Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Is teaching Young Earth Creationism in Orthodox harmful and wrong? Is it a big deal?

Contrary to Betteridge's law of headlines: yes and yes. It is simply wrong (science: try it sometime), and because it is wrong it is harmful, and it is a big deal because it is genuinely harmful.

ED. NOTE: this is kind of a draft that I dashed off in an evening - there is some rounding out to do of some of the thought, but it's roughly what I think.

I will not go into how it is simply wrong. There are many other sites on science out there. Just read a textbook: things are pretty one-sided. I am not going to quibble with other "old earth" sorts like the Discovery Institute in this post - I have my disagreements (discussed elsewhere), but they at least take science seriously (somewhat) and don't disregard all the physical evidence surrounding old earth, common descent, etc. They are instead making their own account of it that agrees with the broad outline of undeniable facts.

It frequently comes up that people want peace, that people should be able to believe what they want, this is not necessary for salvation, and a number of other banal statements meant to discourage any discussion of the issues. There is some good to this: we shouldn't engage in open warfare and, in a sense, they do have a point: people can disagree and they're not going to hell because they think one or the other and actively fighting may not be helpful. Even accepting that sentiment, however, I must still disagree.

First, promoting these notions entails an endorsement of what might be called the "conflict thesis" between science and religion. It is all well and good to decry materialism, but doing so in the service of such a false idea as a 7500 year old earth is bad. More to the point, the conflict is not with science as such, but materialism. If we make this about a 7500 year old earth, it is now about science as well. But here is what I want to get at: there is no need for a wall between scientists and Christians, because many scientists are Christians and vice versa. We need ramps, not walls, to refer a concept from David Brooks. If we "keep the peace" internally by having all views, we promote internal division by promoting the "conflict thesis" even as we have faithful Christian scientists in our midst and promote external division by, well, denying obviously true facts that the rest of the world takes for granted.

Further, continuing to teach a false idea of a young earth tells a manifestly wrong story about the relation of the observable world to God. Namely, we can no longer trust the reasonable order of the world and what we observe. This is different from believing that miracles occur or occurred. Would we expect physical evidence left behind until the present when the Red Sea parted, or the water turned into wine at Cana (if both are believed as literal events)? Probably not. The biblical literalism here leaves no evidence where we might expect it, and this cannot be explained away by claiming that The Fall and a lack of "uniformitarianism" change what we would observe and explain... the lack of explanation. Instead, all signs point to the story scientists tell and that the universe behaves nicely and, hopefully, God isn't deceiving us with our sensory data.

In short, it teaches a false hermeneutic for physical data. You might be able to guess where I am going next: it imposes a further false and overly simplistic hermeneutic for reading the Bible. Rather than having to confront and cope with the problem of reading the text in light of the vastly divergent reality of creation and exploring the meaning of the text in our tradition besides the literal, we suddenly have no "difficulties": the story in the Bible is actually more or less how it went and, contrary to anything else we could find out about, essentially, anything else ever, it turns out that human life really is only a few thousand years old. Ta da! And all those think-y types who might try to present otherwise are just woefully misled.

It gets even worse than that: the purveyors of this viewpoint unfortunately often espouse a similar simplistic and misleading type of patristic fundamentalism. I think this is the most harmful part of it all specifically for Orthodox Christians because it is so very tempting: "The Holy Fathers" all teach creationism, so it must be what Orthodoxy teaches! Case closed. Period. I'm also pretty sure that all of them that talk about child discipline talk about hitting children with sticks, most of them probably as the only method of discipline that they mention. However, this glosses over some rather difficult hermeneutic issues that I do not think will hold up - so I am tipping my hand here that I simply do not find the sort of neo-patristic synthesis that Fr Seraphim Rose is so fond of to be very convincing in general. Some issues to consider are:
  • What does it mean to say that the Holy Fathers 'teach' something?
  • What does it mean to say the Church 'teaches' something?
  • What evidence do you have to amass before stating either of the above?
  • When you state either of the above, how certain is this statement, and can you express your uncertainty?
  • There are many things which individual Fathers or even large groups of Fathers, perhaps throughout time, have taught but which we do not say either of the above about - how can we distinguish those matters from matters that the Church or the Holy Fathers 'teach' with certainty?
  • How do we reconcile conflicts among the Fathers?
Those are some softball questions off the top of my head. The patristic fundamentalists, of course, have answers: they're fundamentalists, it's what they do. Discern the phronema with your nous! They just aren't the right answers, and some of the evidence of this is that they got the wrong answer on the age of the earth. The harm here is that, instead of looking the truth in the eye, asking the hard questions, and struggling to find the right, Orthodox answers, we have this ready-made cookie cutter answer that frankly dodges reality. It prevents us from working on the real theological problem here: given that the earth is old, humans have existed for a long time, and given the theological truths we also know as Orthodox Christians, how do we synthesize them, what does it mean for us as we live, etc.

So the harms here are that our vision of God must be God Himself, and we cannot be satisfied with anything less. Knowingly embracing a falsehood because it simplifies things is not going to work. We have to work with, instead, the complexities God gives us and not be happy with anything less than God's truth, which is unfortunately not to be found in an overly simplistic reading of the Bible or a similarly credulous reading of the Fathers without reference to external reality. It creates an unnecessary wall of division which alienates true allies that are seeking the truth diligently by impugning their efforts as inherently contradictory to the faith (though they'll allow it). This young earth nonsense is, in short, harmful and wrong for Orthodox Christians to indulge in.

No comments: