"The whole battle is hotting up," declared Ken Ham to The New York Times (12/1/99). A disillusioned science teacher turned creationist, Ham opposes the theory of evolution. He proposes instead a literal reading of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: God created the world in six days. This interpretation has broader implications, for there is "a culture war hotting up in America between Christian morality and relative morality, which is really the difference between a creation-based philosophy and an evolution-based one." To a creationist like Ken Ham, even the common conservative view that a "day" in Genesis 1 stands for a time-span of eons is unacceptable, for it would attribute error to the Bible and reduce morality to human whim.
Creationists, who have been in and out of the public eye since the Scopes trial in 1925, had some major successes last year. In August 1999 the Kansas Board of Education deleted almost every mention of evolution from the state’s science curriculum, and in October the Kentucky Board of Education voted to substitute the phrase "change over time" for "evolution" [see "Darwin in Kansas," Am., 9/18/99]. Oklahoma officials recently decreed that textbooks must include a disclaimer on the certainty of evolution.
What, then, should be thought of creationism? Is it a courageous stand for open-mindedness toward the Bible in an educational culture that excludes the biblical perspective? Or is it an attempt to impose an idiosyncratic view of the Bible and of science? At first glance, the creationist proposal seems reasonable: Present students with two theories, evolution and creationism, and let them make up their own minds. A second look, however, shows that the proposal contains two assumptions that virtually all professionally trained biblical scholars and scientists completely reject: that Genesis 1, interpreted literally, is the only or at least the standard biblical creation account, and that the six-day creation story in Genesis 1 is a rival to the modern theory of evolution. These assumptions show that creationism fundamentally misunderstands the Bible and the relation of science and religion.
The majority of biblical scholars, theologians of the mainstream churches, and philosophers of science hold an alternative view that will be summarized here under three headings: creation in the Bible, the differences between biblical and modern views of creation and the relation of religion and science.
Creation in the Bible
The strongest biblical argument against creationism is that Genesis 1 is only one of many creation accounts in the Bible, and these biblical accounts are too distinctive to be harmonized. The cosmogony found in the second and third chapters of Genesis tells a very different story than Genesis 1. Here are a few of these differences. Creation in Genesis 2 proceeds at an unspecified pace that surely lasts longer than a week, whereas in Genesis 1 all takes place within six days. In Genesis 1, the man and the woman are created at the same time, whereas in Genesis 2 the man is created earlier than the woman. In Genesis 1, the animals are created before the man, which is the opposite of the order in Genesis 2.
Other creation accountsin the Psalms, Isaiah 40-66, Job and Proverbsalso differ from one another and from Genesis 1. Psalms 77, 89 and 93, for example, depict creation as a cosmic battle with the forces of chaos; God’s victory is the act of creation. Isaiah 40-55 uses creation-by-combat to interpret the reconstruction of Israel after the sixth-century exile. Israel’s new creation is portrayed through a grand analogyjust as in olden times God brought Israel into being by vanquishing Sea (the Red or Reed Sea) and bringing the people to Canaan, so today he is bringing Israel into being by vanquishing Desert and bringing the people to Zion (see especially Isa. 43:16-21). Creation-by-combat is common in the Bible (and in the literature of Israel’s neighbors). The creation-by-word in Genesis 1 is unique in the Old Testament and to make it the biblical standard, as creationists do, is gratuitous on purely biblical grounds.
Biblical and Modern Views of Creation
As the above examples suggest, creation in the Bible differs markedly from modern conceptionsa point that is neglected by creationism. There are important differences in the process, in the world that emerges and in the manner of reporting.
1. The process of creation. Ancient Near Eastern writers imagined creation on the model of human making or of natural activity. For example, the gods formed the world as an artisan works clay, or as a king’s word makes things happen, or as a warrior defeats an enemy. Biblical writers did not draw the modern dichotomous distinction between "nature" and human beings, and they used psychic and social analogies to explain non-human phenomena. Today, influenced by scientific and evolutionary thinking, we understand creation as the (impersonal) interaction of physical forces extending over eons.
2. The product or world that emerges. For the ancients, creation issued in a populated universe. Human society was normally the term of biblical accounts. Ancient cosmogonies explained the institutions and practices of contemporary society. The first appearance of a reality was a privileged time when the imprint of the divine maker was freshest. Hence, to know the origin of a thing was in some sense to know its essence. For moderns, on the other hand, creation is usually thought of in terms of the planets and stars. If life is mentioned, it is usually life in its most primitive forms. Human society and culture do not usually come into consideration.
3. The manner of reporting and the criteria of truth. The Bible often describes creation as a drama, whereas contemporary thinkers write scientific reports. The description in each case follows upon a particular conceptualization of creation, either "impersonal" or "dramatic." Each has its own criteria of truth. Scientific reports explain new data by new hypotheses, discarding old hypotheses when they do not adequately explain the data. There can be only one true account. Ancients, on the other hand, had many cosmogonies. They were not bothered, for example, by the impossibility of harmonizing the first and second chapters of Genesis. Their only requirement was verisimilitudedoes the cosmogony make sense as a story? Ancients were less interested in how creation happened than in what the gods or God intended.
The Bible must be read in light of its difference"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Biblical cosmologists were not scientists or historians in the current meaning of those terms. They were people of faith seeking understanding by exploring the origins of their world. Instead of using the genre of the scientific essay that we would employ, they told and retold stories of origin, altering details or even recasting them entirely for the one purpose of explaining the world that God made. To read their stories of origins as if they were modern scientific reports is to misinterpret both the Bible and science.
Relation of Science and Theology
The third problem with creationism is that it reads biblical cosmogonies and scientific reports with the same literalness. Ian G. Barbour, who is professor of physics, professor of religion and Bean Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Carleton College in Minnesota, criticized such undifferentiated reading in his Gifford Lectures of 1989-91, published as Religion and Science: Historical And Contemporary Issues (1997, Part II, No. 4). Barbour argues that the models for relating science and religion are ultimately four: 1) conflict, 2) independence, 3) dialogue and 4) integration. Under the conflict model, Barbour groups both creationism and its great nemesis, the scientific materialism that holds that the scientific method is the only method and that matter is the fundamental reality. Each of these claims that science and theology make competing literal statements about the same domain, the history of nature. But, says Barbour, this mixes different levels of discourse. Scientific materialism starts from science but ends up making broad philosophical claims without acknowledging its shift. Biblical creationism moves from theology to make claims about science, again without recognizing its jump to a new level of discourse. Neither school owns up to its shifting methodology.
The models most commonly used in mainstream Christian theology are the third and the fourth, dialogue and integration. It turns out that dialogue is the model favored by many contemporary Roman Catholic thinkersfor example, John Paul II, Ernan McMullin, David Tracy, and the late Karl Rahner. Dialogue notices the presuppositions and the limit-questions of each area, and it is careful about methodology. Integration goes a step further, seeking some kind of integration between the content of theology and the content of science. The writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) provide examples of this model. Whether we prefer the model of dialogue or integration, we have to be aware of the differences between the aims and methods of science and of theology. We cannot flatten out these differences as creationists do, nor can we do away with the differences between biblical literature and our own.
Value of Creationism
What ought one to think, then, of creationists and their project? First of all, we should recognize that creationists are human beings like ourselves, who earnestly seek religious meaning in the Bible. Moreover, if we are to be practical, we need to be aware that criticizing them will likely have no effect whatsoever. Creationists are constantly attacked and have become inured to it. The best approach, therefore, is positiveto show how a non-fundamentalist reading of the creation accounts can be religiously meaningful. Biblical creation stories reveal a God who is intent on making the world beautiful for the human race and also reveal what the world will be like at the end of time. God defeats chaos and is shown as the God of life, order and beauty.
Nonetheless, we must criticize the creationist project, even as we recognize its sincerity. This criticism will have a political dimension in addition to its epistemological one. As George Marsden has pointed out in Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (1980), American fundamentalism has a political goalthe preservation or restoration of a nondenominational conservative Christian culture. It is clear from the pressure they have exerted on state school boards that creationists share that political agenda. Opponents of creationism must, therefore, not only criticize it as an idea but also actively oppose creationists’ strategy of imposing their religious views on others.
The debate about creationism in public schools can, however, have a happy outcome. American public education has traditionally excluded the Bible and religion from its curriculum. This exclusion of so central an aspect of human life and history has always been indefensible on purely academic grounds. The attempt to force schools to teach creationism can be a wake-up call to public educators. In November 1999 the National Bible Association and the First Amendment Center, with the support of 20 national organizations, ranging from the American Association of School Administrators to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, published a booklet on teaching the Bible in public schools. Avoiding what it calls "two failed models"advocacy of one religion or making schools into "religion-free zones"the booklet suggests an approach in which "public schools neither inculcate nor inhibit religion but become places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect." That approach is the best response to creationism.