Science vs. Religion: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation
That was the sensational title of a recent MSNBC article by Natalie Wolchover. Wolchover interviewed Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist working at the California Institute of Technology. Carroll “says there’s good reason to think science will ultimately arrive at a complete understanding of the universe that leaves no grounds for God whatsoever.”
“No grounds for God.”
All that a theist such as myself can say is … Ouch.
In Carroll’s opinion, the formulation of a new theory called “quantum gravity” will reveal that the Big Bang was not the start of time, but just “a transitional stage in an eternal universe.” The universe has always been expanding and contracting. Big Bangs have been repeatedly banging forever.
Thus, science once again has proved that there are no grounds for God and has also proved the absurdity of the creation story in Genesis. The article claims that “If, in fact, time had no beginning, this shuts the book on Genesis.”
Science is leaving no grounds for God and shutting the book on Genesis! What are religious people going to do with the doctrine of creation?
We have options. The first option is to turn to scientism – the belief that science can explain everything there is to know about the world. The problem with scientism is that it can become just as dogmatic as creationism. I love science, but have little patience with scientism.
The second option is to turn against science. We can get into foolish debates with scientists like Carroll and assert Creationism over Science. Is God eternal, or is the universe eternal? And what does eternal even mean? These debates are foolish because nobody wins them. And all we do is mirror the dogmatism of the other. Thus, we only reinforce our own opinions and refuse to listen to the other. And then we miss the point of Genesis 1.
The third option is to claim that modern science and the creation story in Genesis are compatible. This argument tends to look like this: There is an evolutionary process to the Big Bang, and there is an evolutionary process to Genesis 1. The 6 “days” of creation can be interpreted not as 24 hour “days,” but as 6 “ages” of creation that last long periods of time – just like modern evolutionary theory. I’m somewhat sympathetic to this view. I certainly like it more than that anti-science option, but I find it lacking because the attempt to merge science and religion also misses the point of Genesis 1.
And so I want to suggest a fourth option that reclaims the doctrine of creation. First, a little background will help. The author(s) of Genesis 1 weren’t thinking about modern science. Rather, the author, and the ancient Jews in general, were thinking about human relationships. They were a people who were constantly being conquered and exiled. It started in Egypt with slavery, then came the Assyrian Exile, and then the Babylonian Exile. They were a conquered, defeated people. Basically they were the losers of ancient history. And yet their creation story has been more influential than all of the other creation stories told in the ancient world. Why?
Because in spite of the tragedy of their history, their creation story claimed the universe is fundamentally good, as opposed to other creation stories that claimed the universe is fundamentally evil. These other creation stories stated that the world was created after a violent war between a good god and an evil god. In myth, “good” violence always wins the day. These stories generally claimed the world was created from the body of an evil god who lost the war. Thus, the world, and everything in it, is fundamentally evil.
Compare that worldview with the worldview of Genesis 1. There is no violence in that story. The world is created through peaceful speaking of words. And Genesis insists that the universe is good. Not only is the universe good, but the anthropology of Genesis 1 is even better. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’ … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
There is a radical difference between these ancient worldviews. One claimed that the material world and everything in it, including humans, is evil and that the world is something we need to escape. The other claims the world is a good place that we get to inhabit.
The Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation is fundamentally about the goodness of the material world. It claims that all humans are inter-related and share in the likeness and image of God. If we took the doctrine of creation more seriously, we would never violently “other” our fellow human beings. We wouldn’t create distinctions that lead to “us” against “them” because we would honor the divine image within ourselves and others.
So, does science “shut the book on Genesis”? No. Because no matter what science says about the universe, I’m going to insist that the doctrine of creation found in Genesis is correct. The world is good, indeed, very good. But here’s the thing: Whenever Christians become dogmatic and debate the doctrine of creation with a scientist, we will lose. It’s a foolish debate, because the doctrine of creation is not about a debate; it’s about a way of life.
Genesis 1 provides a challenge that science simply cannot give us. It challenges us to live into the goodness of the world and to believe in the goodness of our fellow human beings.
If more Christians actually took up that challenge, instead of getting sidetracked by debating science or trying to make science and religion compatible, the world would be a much better place.