a better ethos

I grew up in a house where respect for science was common currency, not unlike many houses in the United States. My mother, before marrying my father, was a research chemist. Both my parents took it as gospel that science and reason give us useful access to the world and its wonders. I grew up believing the earth was ancient and the universe even older. As readers of National Geographic, we all followed the exploits of the Leakey family as they fleshed out a plausible narrative of ancient paleontology. Louis Leakey was both a follower of Darwin and a devout Christian, not an unusual combination in the circles my parents traveled in.

When I became a believer in the early 1970s I began a long and sometimes tortuous relationship with the evangelical church. I had no problem with Jesus, but some of his followers weren’t so happy with me. God, however, saved me in many ways by the blood of Christ and fellowship of the saints. I needed the church and devoted my life to serving God.

My evangelical adoption came with many things as a package deal. Short hair (no big deal, I was in the Air Force anyway,) a literal interpretation of the Bible, and a deep devotion to God. I’m sure you can guess where we are going with this. I adopted with my new family a literal interpretation of the Bible, itself a very modern method, and struggled to reinterpret the world in those terms. I have to say that in my euphoria of early salvation, I glossed over the troubling consequences of literal interpretation and because of my grateful reaction to God I rebuilt my world with a young earth view.

None of my education at Valley Forge Christian College prepared me to face the consequences of such a naïve view of the scripture, though I was learning that not all scripture could be read literally. I did adopt an old earth view during that time, seeing that it was one reasonably supported view in Christianity. The curious thing was that I defended it with a strange logic of scripture. God perceived that a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. So, if time was relative to God, then I also would count the six days of creation to be relative. This realization did nothing to dissuade me from literalism, if I could import a reasonable argument to defend what, on the surface, appeared to be true, that the earth looked like it was very old.

I discovered later that the young earth creationists, many of them my brothers and sisters in Christ, also believed that the earth appeared to be very old. What seemed strange to me was that they spent most of their time proposing arguments more gimmicky than mine to prove that the earth was actually very young. I rebuffed their nuances when I realized that they were not as interested in doing science as they were in discrediting it. I started to see those people as one would see a dull witted uncle who still argues that the New Deal of Roosevelt’s era was a bad idea. You still invite him to Thanksgiving dinner but hope nobody brings up politics. My problem is that I like to get him going and ride the excitement, even though sometimes it turns sour. I don’t think he gets it.

When I was doing my doctoral studies at Temple University, I became interested in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. I discovered that within these disciplines, a critique of science was emerging that at once acknowledged the middle state of our knowledge and the embeddedness of the scientific enterprise within human limitations. Science, on this view, could not declare its findings with certainty, even though it had mastered technologies of many kinds. I found comfort in the realization that unlike the young earth creationists, the scientists, with many exceptions, were able to critique their own work. That seemed to be a much more honest way of engaging the world, and I adopted that ethos wholeheartedly. I hadn’t abandoned Christ, but believed that he would prefer this sort of humility against the principled dishonesty of the young earth creationists. I call it principled, because it resides within a tradition of biblical interpretation that had for a large part been a profitable means of exploring scriptural truth. I call it dishonest because its participants were not interested in the truth of the world any longer, but building a rational citadel against infidels. Their method had become naïve propositional logic and not faith in God.

In order to enter the kingdom of God one must become like a little child. Between the scientists and the young earth creationists, the scientists were more like little children being guided by wonder, beauty, and curiosity. I am not suggesting that scientists are blameless and more holy than the young earth creationists, but rather that they model an ethos that leads to the kingdom of God. They are also continuing to obey the command of God to subdue the earth.

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