Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Theology relies upon ontology

I've read a few works by Christian Darwinists lately in the past few years. One of the main points I want to make in response to their interpretations of Genesis 1-11 is that they fundamentally do not work.

Christian Darwinists generally when looking at these chapters argue:
  • From the narrative that the author of Genesis 1-11 wrote, we can learn theological truth X
  • Now that truth X is clear, it is unnecessarily literalistic to insist that we also believe that we also believe the historical details of that narrative to be literally/historically true.
For example, the Genesis 3 curse teaches us that sin brings misery and spiritual death - but not that the ground actually started producing thorns and weeds at the time Adam sinned. Or the account of Eve's creation from Adam's rib teaches us the intimate relationship between husband and wife, and their equality as divine image bearers - but not that Eve was actually made from Adam's rib. We take the theological fruit - but must not get too hung up about the tree itself.

This does not work, because once you cut down the tree there can be no fruit left growing. In the Biblical way of thinking, God is Lord of all - seen and unseen - and there is only one world, not two. The "theological" and "historical" truth is one: the strands are integrated and intertwined, depending on one another in a symbiotic relationship. There is not a "neutral" physical world that any old interpretation can be placed upon, and then a repository of "spiritual" truth in the Bible that we Christians prefer as the favoured explanation.

In authentic Christian thinking about the doctrines of creation and redemption, the "spiritual" truths only arise as a necessary consequence of the factuality of the history, and not any other way. The resurrection accounts imply a bright future, in a God who turns things around and brings blessing out of hopelessness. But why do they imply this? Because Jesus actually rose from the dead in space and time! These theological fruits are just one small part of the consequences of Christ's real-world act. If Christ did not in fact rise, then the resurrection story ceases to function as a source of hope in this present world - it just becomes a "convenient" fiction that people can choose to draw on or not, depending on whether they like to find support from pleasant (but non-real) stories or not.

Similarly with creation. God's pronouncements about the status of the world, the consequences of sin, unity of humanity, etcetera, have value because they are actually rooted in real events. The theology flows from the ontology. They are not simply arbitrary interpretative additions. The Christian doctrine of creation is the true one - not an optional add-on. We should live with confidence in this world because this world is actually God's - in every part. We should live in the light of the theological truths implied by the account of creation, because they really are implied - because things really did happen that way. This way we can live with confidence - in the light of the factual truths about created reality, not just because we are inspired by a well-crafted story.

To give another example, Genesis is often treated as a polemic against polytheism - and then the author goes on to say (explicitly or implicitly), "now that we see how effective a polemic it is against pagan myths, we no longer have to be wedded to believing in the historicity of the details". But why is it such an effective polemic? Because the details are actually true! The real account of the history shows paganism (and lots of other -isms) to be defective, because of their deviance from the real history. The dichotomy made is an unnecessary and false one

To try to make this false dichotomy throws doubt upon the power and wisdom of God. If God is reduced to hunting to put a "spin" upon stories of non-historical events when he tells us about creation or redemption, then it seems he has lost control of his own world, or somehow not remember (or know how) to make one in a manner that allowed him to not operate in a more straightforward way. But that is not so. The true God made things in precisely the manner he has told us, and all the fruits that grow up from those roots can be relied upon for that reason. This is essential to hold onto to avoid the secularist dichotomy of "real/public/weekday world" and "private/personal/Sunday/religious beliefs" that is crippling many Christians in their thinking and living today.

1 comment:

Ned Kelly said...

A mind game that I indulge in from time to time is to try to imagine why Genesis uses the language that it does if it is not historically true, and what other words could have been used to convey both historical and spiritual truth. I have constructed a number of alternate versions of Genesis which achieve that aim, but when I reflect on the fact that Scripture is God breathed, I have no alternative other than to accept that if God inspired it that way, He must have had a reason, particularly given that His imagination is so much bigger than mine. One can only discard the historical truth if one first discards God's involvement in the writing of Genesis, in which case there is no reason to believe any of it - it just becomes another of those books of nice sayings, no more authoritative than the writings of Confucius or Buddha. Similarly, when people debate Genesis because the Earth seems old (read "mature"), I try to imagine what a young, immature Earth < 10,000 years old would look like. If you diligently work through the scenarios based on flora and fauna biology, surmise God's intentions for oil, coal, and other geological features, etc, you eventually come to the realisation that it actually makes more sense for God to have created a mature Earth than an immature one. Try designing an Earth that appears only < 10,000 years old, it is quite a challenge.