I’ll admit first that I haven’t watched the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate, whose hype induced me to write this essay, and I probably won’t. I have also invested very little of the past five or six years into investigating the specifics of the creationism controversy, which I am aware still smolders in Evangelical circles.
Some autobiographical information may account for my present general apathy. Defending young earth creationism (YEC) was a major church-culture thing when I was a kid, and the typical centerpiece of apologetics ministry. I traveled to an Answers in Genesis conference with a church group when I was about eleven, and met Ken Ham there. Ham also taught adult Sunday School once in my little Baptist church. (My father, who has no particular leaning on YEC, personally found him evasive.)
My parents did their best to supply me with apologetics materials as my intellect budded. Some, for instance on the textual integrity of the Bible, were helpful; others seemed more contrived. Despite my father’s lack of investment in a young earth perspective, my mother purchased mostly YEC books when it came to science. I might have argued the YEC perspective for much of my teens, but around the time I entered college, I simply let it go. No new challenges made me rethink the validity of my position; I just realized that the issue was not so important and I was not so knowledgeable as to qualify me for an advocate of any position. Noting that I had only seen such arguments stir up discord, moreover, I seriously questioned the value and necessity of militant apologetics. Instead, I turned toward philosophy and theology, trying to understand my faith better before attempting to defend it. I still think this a fortunate shift.
My exposure did continue in low levels. While at Belhaven I read a book, written by scientists, that espoused intelligent design, and it seemed more reasonable to me than YEC. Later, as I started to realize where my assumptions about interpreting Genesis came from, and how novel they were in the history of Christian thought (YEC arose in the 1920s out of Seventh-day Adventism, a heterodox sect), any remaining commitment to YEC disintegrated, and my perception of evolutionary science as intrinsically a sinister, hostile force faded.
However much I enjoyed my six credits of biology in college—as I did, genuinely—science is still not a field in which I am particularly knowledgeable. I was deeply interested in geology and astronomy when younger, and though online chemistry classes dampened my regard, I could see reviving it at some point; nevertheless, the vast field of humanities has dominated my adult education and continuing interests.
So this is how I, a scientifically illiterate non-enthusiast, understand the meat of the question.
Ken Ham’s whole posture is based on the assertion that we cannot observe the past and subject it to empirical tests. Strictly speaking, this is true. Consequently, according to Ham, we cannot be sure physical laws worked the same way once-upon-a-time as they do now. The inability of scientists of themselves to interpret the evidence leaves room for a literal Genesis to provide the answers to the universe’s physical history, and, Ham argues, provide them it does, more persuasively than mainstream science.
The force of the argument is simple and subversive, making a sharp distinction between observational and historical science that renders virtually meaningless every possible scientific method of dating the earth. It challenges not only methodological naturalism but our very capacity to decipher nature; it ultimately shrouds all scientific inquiry in doubt. This extreme skepticism is paired with the fundamentalist assumption that Genesis is necessarily to be interpreted in a certain literal-historical way.
Of course there are many smaller postulates on which he rests his case. For instance, Ham explains fossil layers as the rapid work of the worldwide flood. He distinguishes in evolution between (observable) adaptation in species and (impossible) increase in genetic information. For more, one has only to look through the extensive Answers in Genesis website.
However much scientific or pseudoscientific theory used by AiG to support YEC, the position most fundamentally rests on an epistemological paradigm. Ham often speaks of the necessity for putting on “Biblical glasses,” as opposed to a secular materialist worldview, to make sense of the evidence, which may seem at first a reasonable expression of presuppositionalism. But what it does in practice is oppose, unnecessarily, a compelling organization of facts from nature (Evolution) to the textual body of revelation (Judeo-Christian Scripture).
This feeds a troubling dichotomy. Ham and his compatriots are certain Genesis teaches a cumulative creation in six literal days; mainstream scientists are certain science says something very different. The two are then essentially antithetical, and the wars of last century’s reductionist fundamentalism are perpetuated.
However, that Ham’s glasses are the Biblical ones is hardly a given. One has merely to point to the Church Fathers, let alone a majority of contemporary theologians, to evidence manifold variant, orthodox interpretations to a literal six-day creation. Classical Christian theology has been not much interested in the “six days” as physical events, but there are abundant “hexameron” works in the traditional corpus that address their spiritual and philosophical implications. Instead, Ham’s theology seems to dictate that we deny the witness of reasoned natural inquiry in order to adhere to the witness of Scripture. This flies in the face of centuries of standard Christian doctrine.
I decline to go so far as to call Ham a fraud; I am in no place to judge his integrity, and the AiG website and ministry does make some effort for intellectual respectability both theologically and scientifically. But it fails to lay legitimate claim to either. And that, for me, is where I let the matter rest, and leave it to the experts in their respective fields.
If I reject the science-scripture dichotomy by declining to advocate any particular literalist interpretation of the Genesis cosmogony, the problem seems much less of an issue. Some difficulties remain; evolution is new enough that there are not many established theological antecedents to addressing, for instance, the place of a literal Adam within its scientific framework, but that can be worked out in time, especially if evolutionary theory continues to hold for the next few centuries. But this does nothing to the essential traditional theology of Adam. This is not (or does not have to be) adapting the Bible to the passing trends of science, nor confining religion and science to totally separate spheres; rather, this is the acknowledgement that getting the full picture, whether by revelation or empirical knowledge, takes time and suffers fallibility, and we should embrace the technical work of science and the grace of studying revelation as complimentary endeavors. We should hope to welcome another generation of scientist-theologians, as the West has often had since Albertus Magnus.
Hence I freely accept that the field of science has natural dominion over the phenomenal world, and I, not a scientist, have little reason to doubt that scientists’ conclusions within their own field are generally accurate. I do not expect or wish Christian scientists to put off their Christianity when they step into the lab; they must wonder at the natural revelation of God and worship him in his creation. They cannot affirm an ideological evolutionism which destroys the image of God in man and subordinates him to a formless flux of pure physical matter. But to imagine the Bible was written to obviate study of natural mechanics is as bad as asserting pure, technical science is all that is necessary to form a complete understanding of reality.
Hence I do object likewise to some scientists’ attempts to hijack or dismiss other fields, whether that is Dawkins’s misguided attacks on religion or Hawking’s outrageous claim that “philosophy is dead.” Étienne Gilson wrote in God and Philosophy,
Why are there organized beings? Why is there something rather than nothing? Here again, I fully understand a scientist who refuses to ask it. He is welcome to tell me that the question does not make sense. Scientifically speaking, it does not. Metaphysically speaking, however, it does. Science can account for many things in the world; it may some day account for all that which the world of phenomena actually is. But why anything at all is, or exists, science knows not, precisely because it cannot even ask the question.
The only thing evolutionary theory has done with respect to religion is complicate and enrich our understanding of biological creation. In so doing, it has incidentally explained phenomena in which some had once assumed the direct operation of God. But this in no way diminishes the necessity for God. Any “God of the gaps” argument has virtually always been recognized as a desperate appeal rather than a legitimate reason to conclude God’s existence or immanence. One can readily see early Christian theologians as well as ancient Greeks and theistic “natural philosophers” assuming that the observable phenomena of the world follow from a natural and intelligible—but contingent—chain of causation. Why would they not, when the common and usual operation of God in the world is through natural secondary causes? To imagine that we can simply assign supernatural force to gaps in our knowledge of the physical realm is to misunderstand the depth of creation’s dependence on its Divine Creator and Sustainer.
Far better is the “God of the mysteries” argument used by Irenaeus to demonstrate, inversely, that God is ultimately unknowable. Irenaeus pointed out that even in the natural world we are surrounded by mystery; we are incapable of totally understanding all physical phenomena, for there will always be more to stop us short and make us wonder. This is true even with modern science’s sophisticated description of cause and effect; some of the most fundamental properties of our universe are undefined and possibly indefinable. How much more so, Irenaeus argued, must we find ourselves baffled and humbled before an infinite, eternal God?
This is what is missed by the whole debate, among Christians not least. The God hidden in the material cosmos but not contained by it, from whom the whole creation at all times derives its existence, is glorified as we further our understanding of his work and encounter, again and again, our own finitude. He is not a being among beings to be tested and proven, or a nebulous agent hypothesized to make sense of the unknown; he is a transcendent mystery revealed generally in the architecture of the cosmos and most fully in Christ, not to be comprehended, but to be recognized and worshipped.
This conclusion leaves me more or less aloof from the creationist-evolutionist controversy, and especially YEC, which I regard as driven by fundamentalism and misplaced zeal. Though I affirm creation ex nihilo as an essential theological doctrine, I am willing to take the Genesis accounts as not necessarily intended to be literally descriptive of physical origins. I could not label myself a Theistic Evolutionist or any other particular shade of compatibilist. I would have to do more reading, and as I consider the issue extraneous to the most important issues of the faith, an accident of time and culture, I feel no particular urgency.