Thursday, September 28, 2006

Age of the Earth Series - 5

Lecture 5 - The Theology of an Old Earth

Welcome the the fifth lecture in our five lecture series on the age of the earth. In lectures 1 and 2, we surveyed in some depth the major methods of measuring the ages of rocks on earth - why these methods were accurate - and how they overcame challenges such as open system behaviour and lack of knowledge of initial conditions.

In lectures 3 and 4, we showed the total failure and scientific illiteracy and inconsistancy of creationist arguments agaisnt radiometric dating, and for a younger earth. We could have ended the discussion there - having shown the creationist side to be nothing but pseudo-science and deception, and having proven scientifically that the earth is very old indeed by various methods. However, that would neglect the root of creationist thinking - which is a belief in the bible as a literal and inerrant account of creation by God himself - as opposed to what it is - an account of 2 seperate creation myths, probably written down by Moses or one of his antecendants, a few thousand years ago.

The question remains then - how do we reconcile the theology of Christianity with the view that the stories in Genesis are just that - stories - and not literal or indeed inerrant accounts of creation. After all, Jesus referred to Noah and the Flood - and the whole Jesus story refers to the fall of man in the Garden. Doesn't casting doubt on the literal events of Genesis caste doubt on the whole of Christian thought?

Therefore in this lecture, we will attempt to show that Christianity and Science are reconcilable as two seperate majesteria of thought, one dealing with the spiritual realities of our world, and one with the physical realities. When seen in this way - both represent God since both represent truth - but they cannot conflict by definition, since one regards the subject of the other as incidental to its field of study.

Apples and Oranges

I once went up to my sister in the supermarket, with an apple in one hand, and an orange in another, and started going on about how different the two were. It took her a while, but in the end she got it. She told me to stop being stupid. However, it's true to say that apples and oranges are dissimilar in many ways. Sure, they're both fruits, but they differ in texture, colour, taste, internal and external structure and shape, average weight, and variety. You could never mistake an apple for an orange, or a fig, or even a grape for that matter.

But what about mythical apples? I can think of one very famous mythical apple - the one that grew on the mythical Tree of Knowledge, in the mythical Garden of Eden, that a mythical Eve gave to a mythical Adam. What about that apple? Could it ever be mistaken for an orange, or a fig? If I replaced oranges for apples in your apple pie, you would surely be able to instantly tell the difference - but if I replaced oranges for apples in Christian tradition, would the religion of Christianity be any different? Are they interchangeable?

Of course, the answer is yes. The actual fruit eaten by Eve and Adam in Eden is by-the-by - the texture, taste, internal and external structure, in fact all physical qualities of the fruit are superfluous - rather what the fruit signifies is the temptation of disobedience and sin - the eating of it signifies a fall from grace. It could have been an orange, a fig, a Kentucky Fried Chicken(TM) - the important part of the narrative is the spiritual reality that the fruit signifies, not its physical dimensions, or even its physical reality.

Of Materialism

I bemoan the materialism of the world today, but especially that that is growing in the Christian community. We all assume in this scientific age that the only thing that matters - the only objects of any importance - are material ones. When we go to the cinema, even though we know full well the plot played out in the film is false, we look for the smallest flaws and inconsistancies. So and so's costume changes slightly half way through a scene. Time travel could *never* happen, it's not scientifically possible. The Matrix couldn't exist, human batteries would be necessarily less efficient than burning the food you feed them. And in doing so, we tend to neglect the overarching spiritual aspects of what we see and read.

The same is true of the bible. If we read it assuming that the physical, material, scientific aspects are what's important, then we miss the real story. In reality, it doesn't matter what type of fruit it was. It doesn't matter if there was a tree. It doesn't matter if there was an Eve, or a garden. It doesn't matter if it was or wasn't 6,000 years ago, it doesn't matter if it all happened in 7 days. We only place importance on these details because we make the fundamental assumption of materialism in everything we read and everything we do. The spiritual reality of the story passes us by - of a creation by God, an order in that creation, and a fall from grace - because we're too busy questionning the truth of the superfluous physical setting.

Because of our modern materialist bias, we now grossly misunderstand the storytelling traditions of the ancient world. We discount moral fables and creation myths as "false", because we judge them only on account of their scientific truth, not their overarching ethical content. All our modern stories have to be "realistic", or else they have no worth. We can gain no deeper understanding from the story of Shiva and Parvati - or of the Tepeu and Gucumatz - or of Isis and Ra - or Adam and Eve - because they didn't *really* happen, did they? Because what is "real" to us is the unique preserve of the physical plain of existence.

The ultimate irony is that, while our creationist friends accuse us of materialism, it is they who make the ultimate materialist assumption. They assume that evolution erodes biblical truth - because they can't see past physical truth and see that the bible is really communicating underlying spiritual truths. They think an old earth unhinges Christianity, only because they believe that the Christian story is underpinned by the physical and material aspects of the stories it tells, rather than the spiritual. They think they are in conflict with science, ultimately, because their book says apple, and science says orange.

Three Dwarves

I told a joke on my blog a few months ago about three dwarves. Jokes are the last remaining bastions of storytelling in our culture, because, as far as I know, those three dwarves didn't exist, and noone seemed to mind or complain. That's because it's clear that's not what the story was about - the content was humourous, not scientific. If you think the dwarves must exist for the joke to have value, you've missed the point. Similarly, I often wonder, if we confronted Moses and his tribe with the scientific truths we have uncovered today - that the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old - that life is unified by common ancestry - what his reaction would be? I wonder if his faith would be shaken? I wonder if his life would be altered? Or I wonder if he'd say "I think you've missed the point."

It is ironic, that as Berkeley pointed out, the only thing we know to exist for certain is immaterial - our own consciousness - our own being. We cannot measure it, we cannot touch or feel it - but we know for certain that it exists, with more certainty than we can know the physical world exists, or any of its attributes. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that physical reality is unimportant, or insubstantial, it's not. The study of science has made up most of my adult life - I wouldn't be able to fly to the United States - or bake a cake - or use this computer without it. All I ask is that we don't see every narrative as scientific - that we don't transpose our modernist assumptions onto religious and spiritual texts. By seperating the two, and viewing them rightly as different Magesteria, we do them a service. By mixing them, we corrupt, pollute and discredit both.

Making a Universe make itself

But then the religious extremists challenge us - 'why would God take 13 billion years to make a universe? Why would he not just create it as is written in the bible? Do you doubt His power - do you detract from His glory?".

Yet, I answer, is there more glory in making a universe - or in making a universe make itself? What a testament to the power of the almighty God that, starting with pure energy, and a set of basic physical laws that He instituted, that he could direct and command a universe of such complexity, such beauty, such awesome proportions, to create itself from the ground up. The heavier elements on earth that make our bodies, the carbon, the iron, the oxygen - all the products of the fires of first generation stars in our galaxy - long since exploded and burnt out. Is there more wonder in just being created - or being created from stardust, fallen to earth from the sky?

The 12 hour clock

There is an exhibit at the natural history museum that chronicles the 4.5 billion year history of earth on a 12 hour clock. Human beings appear about 5 seconds before midnight. If we were to chronicle the whole history of the Universe like this, we would appear about 1 second before midnight.

I ask you, is there any greater a God than one who would spend 11 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds to create a vast universe, a beautiful planet, a balanced ecosystem, just for us to live in it a second? Just to be with us for a single second in geological time. And then, when we rejected His work, and rebelled against Him, to nevertheless love us enough to come down to earth and be nailed to a tree just to give us a chance to be with Him again?

Geology, physics, science - they don't distract us from God's essence or make us doubt His plan - rather they can only magnify His eternal glory and bring into sharp focus the boundless extent of His love, grace and forgiveness in sending His Son Jesus Christ to die with our sins.

Unlike my creationist friends, I didn't check my brain in at the door of my religion. I'm really glad I didn't.