Dealing with Apparent Conflicts
In my two previous articles I described four models of religion-science interactions. I argued against the conflict and independence models but noted that the dialogue and integration models also have challenges. The biggest challenge is what to do when, despite our best efforts, we still have apparent conflicts between science and religion. If we should not embrace the conflict model because the same God is revealing his work in both religion and science, how then do we resolve these apparent conflicts? In this final article I will briefly describe some recent scientific evidences that challenge our traditional understanding of the origin and condition of the human race and how we might deal with those challenges.
To begin with a simpler example, when Genesis 1 states that God created the world in six days, are we contradicting Scripture when we say that scientific evidence points to a much longer period of creation? This is a hermeneutical question. While one interpretation holds to literal 24-hour days, others argue that the genre allows for other concordist interpretations,1 so getting away from a conflict scenario is not difficult.
However, things get more complicated when biblical scholars argue a non-concordist interpretation, on the basis of comparisons with other ancient near eastern creation stories, that the entire first 11 chapters of Genesis do not have any historical basis but are an origins story created along similar lines.2 This view has implications that appear to lead us into a conflict between religion and science.
Was there a historical Adam? The traditional view holds that Adam was the father of the human race and his circumstances were exactly as described in Genesis 2-4. However, the fossil record and genetic evidence argue that the human population was never fewer than a few thousand human beings. Some try to reconcile the biblical story with the scientific story by still holding to a historical Adam while allowing for other contemporaries or even predecessors of Adam.3 For example, Adam may not have been the progenitor of the human race, but was instead a representative chosen by God. However, such an interpretation makes the transmission of original sin – a clear biblical concept – difficult to explain.
Moreover, if Adam never existed, then there was no Fall into sin. That we are sinful creatures in need of a Savior is not in dispute, but how important is the event of the Fall to our theology?
Finally, how can we hold to a non-historical Adam if Paul evidently believed Adam did exist, and made Adam central to his theology in his letter to the Romans?
There are three possible responses to such potential conflicts.
A) We could conclude that, since God’s Word is infallible, the science must be in error and so we reject it out of hand. This option may be taken by people who are not familiar with all the scientific arguments, which makes them easier to dismiss.
B) Alternatively, we could accept the scientific explanation over the biblical interpretation. This choice may be made by people who are less familiar with the theological interpretations and their implications, including those who work more closely with the scientific evidence.
C) A third option is to suspend judgment and wait for further understanding, for both theological and scientific claims. This does not mean we should throw up our hands in despair; we should test the various positions, eliminating those that seem untenable, and weigh the implications of accepting one or the other position.
This third position is the most difficult to hold, but I think it is also the best one. It can be a struggle to maintain cognitive dissonance while still striving for resolution. This position also requires hard work in trying to understand and critique both the science and the theology that speak to the issue at hand. We may be able to reduce the cognitive dissonance somewhat but still be left with some thorny questions.
Let us consider the theological consequences of denying a literal Adam. If there was no Adam, how can we explain the Fall as the cause of our depraved human condition? How is original sin transmitted through the human race, if not biologically from parent to child? How do we explain (away) Paul’s evident belief in a literal Adam as described in Romans?
On the scientific side, how reliable are the population genetics calculations that claim that the line leading to the human race never contained fewer than thousands of individuals? How similar are the human and chimpanzee DNA genomes? How well do we understand developmental biology in order to construct a plausible mechanism of changes in body plans from apes to humans?
Clearly, there are no easy answers as we strive to bring together evidences from different sources and perspectives. The question of the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis is just one of many potential conflicts between religion and science. If we are to bring about not just détente between religion and science but the recognition that all knowledge comes from God, considerable humility is required. We cannot understand everything, yet I believe we are called to bring together these two ways of understanding God’s revelation as much as our limited capacities will allow.
Allow me to make one final comment: the relationship between faith and science is not just a scientific or theological topic. For many it’s also emotional and sociological. Changing one’s interpretation of a particular Scripture passage can be a traumatic process. Often our whole view of God and his interaction with the creation is affected by such a change. There is also tremendous peer pressure on both sides. The scientists want to maintain integrity and do “good science.” Church leaders need to maintain the trust of fellow believers. Sadly, the believing scientist is often caught in the middle. Grace and humility are essential tools to tackle this issue.
The most common interpretations are: the day-age position, which holds the days to be long periods of time; the framework interpretation, which argues that the six days are not chronological, but organizational; and the analogical position states that these are God’s days, which are not equivalent to ours. More information on interpretations of Genesis 1 can be found here ↩
E.g. Harlow D.C., 2010, “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62:179-195 ↩
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I don’t see how reading the creation story as a myth revelatory of theological truths brings one into conflict with science and certainly not theology. For me it makes them get along together very well. Most problems actually seem to come from a demand for facticity.
We are not compelled as Christians to believe the concepts of sin and fallenness require a grounding in fact and still less in doctrine. (The church existed for four centuries without “original sin,” and the eastern churches never accepted it. Judaism has no such concept.) We are simply compelled to believe these ideas reveal the truth however they came to be expressed and handed down. I accept them because they illuminate reality in ways far beyond the range of empirical observation and “fact,” but I also see their limitations and problems especially from the perspective of our Orthodox and Jewish brothers. I certainly do not accept an idea of the fall as an event out of logical necessity to ground mysteries (or mysteries inadequately expressed as doctrine) in facts. The Bible and the canonical traditions have never demanded this; the creeds do not tell us how we must believe them. They simply give shape to how we express what we already hold as faith. Origins and Ends are beyond the horizon of human knowing; that is why all origin stories — even scientific ones — must take on the language of myth. Faith is seeing the truth of the myth and not trying to force it into the category of fact. Skepticism rejects that truth because it is not a matter of fact, so rather than focus on grounding faith in fact to fight skepticism, why not put faith beyond its reach — beyond facts?
If it is important for us to believe and assume what biblical figures believed and assumed, we are in a lot of trouble. Just to continue with St. Paul, he expected the imminent return of Jesus and saw marriage as a distraction to resort to mainly to avoid the sin of fornication. The early church coped with the continuation of history by finding biblical support for the idea that one of God’s days may be very much longer than 24 hours to us. You probably know that young and old earth theories start for Christians with this chronological problem, but at the time Christians like Peter and Paul were more concerned with the future than the past. The ancient world was full of “young earthers” who thought creation was only a few hundred years old. The Jews were a scandal to the Romans with their comparatively “old earth” claim of thousands of years of history. Both were wrong. This should warn us not to assume revelation must function as scientific truth in addition to theological truth.
Because they did not go with St. Augustine on original sin, Orthodox Christians have what I feel is a healthier, more balanced, less logically elaborated position on sin and the fall. It humbly limits itself and avoids falling in the ditch for that reason. Once you pose the idea of sin as a physical, biological part of material reality then theology will become like a science of fluid dynamics — the plumbing of sin and grace. Augustine may have thought this way because he was influenced by Stoic and Manichean views that were highly materialist. Add to this a certain anxiety about sex plus a misogynistic view of women, and you get a church father who says Adam and Eve must have had musical flatulence unlike our own discordant experience. That is precisely what Augustine writes! Logically, too, sin had to be transmitted by men through sex, contaminating as it were, otherwise pure virgins. Due to similar thinking in his day some Christian men castrated themselves, and church leaders found it hard to argue against the practice which has its own gospel proof-text. If you go down the Augustinian path on original sin you will come to a solidly medieval Roman Catholic schoolman’s conclusion that has been (thankfully) treated to considerable moderation and reform in modern times.