Coptic Apologetics Discussion Group is up and running for the third year, and the first two monthly topics are scientific ones. January’s meeting was on the Big Bang Theory while February’s meeting will look more broadly at the sometimes rocky relationship between faith and science. But how rocky does that relationship need to be? Does it need to be as difficult as some would make it to be? If you are one of those people who believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, I must warn you: you are not going to like what I have to say.
I have to confess that although I took an interest in Young Earth Creationism for some years, I have now come to pretty much reject it wholesale. It really comes down to how you read the Bible, and how willing you are to let reality be itself rather than trying to squash it into a pre-arranged box of your own making. Such an approach can lead to ridiculous situations, such as the one Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine dug for himself in the early seventeenth century. Consider his view of the preposterous new idea that the earth might orbit around the sun rather than the other way around.
… to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the centre of the heavens and that the earth revolves very swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.
“Injuring our faith and making the sacred scripture false”? Really? The good cardinal’s words seem absurd to the modern Christian. Why in the world would he be so dogmatic? The fault lies, I think, in his mistaking his own way of interpreting scripture for the scripture itself. Even today, Young Earth Creationists fall into the same trap, insisting that if their very literal interpretation of the Bible is disproved by science, then the whole Bible becomes worthless and all of Christianity – all of it, mind you – collapses into a bottomless abyss of unreliability. Nice of them to include us in their prophetic doom.
But no, I object. My Christianity is in no such danger from the results of science. I take my lead from the marvellous wisdom of the ancient Fathers of the Christian Church. While there is a bewildering variety of opinions among them on matters we would today call “scientific”, there is a common thread of humility and dedication to getting at genuine Truth that runs through their thought. A few quotes serve to illustrate this admirable attitude.
It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the motion of rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about the definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of the years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty, by reasoning or by experience even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, however, and greatly to be avoided, that he should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. – St Augustine.
Now we ourselves speak on these subjects with great fear and caution, discussing and investigating rather than laying down fixed and certain conclusions … we are dealing, as well as we can, with subjects that call for discussion rather than for definition. – Origen.
If we read the events in the divine scriptures about hidden things and things most removed from our eyes, it will be possible, saving always the faith which fills us, to formulate various opinions about these matters. Let us then not be too hasty in accepting any such opinion which, were the truth to be sought more carefully, might afterwards be found unsound, and lest we might be found in error by our attempting to establish what is but our own view to be that of the Scriptures, whereas we ought to wish that the view taken by the Scriptures should become our own. – St Augustine.
And finally, one of my favourite ancient Fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa.
As for the question of precisely how any single thing came into existence, we must banish it altogether from our discussion. Even in the case of things which are quite within the grasp of our understanding and of which we have sensible apprehension, it would be impossible for the speculative reason to grasp the ‘how’ of the production of the phenomenon, so much so that even inspired and saintly men have deemed such questions insoluble. For instance, the apostle says, “through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen are not made of things which do appear” (Hebrews 11:13) … Let us, following the example of the apostle, leave the question of the ‘how’ in each created thing without meddling with it at all but merely observing incidentally that the movement of God’s will becomes at any moment that He pleases a fact, and the intention becomes at once realised in nature. – St Gregory of Nyssa.
If only St Gregory were around today! His words seem surprisingly appropriate to the modern debate with Young Earth Creationism. They are even more compelling when one considers that he was not speaking in reaction to modern scientific theories, but simply out of his usual habits in understanding the Bible and seeking for truth. He had every right to reject the “speculative reasoning” of the pagan philosophers of his day about the origins of the world, but would he have rejected the scientific method and its conclusions if he were alive today? My guess is that given his dedication to truth, he would not.
But we can advance even more reasons for rejecting Young Earth Creationism, using material that was not available to the ancient Fathers. Firstly, their literal interpretation is only one of many possible ways to interpret passages like the creation narrative in the first chapters of Genesis. That literal approach is rooted in the Protestant Reformation and heavily influenced by the Western mindset where everything has to be logical. But my own tradition, that of the Church of Alexandria, leaned heavily towards metaphorical, symbolic and allegorical interpretations of scripture, seeing the deeper spiritual, moral and theological meaning as being far more important than the literal events described.
Secondly, to read the creation narrative as if it were a scientific report is grossly improper. Science as we know it simply did not exist until the Renaissance at the earliest. It is certain that the ancient Hebrews as well as the ancient Christians would not have even understood what we mean by science. To try to interpret the creation narrative in a scientific way, to try to match up, say, the description of the separation of the waters above the firmament from those below the firmament to some specific meteorological atmospheric phenomenon is to impose twenty-first century knowledge on an ancient author and his readers for whom it would be utterly incomprehensible. That is not to say the creation narrative in Genesis is not true. Ask an Australian Aboriginal whether the Dreamtime stories are true and you will an emphatic ‘yes’ in response. But ask him if that means that he believes that giant snakes that turn into humans literally walked the earth, and could (if we found their fossils) take their place among the catalogue of species found in biology textbooks, and he would look at you as if you were crazy. “You are completely missing the point”, he would say, “that’s not the important truth about that story”.
To read the creation narrative in Genesis as science is just as wrong-headed as trying to understand Dreamtime stories as science. That is just not the point of the story. What is the point, then? Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it beautifully in his classic book, TheOrthodox Way:
What is meant by this phrase, ‘out of nothing’, ex nihilo? Why indeed did God create at all? … Rather than say that He created the universe out of nothing, we should say that He created it out of His own self, which is love. We should think, not of God the Manufacturer or God the Craftsman, but of God the Lover … As created beings we can never be just ourselves alone; God is the core of our being, or we cease to exist … God alone is noun; all created things are adjectives … When Genesis states “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1), the word, “beginning” is not to be taken simply in a temporal sense, but as signifying that God is the constant cause and sustainer of all things.
And so say many of the ancient Fathers. They were hardly interested in whether the events of the creation narrative happened in just that way a simplistic, literal reading would imply. They were far, far more interested in what the narrative revealed about God and about His relation to the humanity He created.
Given the way Young Earth Creationists today demonise Big Bang scientists, you might be surprised to learn that the theory itself was the brainchild of a very devout Christian, a Catholic priest who was also a cosmologist; Msgr. Georges Lemâitre (interestingly, Nicolas Copernicus, the originator of the modern theory that the earth orbits the sun was also a Catholic priest). Further, the vast majority of Christians in the world today reject Young Earth Creationism. The respected Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School put out this position statement in 1982:
“Among Orthodox Christians there are varying views on the creation of the world by God and the theories of evolution developed over the years since the time of Darwin. No official Orthodox pronouncement exists on these topics.”
Now that seems much more in keeping with the wise caution of the ancient Fathers, doesn’t it? Indeed, patristic scholar David Bentley Hart writes in Atheist Delusions:
Origen, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine – all denied that, for instance, the creation story in Genesis was an actual historical record of how the world was made (Augustine did write what he called a “literal” interpretation of Genesis, but it was not literal in any sense a modern fundamentalist would recognize). And figures as distant from one another in time as Augustine and Aquinas cautioned against exposing scripture to ridicule by mistaking the Bible for a scientific treatise.
And our own late Pope Shenouda III summarised his opinion on the matter thus:
The day of creation is a period of time, not known how long, which could have been a second or thousands or millions of years…
Let the geologists say then whatever they want about the age of the earth; for the Bible did not mention any age for the earth that may contradict the views of the geologists.
To be sure, just because a majority of people think something is true doesn’t make it so, but I merely wish to point out how out of step with the vast majority of Christian thought is Young Earth Creationism’s attitude to science, and especially out of step with ancient Christianity and with modern Orthodox Christianity. There is absolutely no reason for the Orthodox Christian to buy into their doleful false dilemma that unless the world was created in six literal 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, Christianity falls. It goes against our heritage as well as our sense of truth.
That is not to say that scientific truth is absolute. A common mistake people make (including some scientists) is to act as if science tells us what reality is. It simply doesn’t. The best science can do is give us a theory that models reality. We can use that model to explain how things happen and to predict what will happen, but we must not confuse the description of a thing for the thing itself. No description can ever be complete nor can it ever perfectly contain all the truth about the reality it seeks to describe. Further, descriptions can be of varying degrees of accuracy, and when we find a new description that fits reality better than the old one, we quickly discard the old. How long will the Big Bang Theory survive before new knowledge forces its replacement by another theory? Who can tell? Who could have predicted that in just a few decades, Galileo and Copernicus would be vindicated and Cardinal Bellarmine relegated to a quirky footnote of history, a cautionary tale for would-be fanatics of every era?
The point is this: Christianity is not primarily about how the physical world works. Sure, this glorious cosmos bears witness to the wisdom of its Creator, but Christianity is first and foremost about the relationship between God and the world He created, especially human beings. It is about profound moral and spiritual Truth, not scientific theorems. Science and faith answer different questions about life. Science tells us the “how” while faith tells us the “why”. Embracing both is indispensible for a complete worldview. Whether the Big Bang Theory is correct or not hardly matters to the Christian. At present, it seems to be the best theory we have, but its status, or the age of the universe, or the nuts and bolts of how the universe came to be are just interesting; revelations of the wisdom and the creativity of the mind of God. Whatever answers we find to those questions about the physical world, it is still in the Bible that I will seek answers about the meaning of life. My Christianity remains unperturbed.
You can read some of my reasons for rejecting Young Earth Creationism and find the above and many other patristic quotes (with references) in the Coptic Apologetics background paper on the Big Bang Theory discussion.