Moving Past Creationist Roots
Growing up, my family looked to the Bible for answers to questions relating to the origin of the universe and life. Yet for as long as I can remember, I have loved natural history and natural history museums. Thus, during my final undergraduate year, I decided to study paleontology to see if its claims were true, and in so doing, I thought that I could serve the creationist cause.
Much to my chagrin, the evidence I found in the field did not support my belief in a young Earth and flood geology; it contradicted it and ultimately drove me from that belief. Seeing that footprint fossils of terrestrial animals exist throughout much of the geologic column convinced me that all of the world’s fossils could not have been laid down in a single flood. The fact that different suites of fossils characterize different geologic strata, and that transitional life forms do exist in the fossil record forced me to concede that macro-evolutionary changes had happened through time.
Although field geology and paleontology convinced me that young-Earth creationism was untenable, one of the most profound discoveries I made was how badly mistaken young-Earth creationists and I were in our understanding of the first chapter of Genesis. Our problem was not a scientific one; it was much more fundamental, in not seeing the world through the eyes of those for whom the first chapter of Genesis was originally written.
Genesis presents a phenomenological cosmology — it describes how things appear from the perspective of an Earth-bound observer and how they appear to have been made. To these ancients, Earth was flat and it lay below a dome-shaped sky. The blue region above the firmament was composed of water, not outer space, with the sun, moon and stars lying within the firmament.
The Biblical cosmology is quite different, quite innocently naive in its understanding of the depth of time and space as compared to our present cosmological understanding. Because creationists further compound the cosmological problem by reading Genesis in a selectively literal way, we should not marvel at how different their claims are to those of evolutionary scientists.
One way to summarize the argument is this: If someone feels compelled to believe in a young Earth on the basis of a commitment to a literal reading of Genesis, they must also believe that Earth is flat on that same basis. But if, as is no doubt the case, they do not feel that they have to believe in a flat Earth, even though that is what Genesis literally presents, then they may already have articulated for themselves the reasons why they don’t need to believe in a young Earth, either. We are free to let the data speak for itself.
The problem, however, is more than literal interpretation of the Bible; it also has to do with perceptions within the religious community. Christians who work in other scientific fields do not feel that they have to begin with the Bible’s descriptions of their subject matter as the foundation of their work. In embryology, meteorology, mineralogy, medicine and countless other fields, we applaud the work of those who pursue their research and synthesize their findings into a reasonable model. We do not expect them to derive their conclusions from a reading of the Bible. So why should there be a double standard for fields such as geology, paleontology and cosmology? (There shouldn’t!)
I found comfort in a recent book by D.P. Domning and M.K. Hellwig, which articulates the reconciliation between Christianity and Darwinian evolution, and their inextricable unity, in a intellectually compelling and theologically satisfying way. What Darwin did for science, Domning and Hellwig have done for Christianity.
Darwin resolved disparate observations in nature by identifying natural selection as the prime agent driving evolutionary change. Likewise, Domning and Hellwig resolve vexing and long-standing theological issues by showing how chance, mutations, natural selection and evolution necessarily link to God’s selfless love, “physical” and moral evil, and selfishness and salvation. Love would be impossible without free will, which in turn can only exist in an autonomous universe, and evolution offers the only mechanisms known that could have produced conscious creatures able to choose, they reason. As a once-fervent creationist, the irony is not lost on me at how theologically revealing evolutionary theory is to Christianity.
In the end, religion and science do not represent universal opposites. To quote Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.” And from King Solomon: “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.”
So, all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm. There is no script that you need to follow, no predetermined conclusion with which your results need to square. If there were, God would not really have “hidden” these treasures for us to find. They’re out there — go get them!
Godfrey is the curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum (www.CalvertMarineMuseum.com) in Solomons, Md. E-mail: Godfresj@co.cal.md.us. Acknowledgement: Many of the ideas included herein were taken from a book co-authored with Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith: Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation (Clements Publishing, March 2005).