An Invitation to a Road Trip (An Open Letter to Clifford Goldstein)

Dear Cliff,

It comes as no surprise that you are unhappy with my book, "Death Before the Fall."  You have declared that evolutionary biology is less compatible with Christianity than Nazism.  You have defended the idea that dinosaurs are the “amalgamated” creations of evil scientists who conducted genetics experiments in technologically advanced laboratories prior to Noah’s flood.  You have denounced in strident language the many careful biblical scholars, theologians, and scientists who reject “scientific” creationism and rigid literalism when it comes to Genesis.  My book is a sustained and I hope vigorous critique of ideas such as these, which you have confidently asserted in your opinion pieces in the Adventist Review over many years.  As difficult as it might be for those who share your views to hear a strongly worded critique of their ideas, however, careful readers will find that I strive throughout the book to avoid unnecessary harshness.  I have made a sincere effort to extend greater civility and charity to those I disagree with than many of them have been willing to afford others.  For example, near the end of my chapter dealing with the philosophy of science I write:

Contrary to popular stereotypes, creationists can count among their ranks some very serious scientific thinkers, and one cannot but admire the tenacity and persistence—indeed, the faith—of scholars who hold fast to a failing line of investigation decade after decade—provided only that they do so with intellectual integrity in their methods, with full acknowledgment that the challenges they face are not only scientific but theological and biblical as well, and without any prevarications about how little progress they have actually made in the face of the obstacles.”

I refer to my reading of Genesis as a “plain reading” not because I claim a “view from nowhere” as you strangely assert in your review.  As I write in the book, “We all bring important background experiences and beliefs about the structure of reality with us to our readings of the text, and this means there are no ‘plain’ or purely ‘religious’ readings of Scripture untainted by philosophical perspectives or by our culturally embedded worldviews.”  The reason I have called my reading “plain” is to highlight an important but often overlooked fact in Adventist contexts: by any plain reading, Genesis is not “plain” at all.  It is filled with insoluble riddles, mysteries, depths, and tensions that pose grave challenges for self-described “plain” readers who insist that the creation narratives are a straightforward historical and “scientific” account.  What is more, the “plain reading” hermeneutic itself arises from complex philosophical and cultural assumptions about the nature of truth.  These typically unexamined assumptions are, ironically, thoroughly infected by the tenets of a modernist scientific rationalism.

In his preface, John Walton notes that beyond any debate we might have about the meaning of Genesis my book is at heart a pastoral intervention that is concerned with the way in which we debate.  It “calls us to be better conversation partners; better people.”  I am sure that you will agree that the Adventist church is in need of individuals who model more gracious ways of talking across deeply held differences, at times without resolution of their disagreements.  I would therefore like to extend an invitation to you.  Rather than engaging in a back and forth argument in print, which I think tends to bring out the worst in all of us, let’s take a road trip together across the country.  We can visit several Adventist colleges and universities and engage in a series of public conversations about creation and evolution in which we try to model a more authentic, more Christian dialogue.  I will strive to listen to you as carefully and openly as possible if you are willing to extend the same courtesy to me.  If your position is as strong as you believe it is, and if my ideas are as transparently false and easily refutable as you have suggested, the event would only help to confirm Adventist students in their commitment to strict biblical literalism and young earth or young life creationism.  We can share our playlists with each other in the car and search out classic diners along the way.  From what I know of you personally, I am sure you would prefer the fresh air of the open road over yet another week at the office.

 

Ronald E. Osborn is an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College and a visiting professor at Mandalay University in Burma/Myanmar as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar.  He is the author of "Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering" (IVP Academic, 2014) and "Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy" (Cascade Books, 2010).

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