November 23, 2017

Mike the Geologist: Science and the Bible (Lesson 1)

Zhangye Danxia Geopark (Linze County, China)

Zhangye Danxia Geopark (Linze County, China)

Note from CM: Today we welcome a good friend of Internet Monk, Mike McCann, aka Mike the Geologist. It’s nice to have an actual scientist speak to issues of science and faith.

• • •

Science and the Bible (Lesson 1)
by Mike McCann

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a geologist.  I read the wonderful “All About” books by famous geologist-adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews and they fired my imagination and started a life-long love affair with science.  I know it must have seemed precocious when a 5 year old was asked “what do you want to be when you grow up” and instead of the expected answer of fireman, policeman, cowboy, etc. was answered “geologist”.  But there it was, and I never wavered in my commitment finally obtaining a Master of Science in Geology in 1978.

I was raised a Roman Catholic but during the teen years became an atheist.  That was probably more related to teen rebellion than any intellectual conviction, as I reflect on it now, but I bought the argument that knowledge by science was the only reliable knowledge possible. During my undergraduate years I had a conversion experience related to the “Jesus Movement” and became a born-again evangelical.  Thus began my experience with the conflict between “science” and the “Bible”.

Up until then, it had never occurred to me to question what I had learned in my geology classes.  During my atheist phase the Bible was, of course, merely a human book, not to be taken seriously.  But now that I was a Christian, I wanted to take it seriously.  Reading the Bible as a Christian, Jesus came alive to me through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.  The fundamentalist-charismatic groups I was associated with were big on “taking the Bible literally”.  Not to believe in a literal six-day creation meant you didn’t really believe in a literal three-day resurrection, or you were on the slippery slope at any rate.

Now I was conflicted.  Jesus was alive to me, and I wasn’t about to return to the weak and beggarly elements of atheism.  But I couldn’t un-know what I had learned as a geologist. About that time a second edition of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris was released and I got a copy.  At first I wanted to embrace “flood geology” and “creation science” as a way to resolve the conflict.  But as time went on the untenable nature of such “science” became manifest and to continue with it would not be just cognitive dissonance but outright dishonesty, at least to me personally.

So my “science and the Bible” conflict started the opposite of most people’s experience.  Usually they have a faith tradition and then coming into contact with science challenges that tradition.  For me, I had the science first, then the faith tradition challenged the science.  It’s an important point to remember about me, because when later confronted by the traditionalists that I was a “compromiser” who just wanted the approval of “the worldly scientists”; I knew the accusation to be false.  I just wanted the truth.  I knew the Bible was true because it truly revealed Jesus to me.  I knew the foundations of modern geology to be true because they rested upon well verified empirical facts.

Now fast forward down the years and I am at peace and have resolved the conflict in my own mind.  How, you ask?  Well therein lies the tale this essay and, perhaps, future essays, will tell.  I am at a very evangelical church.  My fellow church goers know I am a professional scientist.  They wonder where I stand on these issues.  I go to the pastor, who is also my friend and knows my commitment to the Lord and this church.  I say, these issues are not going to go away and we evangelicals cannot stick our heads in the sand of anti-intellectualism and pretend they don’t matter.  We, our children, and our grandchildren have to live in an increasingly technological society where science-based decisions involving the shape of our future must be made.  Are we going to relegate ourselves to the sidelines of irrelevancy?  He says, fine, design a small group course where you can present and discuss those issues with those who are interested.  That took courage, and he is to be commended.

So that, dear iMonk readers, will be the perspective I am writing from.  Trying to help evangelicals deal with modern science, particularly age-of-the-earth, creation, and origins issues from a God-honoring, Bible-respecting viewpoint.  I know many of you have moved beyond these creation issues in your post-evangelical journey, but let’s labor to remain irenic, and avoid condescension.

All truth is God’s truth.  As Christians, we are going to start with God.  It’s His creation, His universe; therefore whatever we discover to be true must, by foundational presupposition, be His truth.  God is revealed in his creation.  Psalm 19:1 declares: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.”  Romans 1:20 tells us: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead…”  This is often called “General Revelation.”

God is revealed to us in the Bible, His Special Revelation.  John 5:39 says: “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.”  Therefore, between God’s General Revelation (nature) and His Special Revelaton (the Bible) there must be perfect harmony.  Using some visuals from Gordon Glover’s wonderful video series on “Science and Christian Education” we would have:

image1

The study of God’s general revelation is what we call science.  The study of God’s special revelation is what we call theology.  But because of epistemological and hermeneutic limitations we have neither perfect understanding of nature nor perfect understanding of the Bible.  Hence conflict is not only to be expected, it is inevitable.

As long as we “see through a glass darkly” there will be conflicts between out systematic study of nature (science) and our systematic study of the scriptures (theology).

image2

Let’s consider the Galileo/Copernicus example.  Psalm 93:1 says: “…the world also is established, that it cannot be moved.”  There are at least 67 verses of scripture that say or imply geocentrism.  That’s far more verses than support a young earth view FWIW.  Writings from before the 17th century show this verse (and others like it) was taken to be an accurate scientific description of the cosmos.  For example, from the trial of Galileo:

We pronounce this Our final sentence: We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo . . . have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world; also, that an opinion can be held and supported as probable, after it has been declared and finally decreed contrary to the Holy Scripture…

And the famous quote from Luther:

There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved.  But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.

This is one example of how scientific discovery forced us to change how we interpreted scripture.  And thankfully our defense of biblical authority does not rest on whether the sun orbits the earth or the earth orbits the sun… Because the Bible was not written nor did God intend it to teach astronomical mechanics in the first place.  Let me ask you this, dear evangelical reader, how would you answer if you ran into the modern geocentrists?  What arguments would you use?

One more example before we close.  Psalm 119:11 says: “I have hidden your Word in my heart…” and Hebrews 4:12 speaks of “…the thoughts and intents of the heart.”  Now we know that thoughts originate in the brain, the heart is a muscle that pumps blood, so biblical references to the heart have taken on a metaphorical meaning even though they were once taken quite literally.  And thankfully our trust in God’s Word does not hinge on whether the Greek or Hebrew word for heart really refer to the organ that pumps blood, or are code words for brain, or any other creative manipulation of the biblical text, because Human Physiology is clearly not the focus of God’s Word.  We simply understand those passages in their native scientific context, make the appropriate adjustments according to our scientific expectations, and move on… The main point is that a so-called “plain” reading of scripture should not always dictate what our scientific conclusions should be.

I would like to leave you with the prescient words of Augustine from: “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 [AD 408]”

“…If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    thank you, MIKE McCANN, for this clearly-written and interesting post . . . I am a former science teacher and I have dwelt in some of that crossfire that ensues when people of faith and the academic study of the natural world converge. I congratulate you on your effort to promote understanding (and keep the peace).

    I will share some thoughts from a pastoral letter from my own Church’s teaching, “Gaudium et Spes”:

    “”…methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.
    The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”

    “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth”.

    • Thank you, Christiane, for your usual irenic and cogent reply. I like to think I’m helping to dispel the FEAR from the erroneous idea that if some “science” fact is true, it could render the Bible false. The new atheists are big on this as are the YEC folk. It is lamentable that someone would lose their faith over these issues.

      • But why is it “erroneous” to say that fact renders [portions of] the Bible false?

        it’s agreed the Bible is false with respect to its geocentrism. I sympathize with Luther and with the Church officials who opposed Galileo in that they understood that heliocentrism is inconsistent with a plain reading of certain geocentric passages. Sure, one can interpret such passages metaphorically, and perhaps that can be done with passages that appear more poetic than narrative, but it seems better to frankly confess that writers of Scripture were creatures of their times and sometimes described things imperfectly. Such a concession does not, in my mind, imperil the validity of the incarnation, which depends heavily on eye-witness records.

        • “but it seems better to frankly confess that writers of Scripture were creatures of their times and sometimes described things imperfectly.” Thank you Bass, you put better than I did. I really should have said; “renders the Bible false in what the original authors intended to teach or communicate.” I subscribe to Enn’s theory of biblical inspiration. The Bible is incarnated as Jesus is. Jesus was both human and divine. The Bible is both divinely inspired and an entirely human book(s).

          • “The Bible is incarnated as Jesus is. Jesus was both human and divine. The Bible is both divinely inspired and an entirely human book(s).”

            That’s a way of looking at it that has helped me deal with scripture. We say that Jesus — who is more truly the Word of God than this book written about Him — was the only perfect man and that He lived a perfect life. But in what ways was He perfect? Did He have great physical strength? Was he a perfect athlete? Was He a great warrior or war strategist? Was He adept at acquiring wealth or political power? Was He a master of art or music or literature? Was He the greatest of scholars? When you get right down to it, Jesus was not perfect in any of the ways the world tends to idolize as perfect. Of course, scripture tells us that He was without sin, but in the eyes of the expert moralizers of the day, He was viewed as a drunkard and a glutton and a blasphemer. He was perfect in that He did and said exactly what the Father told Him to do and say. And that’s it. He wasn’t perfect in any other way than that.
            And I think that much the same is true for scripture. It relates a message — a message centered in Christ — that God wanted to relate to humankind. And that’s it. If you’re looking to scripture as a guide to building the perfect church institution, creating flawless theological constructs, explaining the universe and everything in it, or micro-managing your own life, then you’re building yourself up for a big letdown.
            But if you’re looking for Jesus in the scriptures, you just might find a recognizable picture there.

  2. Great article, Mike. I wish I were in your class! I especially appreciate the references to Luther and Augustine and putting into historical perspective the perceived conflicts between science and religion. I’ll probably steal these points sometime . . .

  3. Especially with the evolution debate, I think that the scriptures are subjected to a certain amount of violence. Not the violence that the creationist would have us believe, but there are many churches out there where a teaching on Genesis 1-2 becomes a topical sermon on not falling into the influence of “worldly” thinking, and persecution of the Christian. We miss out on the awesome power of our creator God, and the blessing of the Sabbath, among other things in favor of the distractions of an agenda.

    • Exactly, and I hope to address this in a future essay.

      • At least to me, what may be even more disturbing (and I’ve written on this in the past) is that there are segments of Christianity where this is so ingrained in their identity that it can be used as manipulation elsewhere in the scriptures as well. I’ve heard multiple sermons where demeaning comments on evolution have been used as “cheap pops” to get the congregation on the side of a guest speaker.

        Not to get political, but it is the same game plan that you see Trump using in the current election, played out in our own churches.

        • “I ain’t no monkey’s uncle” spoken with the same cadence as “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts”…

  4. Isn’t it interesting how yesterday’s IM post and today’s are in dialogue with one another, even though they come from entirely different sources?

    Yesterday we meditated on the “Sin of Certainty”, which grows our of our stubborn human nature and its egotistical desire to be master of all it surveys. We want to control everything, and we want to be certain about everything. Our gut-level desire is to be like little “gods” (the presumption of the snake in the Eden account…), knowing good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, cosmic certainty as well as theological rigidity.

    The Bible’s answer to the snake’s temptation is clearly laid out in the Book of Job,Chapter 38 and following: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” says the Lord to all the voices of certainty.

    Not only scientists but also the Christian faithful need to remember that we are not God. Our small minds and our limited perceptive abilities can indeed grasp the beauty of creation and the glory of the Gospel promises. But we will never, ever thoroughly understand either of them. We are grasped BY them, we won’t ever be able to grasp them fully ourselves. Martin Luther actually agreed with that concept in the abstract; he apparently just forgot to apply it to himself in the quote cited above…! How human of him!

    Our stance both in science and in theology is properly that of wonder and awe and delight, not of angry attempts to declare the supposed truths of either scientific or theological orthodoxy.

    • Yes, I saw the connection to yesterday’s post as well and was going to comment.

    • “Our stance both in science and in theology is properly that of wonder and awe and delight, not of angry attempts to declare the supposed truths of either scientific or theological orthodoxy.” Agree completely.

  5. There is something unsettling about the rift between science and religion and there is something elegant about their meeting. I guess that’s because God is behind both doors and I don’t imagine they are characterized as such by Him. It’s all life and light. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. I can’t imagine He sits down for spiritual talk here and scientific talk there. For Him it’s the same topic and it can be for us as well and sometimes is. Then, in a song lyric, it is “richness, redder than a rose.”

    • First thing that popped in my head when I read this.

      “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

      ? G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

    • Whoops that’s “redness, richer than a rose.” Anyway, point made.

  6. I say, these issues are not going to go away and we evangelicals cannot stick our heads in the sand of anti-intellectualism and pretend they don’t matter.

    Agreed, but yeah you can, people have been doing it for centuries. Just call them liberals/modernists/emergents, and double down on the fundamentals and traditions. Better keep believing what your dead forefathers did instead of what the allegedly living Christ is showing and teaching the world nowadays.

    I don’t know how much I can interact with this piece without coming across as snarky and sarcastic, especially when all I need to do is quote verbatim back what I was told to my face about this subject.

    Good essay tho.

    • I almost said above that I look forward to the day when these types of debates are behind us, but quickly realised that I have no real expectation that I will see that in my lifetime.

    • Thanks, Stuart. I am overall optimistic. It took a while for the geocentric debate to be settled for all but a diehard minority. And even then, the Catholic church formalized the apology to Galileo in 1992- a 350 years later. The Southern Baptists apologised for their slavery stance in a mere 150 years. I say the creation museum will close for lack of attendance in 20 years, maybe 30 at the outside.

      • Michael Bell says:

        To back up what you are saying, I wrote this a while back for Internet Monk.

        Darwin published his origin of the species in 1859. From Copernicus to Newton[who proved Copernicus’ theories] was 144 years. From Darwin to the completion of the human genome project in 2003 is 144 years… We are in what I would call the Newtonian age of Evolution. The point at which the streams of evidence have become irrefutable. How long will it take the church to accept this and change their interpretations to fit the science? The change has already started to happen. For most young people, Christian and non Christian alike, the matter has already been decided. Like heliocentrism, it will take a couple of generations for the science to be nearly universally accepted in the church, but its day is coming.

  7. I had a conversion experience related to the “Jesus Movement”

    In hindsight, was the Jesus Movement a fundamentalist movement similar to the original Fundamentalist/Modernist divide? Seems to be so, even if they had some novel ideas.

    • Not in my experience. The Fundys pretty much dissed it, unless you cut your hair, took a bath, and put on a suit.

      • But those are just window trappings. Maybe my experience is colored by older JM people, but they all seemed to have extreme fundamentalist tendencies and views about God, Bible, reality, authority, politics, whatever.

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      The Jesus Movement was basically, the axe laid to the root of the trees for the boomer Sunday School kids from the churches that went over to the modernist side in the 40s and 50s. Out of the maybe 50-60 people from that era of my life, many of whom I stay in touch with via social media, about 1/3, say 20, went into the Jesus Movement. Maybe 1 in 10 persevered. Only one is a right-wing culture warrior, and his son recently became Orthodox 🙂

      The Fundies tried to convince the Jesus Hippies into their churches, but there were too many cultural hurdles to overcome. The Pentecostals, who are FAR more flexible culturally despite their own Biblical literalism, ended up with most of the JM people. Pentecostals are conservative Christians but they are less neurotic than Fundamentalists, generally. It may have something to do with the Pentecostal emphasis on the Holy Spirit. I’ve never been able to talk to anyone but Pentecostals or Orthodox about the Holy Spirit.

      The other 2/3 of the modernist church kids went on to full-on Sunday-morning-with-a-latte-a-croissant-and-the-New-York-Times irreligion. None of the ones from my circle are remotely Christian now. Two were actively involved in neo-paganism for a while, but are now ringing doorbells for Bernie Sanders in Indiana.

      One of these days, someone will have to write the spiritual biography of the Boomer generation, maybe picking up where John Updike left off in In The Beauty Of The Lilles.

      AFA Ruh-li-JUN and SY-unce, I’ve lived with that tension my whole life. I can die with it. I see it as having two mostly trustworthy friends who are uncommonly good advice givers, who are agreed on most things, and who are always trying to saddle you up on one of their hobbyhorses and ride off into dangerous territory.

  8. Mike, excellent essay. I especially liked the way you visualized the “conflict” issue.

  9. ‘Now I was conflicted. Jesus was alive to me, and I wasn’t about to return to the weak and beggarly elements of atheism. But I couldn’t un-know what I had learned as a geologist. About that time a second edition of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris was released and I got a copy. At first I wanted to embrace “flood geology” and “creation science” as a way to resolve the conflict. But as time went on the untenable nature of such “science” became manifest and to continue with it would not be just cognitive dissonance but outright dishonesty, at least to me personally.’

    Ditto here Mike.
    I became a Christian at the same time, was influenced by Whitcomb/Morris crowd then went to University. I was a keener in Geology class and intellectual honesty forced me to abandon Scientific Creationism, because I believed that all truth is God’s truth.

    The problem is that the YEC crowd had established a beachead in churches going back to the 1970s. They were the only ones seeming to speak up. I remember hearing a scientist speak who said he had some sympathy with them but seemed to distance himself. Even until today YEC is the only voice heard by many.

  10. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    Pity I missed this post earlier – as a fellow geologist, I am always keen to discuss my vocation with my fellow vocationeers(?). But I was to busy working!

    Btw Mike, what kind of a geo are you? I am a Geological Modeller / Resource geo, specialising in kimberlites, potash (and related salts), phosphates etc. Been independent these last 2 years…