Reimagining Adventism, Part 6a: Creation and Absurdity

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Reimagining Adventism, Part 6a: Creation and Absurdity

The secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company. – Rachel Naomi Remen

 

The topic of creation is arguably the most difficult to address when it comes to secular outreach. On the one hand, the cultures prosaic embrace of the theory of evolution means most people simply accept it as a common matter of fact. And while this leads some to the fringes of nihilism, many others turn to humanism for a more enthusiastic foundation for life.

 

On the other hand, the culture seems tired of the debates over creation and evolution. In fact, scientists are generally encouraged not to debate creationists so that they do not “[give] creationism a scientific legitimacy that it isn’t entitled to.”[1] To make matters worse, Christians are generally perceived as anti-science.[2] Because Adventists have historically affirmed a literal six-day creation account, we are already at a disconnect the moment the conversation begins.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Avoiding the Use of Faulty Creationist Arguments

 

The impact of postmodernity and its emerging metamodern epilogue has done little to assuage this conceptual clash. To the contrary, books written by the New Atheist icons such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris emerged as bestsellers during a time when the primary cultural theory was purported to be steeped in relativism.[3]

 

Likewise, today’s heroes of Christianity are not evangelists or preachers like Spurgeon, Whitefield or Billy Graham but philosophers and apologists like William Lane Craig, Alistair McGrath, John Lennox, Ravi Zacharias, and Alvin Platinga. It appears, therefore, at least from a birds-eye view, that despite the pluralism that surrounds us, questions of origin, especially as they relate to the scientific theory of evolution, still play a significant role in society.

 

This reality forces us to ask, how can we engage secular sojourners with the story of creation in a way that is meaningful rather than combative? In my experience I have found, as is often the case, that engaging this theme effectively has less to do with propositions, airtight contentions and formulas and more to do with posture. In other words, people don’t mind considering alternative ideas.

 

After all, one helpful element of the postmodern influence is the idea that all truth propositions—including scientific ones—are ultimately socially constructed. No one, not even the physicist or biologist, can stake a total claim on truth; thus, everyone has a voice at the table. However, what people do mind is when ideas are presented with condescending and presumptuous attitudes. Accordingly, how we approach this question is of greater significance to the secular mind than what we say about the question altogether.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Theological Value of the Creation Account

 

When Adventists approach this topic with the posture of truth as stagnant, presenting with a fundamentalist orientation, weaponizing the Genesis account, demonizing the scientific community, and appealing to pseudoscientific ideas to impose our perspective upon the seeker, the battle is officially lost. Sadly, it appears many conservative Adventists would rather win an argument (or at least feel like they did) and lose a soul then humble themselves long enough to authentically engage the seeker and win her over. In this sense, the tensions surrounding modern theories of origin and the Biblical account are inflamed. Once this takes place, there is very little chance that the conversation will go anywhere meaningful.

 

However, when I approach the conversation from the perspective of truth as flow, a different response emerges. Thus, for the remainder of this article I will share exactly how I engage creation in my particular context with a posture that opens doors rather than closes them and also invites continued investigation. To that end, I always engage the seeker with the aim of collapsing distances rather than enhancing them, followed by an exploration of creation as overflow and finally, the essential “what” creation presents to the human experience.

 

In this present article, we will deal with Collapsing Distances and turn to the other elements in the next installment.

 

Collapsing Distances

 

The absurdity of life is the core through which we can approximate a working understanding of the secular mind. We have explored this perspective from the beginning as a way of being in the world, an existence that attempts to make sense of the human cry for significance in the face of a frigid universe indifferent to that cry. In this sense, the secular mind is born into a toneless reality where life is despairingly meaningless, leaving you with two options: 1) embrace the emptiness, or 2) rage against it with the end goal of creating the meaning that life itself has failed to give you.

 

As believers, we see this way of being as a tragedy, but to the secular mind it is not necessarily so. After all, the thing we claim provides us with significance, secular culture perceives as coercive. The belief that there is a God, for example, has been used historically to control, manipulate, and monetize guilt.[4] Thus, God is not something seculars are thirsting after but rather running from.

 

In this sense, the death of God is more of a relief than a catastrophe and those who embrace it are truly free to self-determine a meaningful life without primordial myths to obstruct them. Yes, the absence of God robs us of ultimate meaning—but with it, the human being can navigate the absurdity and suffering of existence by relying on his own autonomy and investing in his self-advancement as the only truly reliable foundation for a positively consequential life.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Evolution of Adventists’ Creation Belief Statement

 

Within this tension, evolution emerges as the best possible theory of origin even if the secular contact retains certain misgivings toward it. To appeal to the faith of pre-moderns is, therefore, to rob the secular man of a belief that sets him free from what political theorist Thomas Paine referred to as “the tyranny [of] religion.”[5]

 

He may indeed hold a certain demur toward science and the reliability of reason, but it’s much better than the compulsive corridors of institutionalized religion. Thus, to the secular man, the scientific view of origins remains influential despite its weaknesses. However, it would be inaccurate to suggest that all secular people stand ready to defend the tenets of Darwinism, for equally true is that many secular people simply don’t care about the topic at all. The transition from modern rationalism to postmodern relativism and now partway back in the metamodern oscillation between modernity and postmodernity means that many assume evolution is true because it’s taught, but do not derive any existential significance from it. It’s just there, and that is it. However, this doesn’t mean we can discount it or ridicule it. Instead, we need to understand it and seek to diminish the distance between our faith and the cultures approach to science.

 

To that aim, I want to spend a few moments exploring the overarching way in which science works with a special focus on origins. In doing so, I hope to provide the reader with a birds-eye view of the conversation which can give us the insights and tools necessary to engage meaningfully with our secular contacts. I will not here attempt to resolve any of the tensions within the debate, but simply offer the model I use. This model, while not designed to answer all questions, is imperative if we wish to keep the conversation going instead of scaring the contact away. In order to best understand the model, I will begin by exploring the overarching philosophy of science known as methodological naturalism.

 

Methodological Naturalism

 

The theory of evolution assumes methodological naturalism. In the scientific community, methodological naturalism is the a priori assumption that the universe is purely natural. That is, there is no supernatural. American astronomer Carl Sagan put it best when he stated:

 

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.[6]

 

As a result, everything that is and could be must of necessity be merely natural. With this assumption, science then embarks on a mission to understand the universe and our world. Rather than saying, “We don’t know how birds sing—only God understands it,” the scientist says,

 

We don’t know how birds sing so we will use this scientific method (encased in methodological naturalism) to study the phenomenon over and over again until we know.

 

Thus, in a sense, methodological naturalism is a dome within which science resides. Everything within the dome is physical. Everything beyond the dome is meta-physical. Consequently, science cannot be used to explore the meta-physical because, as far as science is concerned, there is no meta-physical (nothing beyond the dome). Therefore, science is bound to always function within the dome—the assumption that all is natural and material in our spatial-temporal realm. Understanding this “dome” (methodological naturalism as the constraint within which science operates) is imperative to anyone who seeks to engage this topic with any level of significance.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Genesis Account of Origins

 

Creation, on the other hand, is a revealed account. It communicates to us something that inherently involves God. Where methodological naturalism operates off the assumption that there is no God, the creation account operates off the assumption that there is and thus introduces what the dome does not permit—the presence of the metaphysical. In creation, there is no “dome” that constrains our exploration of being. No barrier prevents entry into the supernatural. To the contrary, we are invited to go beyond the natural and experience beyond.

 

Therefore, creation is about more than our material universe. It transcends this by centering itself in the person of a transcendent God. As a result, a story emerges in creation that differs widely from evolution. Creation is the product of intentional engineering, not blind purposeless forces, and this changes everything. An eternal, meta-temporal consciousness with personality and desire has birthed us. And from that intentional birthing, the believer discovers divine origins.

 

As such, while science tells us we evolved from a lower life form, creation tells us we emerged from the highest life form—complete, personalized, and wanted. Thus, in the end, they are two separate stories in both their surface elements and details. Therefore the question emerges—how do we engage the culture with a completely alternative story of the cosmos that embraces the very things that science is designed to discount as it operates within its dome?

 

We have three options. The first is to deny science as a reliable source of truth and insult its dependability. This is the route that most secular people feel all Christians—particularly the 7-day creationist—affirms. However, the fact that science—within the bounds of methodological naturalism—has been able to advance the most impressive technological revolutions known to man means that ridiculing it is a sure way of ridiculing yourself.

 

Most secular people think of the failure of religion in terms of bloodshed, social injustice, and primitive superstitions. But science, for all its foibles, has a track record of success from the GPS that gets you to work, the cell phone that connects you with your international relatives and the medical advancements that give sight to blind children and a greater life expectancy to humanity. Thus, understanding the basic way in which science works, even within its naturalistic constraints, and affirming that way is extremely valuable in conversation. Many times, a secular person will ask you questions about these things just to gauge your response. The vibe you introduce in your answer can be the difference between a continued exploration or the end of the road.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Creation in the Gospel of John

 

The second option that we have is to redefine our theology to accommodate the discoveries of science. But this has a few problems associated with it. For example, science is always adapting and evolving. Even the theory of evolution has undergone three massive overhauls in recent decades. Thus, if we make the Bible dependent on science we naturally make science the interpretive moderator of scripture—and an unstable one at that. Thus, while science can certainly enhance our reading of scripture, we get into problems with an accommodationists approach that elevates a thing within a dome as the infallible interpreter of a thing without a dome. This, to the perceptive reader, is bound to be fraught with problems.

 

The final option, which I recommend, is to allow science to stay within its dome and celebrate its achievements there. I don’t go to war with methodological naturalism because the bottom line is—it works! Through it, science has been able to advance in leaps and bounds—a progress not possible if we attributed every mystery to divine power as the pre-moderns did. Thus, I begin with the perspective that science is good and the dome is good.

 

However, I also affirm another contention—that while science operates well within the dome, creation calls us beyond the dome into a scenario which transcends the very laws that govern the spatial realm within the dome. As a result, there will always be tensions between science and scripture. One is constrained to only function within the dome. The other transcends the dome. The two, therefore, will never be able to fully harmonize.

 

The thing within the dome will never be able to prove the thing beyond the dome because the thing within the dome cannot even perceive anything beyond it. Likewise, the thing beyond the dome will never fit neatly within the constraints imposed by the dome because it naturally transcends them. Therefore, while the dome is good in that it enables science to advance in ways previously unimaginable, the dome itself can never be used to fully explain or understand the thing beyond the dome—that is God and the miraculous creation narrative of Genesis 1-2.

 

Thus, in summary, the presence of the dome in science and its absence in revelation means that scripture and science will never fully harmonize and that’s ok. They aren’t meant to. One gives us our metaphysical origins and the other, allows us to understand our spatial-temporal realm by removing the meta-physical as a cop-out to material realities we don’t comprehend.

 

In this sense, you are not trying to resolve the tensions between science and creation. Instead, you are embracing the tensions, admitting their difficulty and honoring the creation narrative at the same time. By staying away from the typical fundamentalist weaponization of Genesis (which always involves the demonization of the scientific community) and assuming a modest bearing we can engage the secular mind in a way that affirms what they value without attacking it, and simultaneously introduce God’s self-revelation without shying away from the tensions between science and faith.

 

The moment you assume the position that you don’t have all the answers, that you recognize the value of science and are not always sure how to harmonize it with the revelation of scripture, and that you affirm the revelation of scripture with a sense of awe and unpresuming reverence, you will find most secular people respond with respect and engage the narrative of creation despite the hang-ups that remain. It is when we pretend to know more than we do (like that guy who saw one DVD on geology and now he thinks he has a PhD) that we inflame the conversation and damage our witness.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Creation is Old Testament Prophetic Literature

 

The short version of all of this is that we simply need to be more humble in how we approach this discussion. In my personal experience, this posture has enabled me to explore the meaning and beauty of the creation narrative without re-defining it. I have yet to interact with a secular person who is curious about God that simultaneously rejects any and every mention of creation. Most who embrace evolution embrace it as the best possible explanation we have right now, not as an absolute truth. Others have a non-committal relationship with it and accept that once a supernatural being becomes a variable in reality, that such a being inherently alters our conceptualization of everything we claim to know. But it’s equally true that many secular people don’t really care about the evolution debate. And of those that do, a posture of humility goes a long way to connect and explore the narrative of creation with them. You don’t need to be an expert in biology to have a meaningful interaction on the narrative of creation, and that’s the bottom line.

 

Nevertheless, it isn’t enough to simply affirm the beauty of science. We need to also affirm the beauty of the Genesis story. This story, contrary to what many assume, is an extremely sophisticated and complex literary masterpiece. There is so much there that we don’t fully understand and perhaps never will. Thus, we approach the Genesis story, not as owners of the story but as recipients of its beauty and grandeur. We hold this narrative high in our hearts, while simultaneously affirming the wonders of the scientific method. And to the questions of how we harmonize the one with the other, I simply respond “I don’t know.”

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Creation in the Old Testament

 

And it is this approach which I refer to as “collapsing distances”. Rather than arguing how evolution is an idiotic idea, how the scientific community wants to erase God or—as Adventist evangelists commonly do—how evolution emerged because people stopped keeping the Sabbath (seriously?), I propose its best to take a deep breath, celebrate the beauty and reliability of science and do the thing we struggle to do the most as Adventists—admit we don’t have all the answers.

 

But that despite our inability to explain all things, we have encountered this self-revelation in scripture, this story of creation that grounds our being and our existence in the midst of life’s absurdity and suffering, and that this story—despite all the mysteries—is breathtaking and worth considering. Perhaps no one expressed the nature of this approach as good as Rachel Naomi Remen who brilliantly stated,

 

The secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.[7]

 

It is at this point that we enter into the other two perspectives I mentioned at the start – creation as overflow and the essential “what” of the narrative. In these two headings, we will find a poem that interacts so meaningfully with the secular language of being that the endless debates over creation and evolution will seem a little less significant.

Click here to read the rest of this series on Reimagining Adventism.

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Notes.

[1]Bill Nye v Ken Ham: should scientists bother to debate creationism? The Guardian.

[2] Sarah Kropp Brown, “Are Evangelicals Anti-Science?

[3] Dennis Prager, “Why Are Atheist Books Best Sellers?”

[4] Allen Clifton., “Organized Religion: A Tool for Ignorance, Power, and Control.”

[5] Austin Cline, “Insightful Thomas Paine Quotes on Religion.”

[6] Daryl E. Witmer, “What if the cosmos is all that there is?”

[7] Rachel Naomi Remen. “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging” (Riverhead Books, 2001)

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About the author

Marcos Torres

Marcos Torres is a pastor in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. He loves talking about faith, culture and Adventism. You can follow his blog at www.thestorychurchproject.com.