Most people understand vaguely that Christianity in the 21st century is in a different world than it was a hundred years ago. My hope in this series of articles is to highlight the story of how and why we find ourselves in a different world. This is a fascinating story, and it is one that I am looking forward to telling. However, the story is not going to be an academic one, nor is it meant to present an argument. These are meant to be short reflections about what I believe are key moments when we learned something new and important about the Gospel.
I want to give Christians looking to the future of the church a better knowledge of how we have come to the place we are now. I believe that the lessons learned are the tools we need to move forward in this odd time of being church. I assume most readers do not know a lot about these events. If any of the reflections are particularly interesting to you, I link to some helpful resources so that you can learn more.
It is hard to pick a place to begin this story. There are many places to start, but for this one, I will start with the beginning. The very beginning… as told in the book of Genesis. “In the beginning…” Most Christians are deeply familiar with this symphonic story of Creation in six days, with a complex interweaving of time, space, light, creatures, humanity, and ultimately Sabbath rest. And all of it was pronounced good.
If you could have been there at the Creation, what would you have seen? Prior to the 19th Century, I think most Christians would have thought it took place exactly as Genesis chapter one describes it and would have thought that all of this happened about 6000 years ago. In the 21st Century, most Mainline Christians do not think this. What happened for this change? That is a complex story, but the central player in that story is the rise of modern science.
Three Short Vignettes
Galileo was an astronomer embroiled in the controversies of the 17th Century. The biggest of these concerned the Heliocentric Theory of the Solar System. Most Christians, including the authorities of the Catholic Church, asserted that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Everything else, including the sun, moved around it. They based this assertion on the biblical account of the creation of the universe, and on models rooted in the philosopher Aristotle’s works.
Based on his own astronomical observations, Galileo thought the prevailing view was wrong. He even wrote that the Bible was an authority on faith and morals, but not on science. 387 years ago, on June 22, 1633, he was found “suspect of heresy” and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained until he died. Legends say that Galileo, at the moment of his recantation of the Heliocentric heresy, said under his breath, ‘Still it moves.’ The church could force him to say the words, but his own observations showed him they were wrong.
You may not have heard of James Hutton, but he is known as the father of modern geology. He is the reason we started to think that the world was much older than 6000 years. In the 18th century, Hutton spent years puzzling over the mystery of rock formations. There was something that just didn’t make sense. As I mentioned earlier, most people in Europe at that time believed that the earth was about 6000 years old. They arrived at this age through a close reading of the timeline and genealogies in the Bible.
Scientists had explained layers in the rock by saying they were laid down during the great flood. But that didn’t match what Hutton was seeing in front of him. As he puzzled over the rock formations, he did not see how a 6000-year timeline could be possible. In June of 1788, he brought a group of scientists to a particular rock formation on Scotland’s west coast that he believed proved that the world was far older than humanity had ever imagined. He suspected it was millions of years old. We now place its age in the billions.
By the time Charles Darwin published his famous book On the Origin of Species in 1859, most people in the scientific and even religious communities had become convinced that the earth was old. In fact, the idea of evolution itself as a way organisms changed was not new either. But his two expansions of this theory put Charles Darwin on the map. First, by articulating Natural Selection, he gave us a way to understand the mechanics of biological change without referring to God at all. Second, he made the radical suggestion that humanity is not a special case. Just like other species, humans also evolved over time from less complex organisms. Science has moved on from Darwin and revised many of the details of his theory. But the general thrust of his claim is still intact, and it doesn’t match up well with Genesis 1.
The Crisis of Science vs. Faith
Why do I tell these three vignettes? Together, they illustrate the crisis that Christian faith has had to address over and over. What do you do when your observations of the world don’t match up with what you believe? Each of these scientists made observations about the universe that went against what the church of the day was teaching.
There are three main responses to this crisis. First, the fact that the Biblical description did not match the scientific observation of the world led to a crisis of faith and caused some to abandon their faith. Second, some did not believe that the Bible could ever err. So they concluded that something must be fundamentally wrong with the scientific enterprise. This group evolved into a movement I will talk about four posts from now, the fundamentalists. The third response, which is the one I am advocating, is to re-examine the Biblical witness and ask if we were understanding it correctly. Was Genesis 1 trying to be a scientific description of creation?
Reexamining Genesis 1
The answer of course is no. One of the gifts of this challenge is that we have had to look particularly hard at the ancient writings that make up the first eleven chapters of Genesis and ask what they are about. These investigations have led to profound insights into the message of Bible by looking at the bigger conversations with the cultures among which the ancient Israelites lived.
Scholars have gained tremendous insight into the conceptual thought world of the Israelites through this research . We now understand that Genesis 1 is working out of a cosmology from the ancient world. The author of Genesis 1 was answering questions probably raised by the Babylonian creation myths, and giving a different answer. The author of Genesis 1 was trying to answer their questions, not ours.
Poetry Expressing Timeless Truths
When we look at its context, we see that Genesis 1 is not trying to describe the mechanics of creation. Instead, we are given an ancient poem that proclaims that there is only one God, and that the universe was not born in violence (as in the Babylonian myth), but in peace. Genesis 1 is telling us that creation is orderly and has a meaning and a rhythm. These are timeless truths.
This third response tells us that we can hold to faith AND to scientific exploration. If you want to explore this perspective further, I suggest the site Biologos. Its creator is Francis Collins, a faithful Christian who was the head of the Human Genome Project. It is full of articles, videos and book suggestions.