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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

the problem with the new atheists

Since 9/11, several atheists — most prominently Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett — have stepped up their criticism of religious beliefs. To these "New Atheists", religious moderates are as bad as religious extremists:

Here's Dawkins:

However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children -- sometimes even indoctrinating children -- to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith.

And Harris:

However, religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others.

They are completely wrong, of course. Dawkins and Harris have absolutely no idea what religious moderates teach our kids. Questioning is an important part of learning, and faith-learning is no exception. If we have a healthy faith, we can question our own beliefs; and we'll be very skeptical of the crazy views of extremists.

Ironically, Robert Wright suggests in Foreign Policy magazine that the New Atheists are the ones inadvertently lending support to the extremists:

If you're a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won't turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world's most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world's most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.

So too with foreign policy: Making "Western" synonymous with "aggressively atheist" isn't a recipe for quelling anti-Western Islamist radicalism.

Now Wright may be wrong. It may not be the case that extremists are benefitting from the campaigns of the New Atheists. But Wright does bring an important perspective to the table.

The New Atheists tend to speak in the world of abstracts, where all problems can be solved by simply not teaching kids about religion. Unfortunately, the real world has very concrete problems that require much greater cooperation among people who may not share the same viewpoints about things that cannot be objectively understood.

Living in Kansas, I have watched creationism rear its ugly head more than once in statewide politics. If religious moderates and non-religious people can't band together to put this monster down, Kansas students will be doomed to substandard education. That's a much more serious problem than trying to figure out exactly who is friendlier toward extremists.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

creationist infighting

Dr. Georgia Purdom of the young earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis (AiG) takes a look at "Intelligent Design" (ID):

The definition of ID can be best summarized as a theory that holds that “certain features” of living and nonliving things were designed by an “intelligent cause” as opposed to being formed through natural causes.1 The ID concept does not name the intelligent cause, nor does it claim that everything is designed, thus allowing for evolution/natural causes to play a role.

After acknowledging some things which, from the AiG perspective, are positives of ID, Dr. Purdom levels this criticism:

However, the major problem with the ID movement is a divorce of the Creator from creation. The Creator and His creation cannot be separated; they reflect on each other.

In today's culture, many are attracted to the ID movement because they can decide for themselves who the creator is—a Great Spirit, Brahman, Allah, God, etc. The current movement focuses more on what is designed, rather than who designed it.

And I agree. Well, I'm not so sure that anyone is drawn to ID because of the vagueness of its definition of God; my understanding is that the vast majority of ID proponents profess some form of Christianity.

But the ID movement does divorce the creator from creation. When ID proponents argue that the best evidence for a creator can be found in the organization of the bacterial flagellum, and not in the hearts of the followers of Christ, it becomes hard to imagine that they might be talking about a personal creator.

Dr. Purdom's next criticism is this:

Proponents of ID fail to understand that a belief in long ages for the earth formed the foundation of Darwinism. If God’s Word is not true concerning the age of the earth, then maybe it’s not true concerning other events of the Creation Week; and maybe God was not a necessary part of the equation for life after all.

On this one I have to side with the proponents of ID.

I see two fallacies here. First, the age of the earth — about 4.7 billion years according to the most accurate radiometric dating methods available today — is much greater than the age needed for Darwinian evolution. According to current estimates, life did not appear for more than a billion years after the planet was formed. What's more telescopic observations and background radiation measurements indicate that the universe existed for about nine billion years before our little solar system was formed. The ages of the earth and the universe have been continually refined as scientists have uncovered more precise methods of measuring them. These are not arbitrary numbers chosen for the benefit of Mr. Darwin.

Second, the book of Genesis was not written to provide us a simple historical timeline. Since ancient times, believers have applied allegorical interpretations to Bible stories to uncover deeper meanings. AiG's suggestion that we can't trust God if the earth is more than 6000 years old simply makes no sense. What's more, in staking out such a position the young earth creationists have placed themselves firmly in agreement with the new atheists. That's probably not the company you need if your goal is to promote the integrity of scripture. But I digress.

Dr. Purdom continues:

In addition, because the ID movement does not acknowledge God as Redeemer, there seems to be no final solution for the evil in this world; and by all appearances it will continue to reign supreme.

I'm not sure what is the basis for this criticism. As far as I can see, ID is not mutually exclusive with the idea of God as redeemer. And since many of the leading ID proponents claim to be Christians, they evidently don't see any contradiction between these two beliefs.

On the other hand, Dr. Purdom would be correct if she stated that ID does not require its adherents to believe in God as redeemer. In, fact it requires nothing at all in terms of belief in God.

And that, I think, is AiG's main concern with the ID movement. In their single-minded focus on sneaking their designer into science class, ID proponents have lost sight of the bigger picture. Young earth creationism, for all its flaws, at least ostensibly has the goal of glorifying God. The ID movement holds on to the creationism but cuts ties with God.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

on challenges to creationism

Michael Spencer has travelled a road many of us have travelled. He grew up accepting young earth creationism and hearing horror stories about evolution. Then he went to college:

My views on the relationship of scripture and science were more affected by my college Bible classes than my science classes. I learned that scripture must be rightly interpreted. It must be understood within its world, and interpreted rightly in mine. If I came away with any suspicions that the young earth creationists might be wrong, it came from my developing an appreciation for Biblical interpretation, not from the Biology lab. Secular science didn’t turn my head. I learned that the people waving the Bible around weren’t necessarily treating it with the respect it deserved.

Seminary only increased the divide:

My Bible instructors taught me to respect the Biblical text by not imposing my interpretations and favorite hobby horses on the scriptures. What became clearer to me over my seminary career was that many of my evangelical and fundamentalist brethren were not willing to let the scriptures be what they were or to let them speak their own language.

And what is the language of Genesis? Not the language of scientific hypothesis:

Does it match up with scientific evidence? Who cares? Here I differ with Hugh Ross and the CRI writers. I do not believe science, history or archaeology of any kind establishes the truthfulness of the scripture in any way.

In my view, both the scientific establishment’s claims to debunk Genesis and the creationists claims to have established Genesis by way of relating the text to science are worthless. Utterly and completely worthless and I will freely admit to being bored the more I hear about it.

Spencer asks:

Does the Bible need to be authorized by scientists or current events to be true? What view of inspiration is it that puts the Bible on trial before the current scientific and historical models? Has anyone noticed what this obsession with literality does to the Bible itself?

Part of the problem, I think, is that we live in a vastly different world from that of the Bible writers. Modern science has become such an integral part of our everyday lives that it is hard to imagine a culture that wasn't concerned about how well the biblical text fit with astronomical observations and fossil excavations. But if we are even going to attempt to understand what these stories meant to their first hearers, we need to separate ourselves from our own cultural prejudices. It won't be an easy task, but we'll never understand the Bible if we don't.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

reading genesis 3 literally

A website that calls itself "The Truth Problem" looks at what it would mean to take the Garden of Eden stories literally, and concludes that no Christian actually does.

Evidence tells us that in the early Christian Church, most theologians and leaders believed that the Creation account was at least partially, if not wholly symbolic. Many modern Christians, however, especially in America, say that this account must be read literally. They feel it is dangerous to treat portions of the Bible metaphorically when they are not explicitly stated to be metaphorical.

But here's the rub. Even those who say we should read these chapters literally do not, themselves, read them literally.

The Truth Problem demonstrates this by looking at Genesis 3, the story of the serpent and the tree. Under a strictly literal interpretation:

  1. The serpent is a talking animal

  2. The serpent deceived the humans

  3. The serpent was cursed above all other animals

  4. The serpent's punishment is to crawl on its belly

  5. The serpent will bite humans' heels

  6. The serpent will be crushed by humans

Under the traditional Christian interpretation of Genesis 3, these six statements are all understood metaphorically. They are understood to mean:

  1. The serpent represents Satan

  2. Satan is the deceiver of humanity

  3. Satan is cursed above all created things

  4. Satan's power is diminished

  5. Satan will attack the Messiah

  6. The Messiah will triumph

Why is it that so many Christians who have no problem reading Genesis 3 metaphorically, can't do the same with Genesis 1 and 2?

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

does the creation museum support evolution?

Kenneth Chang says yes.

The descendants of the ark dog include foxes, states one of the museum signs. This is pretty incredible if you don’t accept the theory of evolution. Dogs (and wolves) have a genome of 78 chromosomes. The red fox has 34 chromosomes. By most any measure, dogs and foxes are different species and yet here in the Creation Museum, it was stated that foxes had diversified from dogs, with major changes in appearance and genetic make-up, in an incredibly short time of less than 4,500 years — far, far faster than an evolutionary biologist would claim.

So I suppose this would be called evolution, of a kind. The Creation Museum faces many difficulties in putting its chronology together in such a short time frame.

In a separate article, Chang notes:

Tamaki Sato was confused by the dinosaur exhibit. The placards described the various dinosaurs as originating from different geological periods — the stegosaurus from the Upper Jurassic, the heterodontosaurus from the Lower Jurassic, the velociraptor from the Upper Cretaceous — yet in each case, the date of demise was the same: around 2348 B.C.

2348 B.C. is the creationists' date for the Great Flood. According to the musem, some 50 species of dinosaur apparently were included on the ark, but afterward were unable to cope with the changed environment and soon died off. Why God would order Noah to load these behemoths onto the ark, knowing that they would not survive anyway, is left to the imagination.

The scientists' visit to the museum was the idea of Arnold Miller, professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati.

“Too often, academics tend to ignore what’s going on around them,” Dr. Miller said. “I feel at least it would be valuable for my colleagues to become aware not only of how creationists are portraying their own message, but how they’re portraying the paleontological message and the evolutionary message.”

Dr. Bengtson noted that to explain how the few species aboard the ark could have diversified to the multitude of animals alive today in only a few thousand years, the museum said simply, “God provided organisms with special tools to change rapidly.”

“Thus in one sentence they admit that evolution is real,” Dr. Bengtson said, “and that they have to invoke magic to explain how it works.”

To me, that's the most inexplicable thing about today's creationists. They essentially acknowledge that evolution occurs, but they remain skeptical about the well-understood and well-documented driving forces behind it. What's the point?

I'm not alone in failing to understand:

“I think they should rename the museum — not the Creation Museum, but the Confusion Museum,” said Lisa E. Park, a professor of paleontology at the University of Akron.

“Unfortunately, they do it knowingly,” Dr. Park said. “I was dismayed. As a Christian, I was dismayed.”

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

did jesus believe in creation?

That's the title of a Ken Ham vignette appearing on the Institute for Creation Research website.

According to Ham:

In Christ's day, the prevailing philosophy on origins included evolution and long ages of earth history.…The same was true for the philosophy of Moses' day, as he prepared the book of Genesis.

Ham clarifies that he is not referring to Darwinian evolution, but pagan mythologies that taught:

[T]he earth and the universe, acting on itself by the forces of nature (which were given names by some) had organized itself into its present state, and was responsible for all of life.

Ham says Jesus rejected this evolutionary thinking. To build his case, Ham takes a snippet from Mark:

…from the beginning of the creation which God created (Mark 13:19)

a snippet from Matthew:

…such as was not since the beginning of the world (Greek kosmos) to this time (Matthew 24:21)

a snippet from John:

…for Thou lovest Me before the foundation of the world (John 17:24)

a few more from Matthew:

…He maketh His sun to rise (Matthew 5:45)

Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles (Matthew 7:16)

Behold the fowls of the air: …your heavenly Father feedeth them (Matthew 6:26)

a couple more from Mark:

The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)

From the beginning of creation God made them male and female (Mark 10:6)

and some more from Matthew:

Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh (Matthew 19:6)

Have ye not read that He…made them male and female [quoting Genesis 1 :27], and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: And they twain shall be one flesh? [quoting Genesis 2:24] (Matthew 19:5)

and concludes that these snippets,

when coupled with the total lack of any reference to evolution or long ages

prove Jesus to be a modern Young-Earth Creationist (YEC). Personally, I don't think the case is that clear at all.

In between snippets, Ham's vignette provides a running commentary on how these half-sentences fit together to build the YEC doctrine. But the way I see it, the Bible ought to be able to stand on its own.

What do you think? Does Ken Ham have a solid case, or is he imposing a foreign structure on a set of teachings that were really talking about something else?

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

the stumbling block

I don't think the title was meant to be humorous.

Marcia Segelstein has a guest column at OneNewsNow, titled Intelligent Design for dummies. (Ron Britton at Bay of Fundie replies, Why Yes! Yes It Is!)

Segelstein claims not to be interested in the whole debate over ID:

As far as I was concerned, all that mattered was my belief that God created the universe and everything in it. How He did it, when He did it, and what complex processes were involved were beyond my extremely limited understanding. They still are. And what continues to matter most to me is that God get the credit for creation.

And yet, she is drawn to the story of one Brian Westad. His experience

made me understand how the predominance of Darwinism can be a stumbling block to faith, even for believing Christians.

In short, Westad learned about evolution in college, but had trouble reconciling it with his belief in an active God. He leaned toward theistic evolution for a while, but began to drift toward atheism.

Then Westad began a research project with another student who introduced him to ID and to Michael Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box. Behe is the originator of the hypothesis of "irreducible complexity," the idea that some things in this world — the rotating flagellum of certain types of bacteria, the blood clotting cascade found in most vertibrates — simply would not work until all the parts were assembled.

Behe's ideas gave Westad a reason to believe again. Westad is now the Executive Director for the IDEA Center, a non-profit organization for promoting ID in schools.


Segelstein's article contains some glaring errors: She calls Phillip Johnson "a leading I.D. scientist," though he is by profession an attorney, a college professor, an author, and a leading strategist for the ID movement. He is not, however, a scientist. Segelstein refers to "the fact that the bacterial flagellum could only function when all its components were present simultaneously." [emphasis mine] Unfortunately, other scientists have discovered ways in which the flagellum could have been built in stages.

But that's really beside the point. The point of Segelstein's article is that "Darwinism" can be a stumbling block to faith, and that ID is more sympathetic toward Christianity.

This view is disturbing on more than one level.

First, and most basic, is this: We are not allowed to choose our science based on how easily it integrates with our faith. It doesn't matter whether ID meshes better with what we want to believe. What matters is which hypothesis gives us a more complete understanding of the workings of the natural world. Just by the way the hypothesis was formed, ID cannot win that battle; it insists that some things are just too complicated to explain.

But ID is disturbing at a deeper level as well. Segelstein's article makes a big deal about Westad's difficulties reconciling evolution with faith in God. Yet, for me at least, ID presents the greater challenge.

Proponents of ID ask us to believe in a creator who went to great lengths to build a rotary motor to help H.pylori and E.coli bacteria navigate our digestive tracts. Yet this same creator sits idly by while 25,000 children die every day, most from preventable diseases.

The ID proponents say their hypothesis tells us nothing about the creator. I disagree. We can infer from the ID hypothesis that this creator cares more about germs than humans. I don't see any way of reconciling the implications of ID with Christianity.

I grant that if Christians accept the modern evolutionary synthesis, we still have to grapple with a God who lets 25,000 children die every day. Still, that is a problem for Christians of all stripes, including those who believe in young earth creationism and those who maintain that we can't possibly know how we got to this point. But only the ID proponents propose a model in which the creator shows such loving care for the little germs that can make us sick or kill us.

If that's not a stumbling block for Christians, I don't know what is.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

the schizochroal compound eye

Kurt Wise is perhaps the world's best educated creationist. He earned a doctorate in paleontology from Harvard, where his advisor was no less than Stephen Jay Gould. Dr. Wise has also been described by Richard Dawkins as an "honest creationist" because he freely acknowledges that his belief in creationism is grounded in his reading of scripture and not in his reading of the scientific data.

In an article for Answers in Genesis, Dr. Wise suggests that, outside the Bible, the best evidence for creation comes from "the design of organisms past and present".

The schizochroal compound eye of the trilobite (a horseshoe crab-like organism of the past), for examp le, contains the only known lens in the biological world which corrects for focusing problems that result from using non-flexible lenses. The designs of the schizochroal lenses, in fact, are the very same designs that man himself has developed to correct for the same problems. Furthermore, the design of the schizochroal eye combines this optimum focusing capability with the optimum sensitivity to motion provided by the compound eye as well as the stereoscopic (3-D) vision provided by closely spaced eyes.

For another perspective — and photos — see this article on the evolution of the trilobite eye.

This design, in fact, seems to far exceed the needs of the trilobite. The origin of the design of the schizochroal eye is not understood by means of any known natural cause. Rather, it is best understood as being due to an intelligent (design-creating) cause, through a process involving remarkably high manipulative ability. Among available hypotheses, creation by God is the most reasonable hypothesis for the origin of the complexity of the trilobite’s schizochroal eye.

One wonders, though, what is the most reasonable hypothesis for humankind's greatly inferior eyes. If I understand the hypothesis correctly, there was an intelligent (design-creating) cause named God, who crafted a very extravagant eye for some types of small hard-shelled, segmented creatures that lived more than 300 million maybe a few thousand years ago, and has never reached the same level of design perfection since. This is what results when we reduce God to the level of a scientific hypothesis.

So what happened to the intelligent (design-creating) cause named God? Has he lost his touch? Gotten distracted or lost interest? Surely he is a god! Perhaps he fell asleep, or has wandered away, or maybe he is relieving himself.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

teach the controversy

A picture is worth a thousand words. From Sneer Review; hat tip James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix

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Friday, March 21, 2008

both sides do it

In response to recent post a look at uncommon descent, commenter gleaner63 said:

A few months ago an interesting exchange took place on the Neil Cavuto Show (Fox News). The debate was between a Global Warming advocate and a skeptic. The advocate, a member of Greenpeace said (paraphrased); "...look, you *are not* a climatologist so no one should take what you say seriously...". Cavuto stepped in and asked the Greenpeace rep what his feild of study was; " training I am an economist...".

Aside: What I find puzzling about this is why Fox News presented a debate about climate science without inviting a climatologist. But I guess there's more than one way be "fair and balanced".

gleaner63 continues:

The point is both sides engage in this. When Dawkins or Sagan or Asimov condemn Christianity, a lot of non-believers take their opinions as gospel, although none of the aforementioned have any credentials in theology or anything closely related.

I don't like the phrase "both sides," with its implication that there can be only two possible positions to take. Still, gleaner63 raises an important point about atheists and theology.

I've written repeatedly about Dawkins' failure to grasp even the basics of Christian theology. It's not just a matter of having no credentials -- I'm no theologian myself -- but of willfully ignoring the contributions of those who do know somthing about the subject.

When Richard Dawkins speaks about religion while dismissing the insights of theologians, and when William Dembski speaks about evolution while dismissing the research of biologists, they are being willfully ignorant. And when Fox News presents climate change as merely a debate between environmentalists and skeptics, it's being willfully ignorant.

Sadly, willful ignorance is currently in fashion in the United States. We see it in politics, where most people get their information second hand, from sources that pre-spin it into sound bites. We see it in television news, where the sound bites are welcomed because the half hour news format does not allow time for in depth analysis of any topic.

Laypeople can become knowledgeable about almost any subject, but it takes some effort. You won't learn annything by watching Fox News or reading a popular book by a pontificating expert-in-another-field. Go directly to the people who know the most about the subject, and you'll get the best information.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

a look at uncommon descent

I don't often blog about creation and evolution, though several bloggers that I read do. Henry Neufeld writes frequently on the subject. Michael Westmoreland-White is currently in the middle of a comprehensive series on the topic.

These bloggers are quick to note that they are not scientists, and though they both appear to be knowledgeable about scientific matters, they focus more on the theological side of the issue.

On the other hand, organizations like the Discovery Institute and the Creation Museum are quick to trot out lists of scientists who oppose evolution.

A closer look, though, reveals that virtually all of these scientists specialize in fields other than biology. (The same pattern holds for climate change skeptics and climatology, but that's another issue for another time.)

Consider this list of contributors to Uncommon Descent, the blog of Dr. William Dembski, Research Professor in Philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

  • William Dembski: Mathematician and Philosopher
  • Denyse O'Leary: Author
  • Barry Arrington: Accountant
  • Lee Bowman: Entrepreneur
  • Salvador Cordova: Consultant/Engineer
  • Crandaddy: "Philosopher-in-training"
  • DaveScot: Computer Engineer
  • Gil Dodgen: Software Engineer
  • Red: Graduate Student in "biophysical sciences"
  • Scott: Computer Programmer

There's not a biologist in the lot, with the possible exception of "Red", the graduate student in "biophysical sciences". Now if I were challenging the foundation of modern biology, I'd recognize that my biggest weakness is that I don't have a degree in biology, and I'd recruit a first-rate biologist to help develop and test an alternative. Dr. Dembski, on the other hand, has gathered a set of computer and engineering professionals, and blended them in almost equal measure with a group of non-scientists. Is it any wonder that leading biologists do not take this group seriously?

Digging a little deeper, we find just exactly why this group opposes evolution in the first place:

Materialistic ideology has subverted the study of biological and cosmological origins so that the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted. The problem, therefore, is not merely that science is being used illegitimately to promote a materialistic worldview, but that this worldview is actively undermining scientific inquiry, leading to incorrect and unsupported conclusions about biological and cosmological origins.

It's not that the science itself is bad. It's merely been corrupted by a "materialistic ideology", which undermines scientific inquiry. In other words, it's the philosophy, not the science, that Dembski is trying to overthrow.

Now it becomes clear. Philosophy is Dembski's specialty. He does not need to recruit an expert in the field.

But, if this is the route Dembski wishes to take, his task becomes much more difficult. His goal must be to find weaknesses not in evolutionary theory, but in the scientific method itself.

I am not a philosopher, but I am skeptical about his chances for success.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

when santa met darwin

What do Santa Claus and creationism have in common? The Ship of Fools has the answer.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

the radical center

Last month Andy Bryan wrote a post, Unclaiming the Center, in which he responds to a friend of his who thinks the solution to divisiveness in the church is for liberals and conservatives to look for common ground in the center.

Andy replies:
Sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me; I am not in the center, I am liberal. I am an honest-to-God “progressive.” If you are going to label me, label me left wing.

...for me, the solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground. That would not be authentic to who I am, nor to whom any of us are.

Call him liberal, but don't even think about calling him wishy-washy.

He makes some good points in his post, and I urge you to read the whole thing if you haven't already.

Nevertheless, I tend to disagree with his main point. I think it is vitally important that we do look to reclaim the radical center. But perhaps this disagreement is more in perception than in fact. I may be using the word "center" differently than either Andy or his friend are using it.

As I understand them, "liberal" and "conservative" are political terms that have spilled over into other areas of our lives. In American presidential politics, it is customary for candidates to play up their "liberal" or "conservative" credentials during the primary season, to appeal to the party's "base," then to "move to the center" as the general election approaches, to try to appeal to a wider range of voters.

This can be represented by the following image:

The black part of the line represents the center, and the white parts represent the liberal and conservative wings. Under this paradigm, Andy is correct that liberals (or conservatives) are not being authentic if they try to "claim the center" as a common ground.

But it seems to me that this entire paradigm is missing something.

A few weeks ago my wife took our 4-year-old son to the farmer's market and let him buy something with his own money. He spent a quarter, and got a home-grown peach.

Normally, when he eats fruit from the grocery store, he will eat a little bit from one side and leave the rest. So when they were in the car, and Nicki heard, "I'm done," from the back seat, she didn't expect him to have eaten the whole peach. Yet when she reached back for the remains, he handed her just the pit.

A peach pit is a better metaphor than a political campaign, I believe, for the radical center of the Christian faith.

Here we don't have two fringes at opposite ends, just a solid inner layer with a protective outer layer. The outer, fleshy part of the peach actually provides the nutrients necessary for the seed to grow -- or for a four-year-old boy. One way or another, though, the flesh will be consumed, and only the core will remain.

The core of the Christian faith can be found in the gospels, throughout all of Scripture, and in the ancient creeds. That's not to say that there is nothing more to Christianity than this. The church is one body with many parts, and God calls each of us to fill different roles.

But whether you're anti-oil or anti-abortion, and regardless of how important you personally think those issues are, those are not the essentials of the faith. Likewise, Christianity is not primarily about creationism, fair trade, gay rights, or even a living wage. Our faith may inform us about those issues, but we are almost certain to find ourselves at some point fellowshipping with those who hold different views.

That's when we need to affirm the radical center -- the core -- of our faith. If we cannot fellowship with those who hold differing views on the peripheral issues, we've failed to understand what Christianity is all about.

Unless I'm misreading him, that's essentially what Andy is saying too. So perhaps I don't disagree with him after all.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

another noah's ark found

Bob Cornuke has recently returned from Iran, where he led an expedition of "business, law, and ministry leaders" on a search for the fabled Noah's Ark. In an article for Worldview Weekend, Brannon Howse describes an object discovered about 13,000 feet up a mountain slope, made of basalt or possibly wood.

Ed Brayton has provided a critique of Howse's article at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Brayton focuses on the lack of scientific credibility: no archaelogists or geologists were included in the expedition, and no supporting lab work is referenced in the article.

But completely apart from questions of scientific rigor, I see serious problems with this expedition. Not this expedition in particular, but with all searches for Noah's Ark or the Garden of Eden or the Holy Grail. Such quests are always rooted in a certain set of assumptions, and among these is the assumption that there is value in the historical verification of biblical stories.

This assumption is a product of the modern world. We live in an age of science, where facts are equated with truth. Scientists understand the past by making observations about the present. If it doesn't happen today, it couldn't have happened in the past. Science is the study of natural processes, and everything in nature is assumed to have a natural cause. Supernatural explanations are tossed aside as irrelevant.

The consequence of such an assumption is that many of the early Bible stories are no longer seen as true: There's no archaeological evidence of such a large-scale migration as described in Exodus, so it didn't happen. The sun can't stand still as described in Joshua, so it didn't happen. It can't rain fast enough to flood the earth as described in Genesis, so it didn't happen.

Oddly, many literalist Christians have adopted this same assumption, but with the twist that if they can just find some proof that this happened in the past, they can prove modern science wrong and score a victory for God.

So self-styled explorers like the late Ron Wyatt and now Bob Cornuke have dedicated their lives to hunting down artifacts that can prove the truth of the Bible.

The problem with this approach, theologically, is that by adopting the modernist assumption that truth = facts, they have lost sight of deeper truth. In trying to turn the Bible into a history book, they have limited its relevance. If the Bible is meaningful only as a story about the past, then we might as well be atheists.

What modernists don't understand is that the truth of a story is often much deeper than the bare facts. That's why Jesus taught in parables. But imagine if a modern investigative reporter were able to travel through time and interview Jesus about his teachings. What might some of the questions be?

  • "What is the name of the man the good Samaritan helped? I'd like to hear the story from his perspective."
  • "Who was the foreign farmer the prodigal son worked for? Did he realize that asking a Jew to work with pigs is demeaning?"
  • "When the sower sowed his seeds on the path, the rocky soil, and the weeds, did he understand what the consequences would be? If he did, wouldn't you agree that he wasted the seeds?"

In our culture, we are conditioned to ask empirical questions to get to the truth of the matter. The problem is, many of those questions don't get to the truth of the matter. Jesus taught in parables because some truths can't be explained directly. To look only at the bare facts of the parables is to miss the point.

Those who trek through Middle Eastern mountains looking for Noah's ark are making the same mistake. Anything Bob Cornuke and his group might have found will not add one iota to the truth of the Bible. To put it another way, the Bible is no less true if it isn't backed by archaeology.

The Bible cannot be reduced to a mere record of the past; it is a book of timeless truths about the human condition and about God's unconditional, redemptive love. That kind of love will never be found in wooden objects buried in the ground.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

creationism is a type of paganism

So says Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno.

Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism, which at the end of the day is a kind of paganism - it's turning God into a nature god. And science needs religion in order to have a conscience, to know that, just because something is possible, it may not be a good thing to do.

Further details are available in this article. Hat tip to Elizabeth D at Street Prophets.