Friday, 27 January 2012

The Bible is not simply a bolted-on explanation

Someone forwarded to me a couple of extracts of two interviews with Dr Mike Taylor, "a computer programmer by day, and a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in his spare time." Here and the January 2012 issue of Christianity magazine (not sure if that's online).

According to Dr. Taylor, people who don't see issues of religion and science just the same way as he does are loonies who are wasting their time; they (I mean to say, we) give the impression that Christianity is an entirely unthinking religion - and the reason why we don't see things the way he does, is because we're not listening to him carefully enough.

I do like people who don't hide what they think from you. It saves a lot of time. But, from that I suppose he won't be interested in anything I have to say. Perhaps you will!

Here are a few points of unthinking lunatic non-interaction from me in response to quotes from him:
We'd probably all agree that science is the best available tool for figuring out what happens in the universe and how it happens. Religion, properly understood, doesn't really involve itself with those questions at all,
According to Christianity, the most important thing that ever happened in the universe is that the Son of God rose from the dead on the third day. How would Dr. Taylor verify that, since his position is that "religion" is unable to make claims about actual historical events? There was a physical resurrection, because physical death - one of the results of the curse - was defeated. Dr. Taylor seems to believe that the material world and the spiritual world are two distinct things; but the heart of the Christian faith says "not so"; we look for a new resurrection body, and believe that Jesus has gone ahead of us. As Paul says (1 Corinthians 15), if this is not so, then Christianity collapses. That's very far away from saying that Christianity doesn't care about such questions at all. Once you shunt the physical world outside of the concerns of "Religion, properly understood", you destroy the foundations of the faith.
Religion, properly understood, doesn't really involve itself with those questions at all, but with why things are as they are, and with who is ultimately responsible for it all. This distinction is of course is what Gould (1997) was referring to in his concept of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). Gould himself was an atheist, or at least agnostic; but he understood what kind of a thing religion is, and respected it on its own terms rather than holding it in contempt because it's not science.
First, it's clear that Taylor here is basing his views upon philosophical assumptions, not upon scientific ones. How did he learn that "religion" and "science" exist in hermetically sealed domains? That's not itself a finding of science, either actually or even potentially - it's a philosophical/religious dogma. Our views of to what extent "religion" and "science" overlap ought to be formed by the Bible (if we are Christians). And the Bible makes a huge number of assertions about what happened and when - creation, miracles, Jesus' death and resurrection being the major ones.

Secondly, Taylor should have taken more notice of Gould's atheism. Gould shoves religion out of the realm of the world as we touch and experience it, because that's where he wants God to be - out of the realm of relevance. He felt more comfortable with the religious implications of that view.

Gould's concept was atheistic to the core. According to Christianity, the Bible is God's word with authority over all things; seen, unseen, spiritual, physical. It does not simply have "magisteria" in a privatised, unseen (read: irrelevant!) "religious" world. The Bible begins by teaching us that God made the heavens and the earth; he rules over all domains, including over science.

The separation between "what happens" and "why it happens and who does it" is a profoundly anti-Biblical separation. God's word and his actions are inseparable; God acts in history and explains the meaning of his actions to us. Christianity is not simply a bolted-on explanation of the meaning of history; it is also a set of distinct assertions about the content of history itself. If Dr. Taylor wanted to know the route that Moses took out of Egypt, or what miracles were performed through him there, or what happened at the Red Sea, then how would he derive the answer? According to him, religion has no interest in such questions. The God who really is, on the other hand, seems to be very interested in them, and decided through those very things to reveal himself to us.

Once you cut God's actions in history out of the picture as irrelevant issues, then you ultimately cut God himself out - because it is through those actions that God has made himself known.

from any Christians who hang around this blog supporting creationism: guys, give it a rest. Religion is not science
The first chapters of Genesis are about who caused the universe to exist, and why he did it. They are simply not interested in the mechanisms he used, any more than the John chapter 2 account of Jesus turning water into wine is concerned with the chemical reactions.
That's a straw man; the question is not "does Genesis explain scientific mechanisms?" but is the book of Genesis history? Is it intended to be an accurate account of God's actions, and in what duration of time it asserts he carried them out? No creationist thinks that Genesis is intended to give detailed scientific mechanisms. Creationists have been pointing out and correcting this straw-man from ever since this debate began; it would do Dr. Taylor's side of the argument well to either stop raising it, or to cease saying that the problem is that we're not listening to what he's saying carefully enough.

Dr. Taylor appears to allow that Jesus did turn water into wine. Suppose that in 1859 Charles Darwin had published a book demonstrating that water and wine are really the same thing, and that if left in a pot long enough, one will become the other without any intervention; that the action was simply nature taking its ordinary course - and that in fact the feast at which it took place was extended over several decades, and not a few days as John says? What would Dr. Taylor say to that? The point is that Dr. Taylor's neat "what/why/who" trichotomy, though simple to grasp and making for good sound bites, does not actually work when applied to the case in point. The questions are tied up closely together, and Genesis also makes assertions about "when" and "how long". To disagree with those assertions is one thing; but to simply rule them out-of-court because you arbitrarily assert that "religion" never makes such assertions is something else.

Christians who should be spreading the love of Christ are distracted into a fruitless argument that has nothing to do with the gospel

This is severe question-begging. We've seen that Taylor's view of Christianity is of a privatised spiritual religion that is hermetically sealed off from the real flesh-and-blood world - rather than of one in which the living God acts and has acted in our world in space and time to redeem. Where do we find the love of Christ? In dying for us in the 1st century under Pontius Pilate, as the early Christians were careful to remind us through their creeds. In his rising again, bodily, in a new glorious resurrection life. This was a foretaste of his coming again to remake this flesh-and-blood world - not to whisk us of to stay eternally into a privatised floaty ethereal spiritual realm. Why did he need to die? The Bible's answer is, it is because Adam sinned and Creation fell. This creation. The one in which we draw breath and in which he drew breath. Personally, I go out into the flesh-and-blood world to preach the love of Christ because I believe it's the same world that God created in six days, which fell when Adam sinned, the world which is populated with Adam's children who are under God's righteous wrath because of Adam's sin as their head and representative, and the world which is redeemed through Jesus' death. Taylor's theology redefines the root meanings of most or all of the terms and concepts in those sentences; it's hardly an irrelevant issue.

Principled disagreement is one thing. But to say that all these points are irrelevant, and that those who make them should be written off as thick loonies is another. It's sad that Dr. Taylor, who's evidently a clever man, has taken a leaf out of the "New Atheists"' book and decided that name-calling is the way forward, rather than honest and serious Christian debate.


Ned Kelly said...

Colossians 1:17 is the succinct answer to this nonsense.
In a way, Christianity is complicit in the atheists understanding because of acceptance of the terms, natural and supernatural, as if they are separate domains. I would posit that from God's perspective, all is "natural". In a book I am just completing, I have a chapter on this false dichotomy. I could send it to you if you are interested.

mesozoic1 said...

Thank you, David, for this sharp and insightful analysis of Dr Taylor's comments. Why do he, and those who think like him,not listen to what we actually say? They seem to be unwilling to even consider what we are saying - sorry, what the Bible (i.e. God)is saying. I also get tired of hearing about the authority of science. What is this "science"? It is merely the thinking of scientists. It does not have an independent existence.
John Peet.