I sat with my fifteen year-old daughter last night watching Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” exchanging blows with Ken Ham, a young-Earth creationist who presides over the Creation Museum on a live debate hosted by Ham. I was left disappointed. Ham and Nye both appear to be good men, sincere men, and well-studied in their unique fields. But after 2 ½ hours of wrangling, debating, and firing shots at each other, I got the distinct sense that both sides ended the debate more convinced of their position and having armed their respective believers with tools to continue the fight outside.
Since when was the creation story fodder for war? Since when did God intend us to draw battle lines over a story of how the people who are fighting got here to fight in the first place?
I am not a young-earth six literal days creationist. Nor are millions of faithful Christians. I do, however, think the Genesis story of creation offers great themes that can be missed if we get stuck in the yoms of the text and make those our weapons of war.
Here are some issues created by creationism for Christians:
1. The Bible is Not a Science Book
When scripture is regarded as the only source of authority, then Christians are forced to make scientific discoveries fit with our interpretation of scripture. If scientific data reveals a contrary truth to the way we read a scripture, then shouldn’t we embrace the scientific truth as God’s truth and reconsider the way we have read that scripture? God never intended for us to use the bible as the only source of authority. The Apostle Paul tells Christians that, “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (Romans 1:20) Creation teaches us, the bible teaches. God breathed into creation (a foundational concept in the story of the Garden of Eden) and scripture. Scripture never encourages us to twist and fenagle scientific discoveries to align with our personal understanding of scripture. And to do so may actually shut off the truth God has prepared for us in creation.
2. “Science Versus Faith” is a False Dichotomy
The “science versus faith” language has assumed you can’t honestly be both a scientist and a Christian. Creationism stands on the side of “faith” in a cultural war against “science.” With these battle lines drawn, it’s assumed you can’t be someone who has deep faith and an honest commitment to unbiased scientific discovery. Of course, this is untrue. For centuries the world’s greatest scientists have been people of great faith. Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Faraday, to name a few, never felt the need to abandon faith with new scientific discoveries. God’s existence was not generally debated. How they understood creation and scripture was. The two were not seen as mutually exclusive. We must stop pitting faith against science. Both are necessary. Science helps us answer the “how,” faith helps us answer the “why.” Science can’t answer the “why” alone and faith can’t answer the “how” alone. Both are needed to understand life. And rightly viewed, they work seamlessly together to disclose a bigger and grander view of God than either can do in isolation from the other. For the Christian, scientific discoveries reveal to us the character and nature of God. This too is truth! Christians have nothing to fear from new scientific truths of the planet and cosmos and should be equally loyal to the truth of scientific discoveries in creation as we are in our pursuit of the truth of scripture. Together, we gain a greater view of the whole truth of God revealed to us. I recently blogged about this point here.
3. Stories in Genesis Have Cousins
I was shocked to learn as a young undergrad that Genesis was not the only book that recorded the story of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s flood. Our professor handed us two documents that recorded strikingly similar stories from Mesopotamian and Babylonian poems. The dates below record the age of the tablets and fragments. Most scholars assume these stories existed for centuries prior to the creation of these specific tablets.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (13th -10th Centuries BC)
In both Genesis and the Gilgamesh Epic, a man is created from dirt and lives with animals. A woman is given to him who temps him by offering him food and as a result he covers his nakedness and leaves the place. There is also a snake present that steals immortality from the human. The Genesis flood story follows the Gilgamesh flood story almost identically.
The Enuma Elis (7th Century BC)
Genesis and the Enuma Elis parallel in their account of the darkness and chaos preceding the creation of all things.
Clearly, civilizations, including the Israelites, were sharing common stories and poems about the creation of the world. In the case of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Enuma Elis, these have always been considered beautiful poems that speak of the conception of creation. While scholars are divided on who was borrowing from who or if all three simply recorded oral stories, one thing is clear, the Genesis version came about in a time when great poetry was being used to describe the same story in other civilizations. Creationism holds to a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3, aggressively so, but extant copies of other creation accounts offer something to consider when making assumptions about Genesis.
4. Creationism Isn’t a Test of Orthodoxy
Creationism is still used as a test of Christian orthodoxy. Christians may still fear the sting of judgment if they confess to being a theistic evolutionist. While church leaders may fall short of condemning people who hold such beliefs, it’s not uncommon to hold such beliefs quietly or avoid talking about the topic altogether. And we’re not that far removed from the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 when a high school teacher was convicted of teaching evolution in a public school.
The test for Christian fellowship is belief and loving submission to Jesus Christ, the son of God. When creationism is elevated to a position of authority, then additional requirements are placed upon this test and we quickly move from fellowship only through Christ to fellowship only through creationism. And while churches and church leaders may never expel a theistic evolutionist, they may be inclined to limit one’s participation or leadership based on this position.
5. Creationism is a Distraction
The ministry of Jesus was focused squarely on loving and serving God and neighbor. Christianity is increasingly scrutinized today for the plethora of issues we make about positions others take. The church can get easily distracted from her mission by the pressure to draw lines on every issue raised. People in the church and outside the church then create impressions about the church from these issues and not from the way the church is prioritizing her love for God and neighbor.
Topics such as these are important to discuss but those who lead them must balance them against a more important concern – the mission of Jesus. And the mission of Jesus has never hinged on whether we believe the world was created in six days 6,000 years ago or whether God has evolved the world for eons.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health who led the Human Genome Project in mapping the all human genes, is a devout Christian who founded a group to help address the science versus faith discussion. The BioLogos Foundation is designed to promote the relationship between faith and religion and provides resources and tools to help embrace the work of God in its entirety.
I’m looking forward to future discoveries God reveals to his church in both scripture and creation and long for a day when we embrace both as signs of his love and care for us.