How Genesis Really Transcends Liberalism and Fundamentalism

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Genesis 1 vs. Origins of Species. Moses vs. Charles Darwin. The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes.

Of course that last one is the seminal court trial that catapulted America into one of the more divisive intellectual debates: creation vs. evolution. It’s a debate that has affected the church as much as the broader culture by asking life’s ultimate questions: “Where did we come from? Why are we here?”

Liberals and fundamentalists tend to answer this question in one of two ways. The former tries to fit the Scripture Story with the Science Story, while the latter has forced the Science Story to support the Scripture Story.

What if this aspect of the vintage Christian faith followed neither the contours of liberalism nor fundamentalism?

What if instead we understood Genesis 1 to be something like this:

Imagine that you are an Israelite who is lounging around somewhere in the Sinai wilderness post-Exodus. It is dusk and you are sitting around a campfire with the elders of one of the tribes of Judah.

As you are sitting there a boy wanders over and tugs the robe tails of one of the elders. He asks, “Mister, where did all of this come from?”

“What do mean, young Jada?” the elder replies.

“I mean, can you tell me how the birdies and bugs and my mommy and daddy came to be? How the world was made?”

The elder picks up the boy, plops him on his lap, and replies with care, “Ahh, Jada that is a very good question . . . a very good question, indeed. Let me tell you!

“Bereisheet bara Elohim . . . ”

In the beginning God was Michelangelo in front of the unformed slab of marble before David emerged. He was Mozart before the keys of black and white on the verge of a magnificent never-before-heard-of concerto.

Like Michelangelo and Mozart, God created. Out of the chaos and blankness of our unformed reality, God brought into existence all that we see and hear and taste and smell and touch.

This is how our elder Israelite and little boy Jada would have understood Genesis 1 — as a story telling us that the world was created and who created it.

That’s not the way many well-meaning Christians have viewed the opening chapters to the Holy Scriptures, however. I’d know. I grew up on a healthy dose of books and curriculum insisting Genesis 1 tells us how God created the universe — even insisting the integrity of Christ’s cross and gospel depended on it.

Yet from Clement of Alexandria (third century AD) and Augustine of Hippo (fifth century AD), Genesis 1 has been interpreted as literary, not literal — as carefully crafted, theologically pregnant literature meant to teach the deeper theological (rather than scientific) truth that the world was created and who created it: the only one true God.

Which means vintage Christians aren’t so much interested in how the world and everything in it came to be — we can defer to the common grace of God in science for many of those answers. Instead, what matters is the deeper theological truth that the Holy Scriptures get at and the ancient creeds affirm:

God, the Father Almighty, is the Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

Of course competing with the vintage Christian faith and the Scripture Story is what could be called the Science Story.

What I mean is that science is as much a worldview as is the Christian faith. Both present a view of the world. Both offer answers to life’s perennial questions: Where did we came from? Why are we messed up? How can we fix our problem?

Science begins with the assumption there is no God. It begins with naturalism, the belief that creation is the product of time, energy, and chance. It assumes that this — what we can feel, taste, see, hear, touch — is all there is. The Science Story begins not with God, but with BANG — all of this just started and evolved over time under the right circumstances, through a series of mistakes and successes.

The vintage Christian faith understands creation very differently. This Story tells us that when God created the world, it was good. It was just as he wanted it to be. Creation was whole. The world was created with care. It was created on purpose and with purpose. It was created by a loving God who was intimately involved in the process.

This Story sees creation as art; the other one sees it as accident.

For my money, I don’t see why God would have to have needed six days — let alone six billion years — to create the universe. But that doesn’t seem to be the point of the narrative, anyway. When it comes to the origins of species, vintage Christianity transcends liberalism and fundamentalism because it emphasizes that we were created and who created us, rather than how — because that’s what Genesis 1 itself emphasizes.

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring the “vintage” Christian faith. I invite you to rediscover in the coming months what it means to be a vintage Christian.

Image courtesy of aradaphotography / Shutterstock.com.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.

  • nwcolorist

    Jeremy, your article affirms a mutual agreement that my brother and I came to last month. He’s been a staunch evolutionist and I’m a Bible believer. We have disagreed on the issue for many years.

    As you point out, the two belief systems deal with the same issue from different perspectives. The evolutionist seeks to discover the physical process by which humans came to be from single-celled organisms–the “how” of the mystery. The evolutionist uses exclusively the scientific process that has developed over the last 500 years. Biblicists, do not reject science, but also believe in the supernatural. They are seeking the “why” questions.

    By setting the larger debate into this newer perspective, progress can hopefully be made. After 159 years of disagreement, that would be something to celebrate.

    • mikehorn

      I agree more with you than the author. I’d ask what you mean by “evolutionist”? Do you call a computer user an “electricianist”? A skydiver a “gravitationalist”? Evolution is demonstrably true in the real world using several demonstrated mechanisms. Every dog owner today takes care of an animal shaped by humans exploiting sexual preference to emphasize the traits they wanted. I’d argue that a chihuahua and Great Dane are effectively no longer the same species, though genetically they are. It would take extensive human intervention to successfully breed them, though a male chihuahua might hypothetically be successful with a female Great Dane in nature. Variation, selection, and environmental forcing are demonstrably true. New speciation events are documented. It’s hard to merely believe a fact.

      • Paladin13

        New species created by intelligent design – man. Your example cancels out the argument that complex forms arose accidentally.

        • Sam

          No. It doesn’t.

          • Paladin13

            See above comment/reply to mikehorn.

          • Sam

            I stand by my statement.

          • Paladin13

            Then we agree to disagree.

          • Sam

            Apparently.

            Best wishes! :)

        • mikehorn

          No, it doesn’t. It confirms one aspect of selection that directly affects future variation, in a long unintentional experiment. Nothing done was supernatural at all. Humanity and its domestication of wolves became the primary evolutionary force on the breeding end. There is good evidence the selection and rejection of pups has been happening for millenia.

          • Paladin13

            The selection for wolves was allegedly made by man. You should read your nonsensical contradictory words before posting them. An intelligence – man – crafted and bred dogs and dog breeds – it had nothing to so with blind chance. Next you’ll be using the example of the “evolution” of cars and motorcycles, as an ardent evolutionist once did in his book to prove evolution. Once it was pointed out that he contradicted himself, he changed the book. Wait – is that you?

          • mikehorn

            You misunderstand what happened, and what I said. When we burn gasoline or run a nuclear power plant, we didn’t invent combustion or fission. We figured out a natural phenomena, and harnessed it to our own purposes. For breeding dogs from wolves, we didn’t invent the two natural forces of sexual selection and infant/individual survival. Those two exist in nature already, affecting wolves, whether man was there or not. The wild selection pressures of climate, food sources, and competition shaped the modern wolf from its earlier ancestor. For instance, lions and wolves have a common ancestor millions of years back, but different environmental forces shaped them into what they are now. Wolves and bears have a more recent common ancestor. Genetically, the closest land relative of whales are hippos, with an ancient common ancestor. Other species, and climate, disease, more, affect each species all the time, and man breeding dogs for loyalty, docility, and function has no contradictions with Evolution as it stands. If anything, it confirms that selection is a very real and powerful natural force. And man figured out how to use it.

            Cars and other mechanical devices are bad examples, most often put forth by Creationists to try and demonstrate irreducible complexity, but even charitably viewed it is only a poor analogy. Evolution requires self-replication (biological creatures) and some method of both variability and selection. Cars do not reproduce, so evolution already doesn’t apply. Using a meme idea of car design might lead to a bad example of selection forces, but there are too many good biological examples out there for the car thing to be anything but laughable. On this it sounds like we are agreed.

          • plains-rabbit

            Assho/e queen

          • mikehorn

            I interpret that as an admission of defeat.

          • Paladin13

            I agree that cars, etc, are bad examples but it was a pro-evolutionist author who used them to prove evolution to the great unwashed and to mock creationists. Your explanation above regarding the wolf and dog is reasonable, although I am reminded of Darwin’s idea that one day a polar bear may evolve into whale. Dogs and wolves can mate and possible produce offspring (such as ligers with the big cats). Man could not breed dogs to produce a cat, hippo, whale or a human.

          • mikehorn

            As a point of order, which author used cars as an example of evolution? I’m unaware of anyone who understands evolution using that example. Creationists have used mechanical design in an attempt to argue against evolution and for design (tornados and 747s), but no proponents I could find. Either my search was inadequate, or your source is incorrect.

            Polar bears and whales: polar bears are most closely related to Grizzlies, possibly close enough to allow interbreeding but that is only rumor. Since they already have good aquatic abilities and thermal insulation, them evolving into aquatic mammals similar to whales is plausible. Likely is a different question. But whales themselves have a demonstrated lineage to land mammals, an animal roughly bear or cow size if memory serves. One result is that whales and hippos are very closely related.

            Breeding dogs/wolves further than current: your objection would be solved by more time and better techniques. All mammals have a common ancestor (mammal like reptiles or perhaps more recent), so nature has produced such variety already. I argue that human breeding has created varieties of dog that are probably distinct species already, and most of that change has only taken approximately 100 years (most dog breeds are that young). Dogs and cats have a fairly recent ancestor in common that was neither cat nor dog, from about 42ish million years ago, the same common ancestor that gave us animals like the Mongoose. All placental mammals share a common ancestor about 70 million years ago, to include humans and hippos and cats and whales. With gene splicing and other techniques, perhaps ones we learn 50 years from now, creating a cat/dog mix isn’t implausible, though we might wonder why. Maybe breed a unique protection or military or law enforcement animal? Or perhaps just cause we can.

          • Sam

            You know I was thinking and maybe we are going about this wrong. Perhaps we should start asking the anti-evolutionist for evidence of spontaneous existence of new species.

            I really look forward to the examples that have been seen in their own lifetime. :)

      • nwcolorist

        Your right, the word evolutionist is too broad. I was referring to the basic Darwinian concept that all life has come from a single cell organism through gradual change over billions of years.

        However, I’m not interested in engaging in a creation/evolution debate here. IMO, they are generally non productive.

  • John Hutchinson

    It is a bit disingenuous using the Alexandrian school, which was known to allegorize everything, including the Song of Solomon (Origen 3rd Century). With regard to evolution, one must separate the age of the earth issues from the process of evolution. Scriptures does permit the possibility of an old earth (2 Peter 3:5-8). However, Scriptures do insist on discrete creations of different species. Finally, it is not science that begins with the assumption of naturalism. Science is only an epistemological method. It is the philosophical dogma of naturalism which has been overlain over top the discipline.from the 6th Century B.C. (Thales and the Ionian Physiologists), although science did very well in Newton’s time when it was informed by a Christian overlay.

    • mikehorn

      You are closer than the article, but still incorrect about science. Before Newton, the tool of science wasn’t really solidified, so it’s difficult to describe earlier thinkers as modern scientists. After Newton we had the ability to answer bigger questions with hard data, meaning that some of the big biblical natural event claims came under scrutiny.

      Be careful of your christian overlay. Too often that means that christianity insists that some natural world questions should not be asked. This demonstrates conclusions leading the data, which is not only unscientific, but profoundly anti science. Science must begin with an “I don’t know” or “nobody knows” statement. If we begin with an assumed 6 day creation or an assumed biblical flood, that is anti science.

      I don’t know what you mean by discreetly created species, but your idea is probably not how evolution works. Evolution starts with a reproducing entity, with mistakes in reproduction (asexual) or mixing plus mistakes (sexual) creating variability within a species. If outside forces (heat, drought, predation, mating competition) prefer on aspect within variation for long enough, that variate do type becomes the new center of reproduction with variation around it. As that center drifts away, at some point mating with the original form will no longer be possible, and you have a new species. We have modern examples in horses and donkeys, which have a recent common ancestor. Modern dogs, where the prime evolutionary push came from humans usurping the mating competition.

      • Martin Hughes

        ‘Discrete’ creation might mean, I suppose, that the emergence of each new species had nothing to do with the previous existence of any other species – there was no chain of causation. That would be a negation of evolution. Genesis does envisage God’s forming a man from the dust of the earth and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life This is such a beautiful image I am loath to part with it – I don’t really think we have to take it too literally. If you do – and really think of God collecting mud or clay and breathing into it – the beauty fades somewhat. It is true that we are made from the common things of the earth and we should not forget that. We also should not forget that we have some kind of commonality with other mortal creatures.
        Almost everyone in ancient times thought that each species had been formed separately from inanimate matter but it is extraordinarily difficult to think how that could happen – whereas the formation of one kind of living being from another is something of which we have, as you say, some inkling, even though God manages these things gently and discreetly.

        • mikehorn

          You seem to describe what some call Theistic Evolution. I don’t really have an argument against that as long as the data leads the conclusions – that it remains science. Any supernatural guidance proposed in addition to the observed natural forcings and mechanisms would need to demonstrate real natural mechanisms to be included in science, but if it remains an optional theological/philisophical add-on I don’t see a problem. The Catholic Church officially teaches this form of Evolution as fully compatible with dogma.

          It does suggest a new meaning for Genesis, that eating from the Tree took us away from the Eden bliss of ignorant but clever animal and turned us into self aware humans capable of improving themselves and their lot. It suggests that to not improve, to remain with a foot stuck in animal ignorance (my opinion of Fundamentalist, rigid, backwards-looking religion) is also anti-God. It suggests we’ve been reading the Genesis myth all wrong.

          • Martin Hughes

            Yes, I think it’s true that to be human is to face certain moral conflicts and not to be ‘innocent’ – I was brought up on the idea that the Fall was an ‘upwards fall’. The Catholics, for their part, seem a bit stuck on the proposition that Adam and Eve were real people.

  • mikehorn

    This statement is false due to errors in understanding Naturalism:
    “Science begins with the assumption there is no God. It begins with Naturalism.”

    One of these is science, one is philosophy (which scientists usually disdain in professional life):
    Methodological naturalism states that we can only study in detail, through experimentation and flasifiability and hard data and reproduceabe results by third parties that which exists in the natural world. Anything only hypothetical or philisophical or supernatural is by definition beyond the scope of this intellectual tool.

    Philisophical naturalism states that nature and the material universe we can observe is all that exists. This is a philosophical viewpoint, not an intellectual tool.

    Science is methodological naturalism. Science studies and figures out the natural world. This tool is compatible with most religious beliefs, because the question of divinity is simply not a question it can answer. It can study supposed miracles and magic that occur in the natural world, the only place it can say something about theology.

    The problems come when theology contradicts methodological naturalism about real events in the natural world. Science demonstrates the Earth took much longer than 6 days to create, there was no global flood, no human start with two individuals that were “poof” fully human. The Exodus likely didn’t happen, at least not like the bible says it did. The conquest of Israel after Exodus likely didn’t happen, at least not as biblically described. All those things are questions about the real world, not any God.

    • Jon Herrin

      Okay. Then perhaps we might agree that ‘faith’ and ‘science’ begin with certain presuppostions. Faith presupposes a Creator and science presupposes ‘not-a-Creator.’ It’s not faith against science really. Many people of faith find science to be terribly important in understand the created world. And, whether you are one or not, many scientist find that faith fills in many of the important gaps that science cannot answer–questions of purpose, hope, etc., and questions such as why evolution seems to operate contrary to the second law of thermodynamics (things are supposed to tend toward chaos, not greater complexity.) Theology need not contradict ‘methodological naturalism’…but perhaps both faith and science should continue to raise questions about the other so as to refine their expression. Cheers!

      • mikehorn

        Thanks for trying to be inclusive. Too often I’ve met people of faith who (with severe cognitive dissonance) say over the Internet using a computer that science never produces anything useful. They most likely also use indoor plumbing, the power grid, doctors, cars, etc.

        I need to quibble about your thermodynamics claim, because it is flat wrong. Criticizing science is great – that is the only way science improves, through doubt and criticism. However, to doubt and criticize you need to have your facts straight or the criticism is nonsensical. The second law of thermodynamics says that the level of entropy in a closed system will increase. In its largest sense, this means the entire universe over the course of deep time will increase in entropy. Modern opponents of Evolution claim this applies to the Earth, but the Earth is not a closed system because it has the sun constantly adding energy to it, meaning that entropy on Earth could potentially DECREASE as long as the sun burns. For an everyday comparison, picture you inside your house, which is messy and you start cleaning it up. A few hours later, that tidy house now has decreased entropy. Why? Your body, the water from your faucet, the vacuum cleaner, and various appliances have energy either stored or provided from outside your house. Your house is not a closed system. If your claim about entropy was correct, you would not be physically capable of cleaning your house. In the same way you can tidy up, the Earth can have increases in order, or decreased entropy.

        About science, read my post again. You still confuse philosophical and methodological naturalism. Science is methodological. It specifically does NOT claim “not a Creator”. It claims that its methods have nothing to say about anything supernatural, that it can only be applied to what we can observe in the natural universe. It says nothing about the truth or falseness of any religion or God. If a God exists and uses natural forces for its obscure purpose, science can study those forces, describe them quantify them, possibly show how humans can harness and direct them, but on anything about the God, science is silent.

        • Jon Herrin

          I’m not so sure that we must insist that God is ‘supernatural.’ That indicates God is beyond or outside of the natural world. In my own understanding of things (limited as any human’s, I assure you), I believe the effects of God are as observable as the effects of a ‘black-hole.’ We don’t affirm the existence of black-holes based on our observation of them; rather, we base it on our observation of their effects. Yet, we don’t say that black-holes are supernatural…just not readily visible. Their existence is inferred. Could God not operate in a similar fashion? We may not see God, but those who look seem to all agree on the observable, even measurable effects of God’s existence.

          I still think you’re trying desperately to draw lines where they need not be drawn…but, that is a rather standard Western tendency–to put all the pieces in boxes, to compartmentalize. I believe faith and science would both be better served–and humanity as well–if we could lighten up a bit on the division and seek to determine how they might inform each other. I believe science could tell us much about God…and faith might enable us to expand our understanding in science.

          If one reduces faith to moral codes and such, well, then you’re quite right–science and faith are simply concerned with different things and have nothing to do with each other. However, if faith is far beyond moral codes and provides an underlying worldview, then faith can speak to and learn from science. They could have a rather lengthy, enlivening conversation after all…one that would serve us quite well.

          (I hope you realize that I’m not ‘criticizing science.’ I was a chemistry major going into university–rather enjoyed those studies very much.)

    • nwcolorist

      Mike, A few comments in relation to some of your statements. I hope you will bear with me.

      You caution about using a Christian overlay. But it works both ways. Watch out about seeing Scripture from a scientific viewpoint. The Bible was written on a spiritual foundation. It would be easy, but unfair, to criticize a stately Victorian mansion because it doesn’t look like a Frank Lloyd Wright home. Each cultural viewpoint is different. How much more so are cultural differences separated by thousands of years.

      As for the Flood, cultures all over the world, not just ours, share the story of a great ancient flood. Also, when the Bible speaks of the world, it often means the geographical areas known to the writer, not the entire earth.

      The actual existence of two original humans, or the parting of the sea, can’t be either proven or disproved by science, as we weren’t there to get all the information and replicate the experiment. It does admittedly take a huge leap of faith to imagine the crossing, as the director Cecil B. DeMille portrayed it.

      The boundaries of science and learning continue to be pushed outward at a dizzying pace. While many of the contradictions between faith and science seem insurmountable, it’s very possible they will be reconciled in due time.

  • http://engagetheculture.org/ Mike D’Virgilio

    Apart from the statement that science requires naturalist assumptions, this is right on. A few years ago I read John H. Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis 1, and am now reading the follow-up, The Lost World of Adam and Eve on Genesis 2 and 3. His argument is very simple: We cannot look at the early chapters of Genesis with 21st Century assumptions about the nature of reality. The whole idea behind origins accounts in the ancient world wasn’t materially how things were created (which would have never occurred to the writer or readers of Genesis several thousand years ago), but about functions, rolls and order. In the modern world we are obsessed with how, the Bible isn’t.

  • cken

    Is there really a difference? Both science and religion have their stories. The Big Bang story says the universe came into existence from nothing. They other story is all of life originated in some chemically hostile primordial soup which is an impossible probability in only a few billion years. However the sequence of events espoused by both religion and science is rather similar. If the Bible started off with in the beginning God created the big bang.you could make a case that science and religion would be pretty much in sync. All evolution would have to do is factor in the biological big bang. And God knows who initiated that. No pun intended.

    • nwcolorist

      The Big Bang has some interesting possibilities with the Genesis account.

      One connection might be found in chapter 1, verses 2 and 3–“The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep”. Then verse 3: “Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”

      Now the BB says that after the initial explosion, matter spread out and started forming atom, compounds, and coalescing into what would become stars. When the temperature of these massive entities rose to a critical point, nuclear reactions ignited and they burst forth into the brilliant stars that we see in the night sky.

      That would have been have been the ultimate light show.

  • W Kumar

    Growing up in the Evangelical Church left me with little contact with real evolutionary science. I was taught that evolution was a flawed theory that could be easily disproved by any kid with a few “facts” about “real” science. Imagine, then, my feeling when I discovered that not only is evolution not a flawed theory, but the only theory that makes scientific sense. I struggled with whether I would remain a Christian until I finally came to a place where I realized that both the Bible, and evolution, can exist side by side. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Not only is my faith stronger, but I also have a deeper appreciation for science now and what it can teach us about creation.

  • Madame George

    To conclude: The two ‘belief’ systems differ in that science can answer some of the deep questions humanity has pondered while religion can’t offer anything more than fanciful myths and unsubstantiated claims.

    • nwcolorist

      You apparently missed the substance of the article and comments.

  • TimTripod

    Were it not for Genesis 5 & 11 (which only allow for around 2000 years between the first man, Adam, and the patriarch Abraham), I might be willing to embrace the sentiments presented in this article. Come to think of it, taking things out of context often allows for looser, varied interpretations, doesn’t it? Let’s try this for something else, perhaps the New Testament: I know some very fundamentalist Christians who think Jesus died and then rose from the dead. I also know some very liberal Christians (at least, they identify themselves as such) who believe Jesus didn’t really die until much later in his life, after he got married and had kids. Why don’t we just leave out the latter parts of the gospels, which say that Jesus died and came back to life, and focus instead on his birth and ministry? Just like looking only at Genesis 1 & 2 can help us “transcend liberalism and fundamentalism,” perhaps ignoring the resurrection passages in the Bible can help us “transcend” differences as well. Fundamentalists still have a great, charismatic dude as their founder, and liberals can do away with that pesky, unscientific resurrection.

    Let’s face it: the chronogenealogies in Genesis are very well suited (and likely were intentionally designed) to counter the suggestion that Genesis 1 & 2 are merely meaningful myth, as this article proposes.

    • Paladin13

      You cannot be a Christian if you believe that Jesus did not die on the cross and was not resurrected. And during his ministry, he claimed to be the Son of God and God himself. Either he was lying or was delusional, if what he claimed was false. Why should anyone follow the teachings of a delusional or lying minor rabbi who fooled hundreds of millions for almost 2 thousand years?

      • TimTripod

        I would personally agree with you there, Paladin, and yet there are some people who claim that the resurrection was merely a spiritual event, or that it’s all just meaningful myth that carries important lessons, and would still consider themselves to be “Christians” in spite of holding to such unorthodox views.
        But I agree, you need to believe that Jesus died and was resurrected. I also think you need to believe that the things he said were true, such as Mark 10:6.

        • Paladin13

          Unfortunately for us, Mark 10:6 has been “overruled” by the left and gay lobby. Now, even though you’re born a man, you can pretend or believe you’re female and a woman. And gay marriage is the equal of real marriage. And along with these delusions, you can believe they have no effects on society or that God will not respond and judge us.