. But my intuition that solutions will be found is nevertheless compelling to me personally in the light of historical precedent and the pattern of my experience with God. I suspect a later generation of Christians will see the solutions with such greater clarity that they will have to struggle to put themselves in our shoes in our moment of history to even understand what the fuss was all about, just as we puzzle over the difficulties Christians had in an earlier era in seeing that the Bible is completely compatible with a Copernican understanding of the universe. No doubt the role of extra-biblical assumptions, smuggled in from a relatively recent intellectual milieu that is very foreign to that of the biblical writers, will be identified as the culprit, just as we see very clearly today how the entrenched dominance of Ptolemaic astronomy clouded people's understanding of biblical texts that we see today as obviously poetic.

But even if I have high hopes that a day of greater clarity will surely come, this does not mean there is no reason to strive to hasten that day by means of serious inquiry and reflection. What drives me in this regard is my growing awareness that the Bible has something rich and essential to say to people right now, and this perceived disconnect between the Bible and science, based largely on misconceptions that Christains themselves have been perpetuating, is preventing many people from exploring that.

Genuine clarity will only come as a result of greater sensitivity to the biblical text; genuine solutions must help us read the Bible more on its own terms. And skeptics and Christians alike would do well to note that this is exactly what happened in the case of the Copernican controversy. At that time some people were hung up on Psalm 93:1b ("The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved"), a verse that people today understand as poetic imagery that cannot reasonably be pressed into the service of defending a geocentric universe. But the metaphorical interpretation is not accepted today merely because it is more compatible with science; it is accepted in the light of the nature of the text itself. The whole psalm is saturated with metaphor, as is obvious from phrases before and after such as "the LORD is robed in majesty" and "holiness adorns yours house...." "The world...cannot be moved" is no more to be taken literally than we are to understand the LORD as wearing literal clothes or living in a literal house. Employing such a text to support a particular view of astronomy actually detracts from the intended force of the text in inspiring a sense of awe and wonder concerning the God of the universe! If we had grown up hearing constant appeals to this verse to support Ptolemaic astronomy, we might have more difficulty seeing this. But once the metaphorical reading has had a chance to grip us, there's no turning back, it speaks more authentically and with greater power, and it becomes easy for us to see how the concerns to defend a geocentric universe were imposed agenda alien to the concerns of the biblical writer.

Skeptics should note that the Bible was exonerated in that case. Certain interpretations of the Bible were laid aside, but the Bible itself came through unscathed. Science prompted a revisiting of the biblical text, and that reflection led to a more natural and sensitive reading of the biblical text. There may be much about commmunities of biblical faith that turn skeptics off; but does not the Copernican episode at least raise the possibility that the real problem is not the Bible itself? And if the problem is not the Bible itself, might a more sensitive reading of it tell us something very much worth hearing today?

Christians should note the rabbit trails that Christians of an earlier era spent enormous energy in pursuing. The more invested they were in defending long-reigning Ptolemaic astronomy against Copernicus, the longer their misreading of the holy text was allowed to persist. But lest we proudly upbraid them for not seeing the obvious, might not a future generation reprove us for extrabiblical assumptions and agenda that have muddled our own reading of other biblical texts? And might there be people--whom we deem the "enemy," from whom we are mutually alienated on account of the battle over Darwinism and other issues in our current cultural divide-- who we really NEED to interact with in order to arrive at sounder understandings of the Bible?

What about a "retroactive fall"?

I can bask in vain self-congratulation now that one as noteworthy (or notorious, depending on your point of view) as William Dembski has articulated the same understanding of humanity's fall into sin as I once conceived and tentatively put forth in a short paper some years ago, to wit, the idea of a first sin that had retroactive consequences on the creation. See (An Orthodox priest advocates essentially the same view, if I understand him correctly, at Thanks go to Kirk Jordan and his web page for the trail of links that led me to Dembski's article. 

Dembski's paper and mine both posited a special environment in which no temptation could be felt, thus allowing a free decision of the first humans to sin or not sin. Since God is beyond time and knows the future, it is possible that the world of death and cruelty that we live in could have flowed causally from the first humans' sin, even though its emergence preceded that event in time. Dembski argues that such a preemptive action of God is an appropriate response to human sin, in order to demonstrate sin's gravity so that we might come to our senses and seek salvation from it.

But is the idea of a retroactive fall really satisfying? To my limited mind, I find it plausible, and see no insuperable difficulties in establishing its consonance with biblical exegesis and science. (And it does NOT require acceptance of other ideas that Demski has advanced elsewhere concerning design and irreducible complexity; the solution works with theistic evolutionary understandings that do not require special interventions of divine creative energy other than that which underlies and sustains the entire process.) And, even though it's just one possible solution, the very existence of "one possible solution" has enormous implications. By disarming the common casual assumption that science has "ruled out" the Bible and its ability to speak healing truth into our modern context, people may perhaps consider the Bible and its claims with less negative bias. Still, I can't help but wonder if there may be simpler and more compelling solutions than this one that Dembski and others and I have proposed, and that is something I hope to explore in future posts, if God lets me live long enough and grants me sufficient clarity to articulate them. 

Dembski's article is in any case well worth reading, because in surveying options he considers inadequate and in articulating his own views, he puts the reader in touch with what the important questions really are concerning science and the Bible, whether or not one is happy with his answer. The real issue that needs attention is not the question of the "days" of the creation narrative in Genesis, which no more require a literal interpretation than the "throne" on which God "sits" in similar passages portraying the declaration and execution of the divine will upon the earth. A matter that needs more attention, and that not only has bearing on the Bible's reception in the world today, but also has sweeping watershed implications for the future of ethics and law and self-understanding and culture in the decades to come, is the question of accounting for moral culpability, and the need to be delivered from it, given an evolutionary understanding of our biological history.

One very wonderful thing that I take away from reading Dembski's article is the sweet REALIZATION that life in this world of sin and death and disease as we now experience it is not our ultimate destiny or purpose. I experience this realization as a wave of divine refreshment sweeping over me, as the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead works through even Scriptures that we do not fully understand.