Saturday, April 22, 2017

Back in the late 1980's, my wife and young son and I visited the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas. I was a strident creationist and an avid reader of books by "creation scientists" like Henry Morris, Ken Ham and Duane Gish. The raison d'etre of the Creation Evidence Museum was to demonstrate that the "biblical account of creation" as told in the book of Genesis, as well other biblical stories, were scientifically and historically accurate. This meant that evolution was untrue, that the earth was only a few thousand years old and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed (dinosaurs died out as a result of the great worldwide flood but humans and other species survived because they boarded Noah's ark).

I've long since jettisoned creationism as a viable position. What I came to realize is that creationism puts the cart before the horse. It begins with an a priori assumption that what the Bible says is literally (historically and scientifically) true and was written (via divine inspiration) to be understood that way. As I studied more (and learned, as my seminary Old Testament professor used to say, "the story behind the story" of the biblical texts) I realized that the stories in Genesis were not supposed to be taken as literal truth--any more so than Aesop's fables or the myths we make up about American history. The biblical stories were intended to convey viewpoints which were of importance to the writers and original readers/hearers of those texts. They weren't written to be accurate and universally applicable accounts of history and science.

The implication of this is that the Bible and (real) science need not be at odds. And Christians shouldn't have to resort to the disingenuous tactics of Morris, Ham, Gish and the Creation Evidence Museum to try to bend (or misrepresent) science in order to conform it to what the Bible seems to say. It should be the other way around--our interpretation of biblical texts ought to (dare I say?) evolve as we learn more about how the universe works. The Dalai Lama was once asked what would happen if science proved the claims of Buddhism to be wrong. He responded, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Christian fundamentalism does not have this option.

The insistence on biblical literalism as the lens through which to view how the universe works has its roots in the American Christian fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. Christian fundamentalism was a reaction against broad cultural shifts such as the rise of historical/literary criticism (including biblical criticism), Darwin's evolutionary theory (brought to a head in the Scopes "monkey trial"), the fledgling sciences of archeology and paleontology, and the growth of liberal Christian theology. Christian fundamentalists circled the wagons in defense of a view that the Bible was not only inspired but also inerrant and infallible. Therefore biblical accounts--from the virgin birth of Jesus to the resurrection to the various miracles described in the Gospels to the stories in the Old Testament (such as the miracles performed by Moses) to the Genesis account of creation and the flood--were absolutely factual.

Once one accepts this presupposition about the Bible, one has to defend it at all costs. It becomes a battle for the survival of Christianity. The belief of fundamentalist Christians is that if the Bible could be proven to not be literally accurate than the whole Christian faith falls apart (I have heard Hank Hanegraaf--the self-appointed "Bible Answer Man" express this very thing on numerous occasions). The "castle" cartoon included in this post, from creationist Ken Ham, depicts well this Christian fundamentalist fear.

Through the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, this fundamentalist hostility towards science (including climate science) and towards higher education has seeped into conservative politics. Conservative politicians and radio pundits rail against intellectuals such as scientists and college professors who are apparently united in some nefarious scheme to indoctrinate the masses and destroy Christianity. Films such as 'God's Not Dead' and 'God's Not Dead 2' capitalize on the fundamentalist fantasy of bringing down the ivory towers of the academic elite, who are uniformly depicted as motivated by hubris and atheistic hostility to the faith.

The fundamental error of Christian fundamentalism is in that foundational assumption of biblical literalism. In actuality, the application of that literalism by fundamentalists is very selective: for example Jesus's commands to "sell all you have and give it to the poor" and to "put away your sword; those who use the sword will die by the sword" are interpreted in very figurative and nuanced ways by fundamentalists. What is endangered by science is not Christianity but the fundamentalist presupposition about biblical literalism.

So, while there are a great many devout people of faith--Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.--walking alongside agnostics and atheists in today's marches for science, I suspect that there are somewhat few fundamentalist Christians (or political conservatives). They have painted themselves into a corner where to celebrate science is to betray the faith (or party). That is a sad and untenable position to be in. I know because I've been there.



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