Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A response to the Creation Debate

Last night, I watched much of the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate on the viability of young earth creationism as a science. It was a surprisingly civil debate, and I was very grateful that it happened. I thought it may be prudent to weigh in on their discussion.

I found the opening statements of both debaters to be compelling and well organized. Neither one of them made comments that were off putting. Going into the debate, I favored Nye's evolutionary views, but kept an open mind on Ham's arguments.

The biggest problem throughout the debate seemed to be one of authority. Nye did not recognize the authority of scripture in explaining the origins of the universe. Ham, likewise, did not accept the scientific evidence as valid.

My objection was that both used scripture in an all-or-nothing mindset: either all of scripture is factual, or none of it is. I just don't think that's an accurate way of interacting with a complex library of documents, written over a long period of time by dozens of different authors.

One of the major emphases in my theological education was to consider the genre of the text one is studying. For some genres, one can assert a certain level of historical accuracy. For others, a more nuanced approach is called for. In a twist of irony, my experience is that those who rush to claim Genesis is literal are equally quick to read the Song of Solomon as an allegory.

Let me be clear: Scripture is so much more than a fact sheet. It's a complex and beautiful work of faithful people for thousands of years, both in writing down what God inspired and in transmitting it to future generations through compiling, translating, copying, and teaching. It is a unique and authoritative witness to what God has done in the world. It is powerful, compelling, and potentially transformative because God is revealed in it. But it's purpose is not to provide a list of unquestionable facts. It's purpose is to point to God.

There are several creation stories in scripture, some of them disagree on the order that things happened. But that doesn't bother me because the purpose of an origin story is not to maintain absolute facts, but to reveal the identity of the creator and the created. Genesis 1 shows a powerful God who speaks into being things that do not exist. Genesis 2 shows an intimate God who plants a garden and molds people out of clay. Job 38-41 shows a God who is active throughout all of nature. John 1 shows the presence of Christ throughout creation. Each of these says something different about God, and something about us as well.

God has given us eyes to see and minds to interpret, and the Holy Spirit is active in every time and place. Perhaps the origin story that these evidences point to is spiritually compelling because it means that God has been active for billions of years, forming the world into something new and amazing each day.

That's called creatio continua, and we studied it in my theology class. We also studied creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing. Neither was espoused as the "correct" view, and I don't think they're opposing. I hold to a blend of the two: God created the universe out of nothing, and continues to renew creation each moment.

As the debate went on, I was troubled that so much of Ham's arguments seemed to be thoroughly steeped in confirmation bias. Science, as I understand it, seeks to disprove theories, eliminating the impossible so that only the most accurate description remains. Creationist "science," at least as Ham presented it, was far more interested in confirming a fundamentalist and un-nuanced interpretation of the Bible than in refining its own views. That's bad science, and that's bad theology.

But, and I think think this is the most important lesson from last night's debate, People who disagree can come together for a coherent and civil discussion, without needing to change the other's mind. The exchange of ideas is valuable in and of itself. Because like creation, that kind of relational discussion tells us something about God, and about ourselves.


  1. Very well said, Joseph! I missed the debate, but I suspect my response would have been much the same. I, like you, am so thankful for my seminary education. I wish everyone had the opportunity to study faith with such depth. We wrestle with tradition and translation and interpretation and application so much that when the education is complete, you realize that you have only just begun to learn. And people who feel they know all they need to know have no idea, how little they truly know of God.

    Rev. Troy S. Braswell

    1. Troy! Thanks for the comment. I think if you click the link at the top of the blog post you can watch the debate on youtube.

      I think I hear you expressing a sentiment that the only absolute is God, and our humanity cannot approach that absolute. We cannot know everything, but since God has revealed Godself to us, we also can know something. Therefore let us eschew easy answers and wrestle with God.

  2. Very thought provoking..thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    1. Thanks for reading! I'm always grateful for the opportunity to provoke thought. It opens space for the Holy Spirit to reveal something new.