Do “Creationist” Christians have too Modern an understanding of God?

creation of Adam

The church of my teenage years was large (1,000+ Sunday attendance), nondescript (the vague usage of the word “Community” in the title did little to betray any sort of denominational allegiance), suburban, and evangelical. Don’t get me wrong, I still consider myself to be an evangelical (what I mean by this is that I place a high-priority on things like, for example, personal conversion and the authority of the Bible. I admit, however, that having to employ the term “evangelical” to signify these sorts of things is somewhat unfortunate), but this church was a part of an evangelical subculture of which I am no longer a member nor of which do I have much of an interest. For some helpful parsing of the term “evangelical” see here.

One of the memories that has stuck with me from my time there was an experience I had attending an adult Sunday school class. The class was on the subject of Intelligent Design, or Creationism, or something along those lines and was taught by a woman vastly under-qualified for such a thing—she was not, to my knowledge, a Biblical scholar or theologian nor was she an physicist or evolutionary biologist. For example, she took a hard line on things like a literal reading of the creation accounts in Genesis. “Literal” is a somewhat clumsy term. I simply mean that she understood and taught that the first two chapters of Genesis were a documentary-like account of how God created. To my memory, I was one of the only people in a class of nearly 100 who ever, regularly (yes, I was a bit boisterous) pushed back and thought to ask questions pertaining to the content of the course and the soundness of our dear teacher’s logic. She never much liked answering my questions and it got the point where she would see my hand raised and just continue on talking as if no one had any questions. (On one account, I had the woman in front of me raise her hand and when the teacher acknowledged the woman I piped up with my question, much to the teachers dismay). Later, she would ask my mother to ask me not to return to the class.

In the first chapter of his book, The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart goes in on this sort of fundamentalism and rightly calls it what it is, “a thoroughly modern phenomenon,” and an attempt on the part of some Christians, “to imitate the evidentiary methods of modern empirical science by taking the Bible as some sort of objective and impeccably consistent digest of historical data,” (24-25). As Hart notes, this simply isn’t the way that the Bible has been read by Christians for most of the last 2,000 years (nor was it the approach Israelites took to Scripture before that).

Most of the Church Fathers, for example, took it for granted that the creation narratives of Genesis could not be read literally but rather must be read allegorically. That is, “read as stories whose value lies in the spiritual truths to which they can be seen as pointing,” (25). Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and Augustine are all Fathers which Hart cites on this point. They read these narratives not as “historical fact” but figurally as “communicating spiritual mysteries.” This is why, among Darwin’s contemporaries, even the likes of John Henry Newman could find nothing to suggest that evolution and the doctrine of creation were mutually exclusive. It simply wasn’t until the modern period that a small minority of Christians became convinced that the truth or validity of their faith was dependant upon a strictly literalistic interpretation of Scripture and then staked everything on just such a ludicrous wager (Hart’s words!). And they really did stake everything. For example, the Sunday school teacher I mentioned above argued that if we did not accept a literal 6 24-hour day creation account that everything in the Bible was called into question including the gospel. Nonsense.

Why/how did this happen? Hart argues that it was largely the result of a certain cultural impoverishment on the side of the fundamentalist Christians, but it also “followed from the triumph of a distinctly modern concept of what constitutes reliable knowledge; it was the strange misapplication of the rigorous but quite limited methods of the modern empirical sciences to questions properly belonging to the realms of logic and of spiritual experience,” (27). Captive to this modern empirical rationality many of these Christians (and many of their opposing atheists as well) genuinely believed that there was a logical contradiction between the doctrine of creation and the idea that earthly life had evolved over time. So, they’d better double-down on creationism. Even as a young, over-confident and boisterous 18 year old I just knew that these things needn’t be mutually exclusive. There must be another way.

There is another way and Hart presents it in the form of a rather simple argument:

Premise 1: Christians believe that God is the creator of every person.

Premise 2: Christians believe that each person is also the product of a spermatozoon and ovum.

Conclusion: Therefore, God’s creative act needn’t be framed as a “distinct causal agency” which in some way rivals the natural process of conception but may rather be understood “as the whole event of nature and existence.”

The reason why many of these Christians see an irreconcilable gap between evolution and the doctrine of creation is because they understand God as”a kind of supreme mechanical cause located somewhere within the continuum of nature.” But this simply isn’t what Christians have traditionally meant when we speak of God. It’s a modern rendering thoroughly subject to modern epistemological concerns. Hart sees a way through the impasse by (presumably) reading the Bible with the whole Church and coming to understand that God creates through “‘donating’ being to a natural order that is complete in itself,” (28).

Does this sound a bit like a “watchmaker” God? Perhaps. I’m sure that’s not the case as I’ll find out when I continue reading. These were some initial thoughts. My guess is Hart is simply here maintaining the traditional Christian doctrine of the transcendence of God.

I’ll try to post more as I read. What say you?

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