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“The Grand Narrative of Creation” is the imagination capturing title of the last chapter in Collins and Giberson’s book The Language of Science and Faith. I eagerly plunged into the chapter anticipating an inspiring story of God’s creation from an evolutionary creationist perspective. Instead, I found their rather dry, mechanistic description of creation, interrupted occasionally with de-contextualized Biblical passages, nearly as uninspiring, dated, and disjointed as an old VCR manual. The problem is that they started with the “big bang” when they should have started in the beginning.
“If we do not know how the story of the Gospel begins, then we do not know what that story means.” So argues Albert Mohler in a recent blog post contending for a literal Adam and Eve. However, what Mohler misses is that the story does not begin in Genesis 1 with Adam and Eve at all. In fact, it probably doesn’t even begin in this universe. Rather, the good news story of God’s creation begins in John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
A Christian, and therefore an Adventist, understanding of creation must begin with Jesus. If we begin with only the big bang, we end up in an inexplicably self-organizing, naturalistic universe, inspiring in its own way but desolately devoid of purpose. On the other hand, by insisting upon a literal Adam and Eve we end up in a supernatural world which is permeated with divine purpose but is disconnected from and even opposed to currently observable reality. Instead, If we begin with Jesus in eternal relationship with the triune God, who created all things (by whatever means), emptied himself incarnationally to enter and relate with creation, died in our place to destroy the power of sin, and rose again to demonstrate the future hope of the Kingdom of God, we end up in a relational universe full of mystery which allows freedom to seek, discover, and interpret truth through God’s word and from God’s creation.
The traditional Adventist understanding of God creating the universe in six literal 24-hour days as we currently understand them approximately 6,000 years ago describes God creating a perfect past and now moving us back toward the restoration of that idealized state from which we have fallen. A progressive Adventist understanding of God creating the universe over long ages imagines God calling us from the future toward a completely new and different consummation. This consummation is the culmination or next phase of an ongoing process and not a return to a static past state. However, the ultimate goal does in some ways reflect the past as it anticipates our inclusion into the dynamic relationship exemplified in the Johannine concept of God.
If we begin with Jesus who taught and lived the present though not yet fully realized Kingdom of God, we will begin by focusing on the ultimate end. As an eschatological community, Adventists should be particularly receptive to this concept. Instead, we seem stuck in the ancient past in an ongoing debate over origins.
At the recent Spectrum/AF conference Genesis and Beyond: Celebrating Faith in a Polarized Age, John Walton, Fritz Guy, and Brian Bull attempted to help us better understand this ancient past by exploring the context and meaning of Genesis. Our reflection on the differences between an ancient versus a modern cosmology raises the question of how this relates to our concept of God.
No matter our position along the liberal/conservative continuum, we all share a modern scientific cosmology of an unimaginably vast universe. When we encounter the domed sky and flat earth in Genesis, the only difference in our approach is whether we think the author was influenced by ancient cosmology or whether we assume God superseded the author’s cosmological understanding while still permitting the use of metaphorical descriptions similar to the cosmology of other ancient cultures. None of us expects Genesis to impose an ancient cosmology on modern readers.
This is undeniably a good thing. God as viewed through limited ancient cosmology seems at once too large and too small. Fitting God into the cozy confines of an ancient domed land led to an equally cramped concept of God. On the other hand, God’s presence in their limited cosmology overwhelmed the ancient psyche leaving no room for natural or chance explanatory concepts for phenomona. It would seem that with our shared cosmology of an unimaginably vast universe, our concept of God would be equally expansive.
While this is true to a certain extent, our own concept of God is also at times both too small and too large. In prioritizing naturalistic and chance explanatory concepts, our understanding of God’s work in the world has been markedly diminished. At the same time, our recognition of the relative insignificance of humanity inhabiting a thin crust on a speck of a planet on the periphery of a minor galaxy lost in an immeasurable universe leaves us with a deistic image of God so excessively other that the possibility of personal interest and relationship seems absurd. In reaction, many of us continue to cling to ancient descriptions of overwhelming divine activity. While these ancient descriptions are helpful in correcting our modern misperceptions, they could and in many cases should be read in a similar contextual or even metaphorical way through which we interpret ancient cosmological expressions. Indeed, any language describing the divine is destined to fall far short of Reality.
Given these challenges, how are we to celebrate faith in the aftershocks of the dramatic shift in perspective brought about by the scientific revolution? In his book, Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution, John Haught suggests that we should begin by telling a story. “Nature,” he writes, “is narrative to the core.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was one of the first scientists in the last century to fully realize this fact. He maintained that the cosmos is not a fixed body of things or unchanging state of being. Rather, the cosmos is a genesis—a continually developing drama. Creation is ongoing and the universe is still coming into being.
The book of Genesis records an inspired pivotal contribution to this developing narrative; but, God’s entire story of creation is much bigger than can be contained in written language no matter how inspired. The request to demonstrate how one can re-interpret Genesis in light of science is as misguided as asking how one can fit our expanded concept of God back into the ancient cosmology of the Hebrews. Fitting current concepts back into earlier parts of the story is unnecessary and only does injustice to the original inspired authors by ignoring their unique contribution and valuable perspective. Perhaps, a better question would be: How does an evolutionary perspective emerge from the progressive narrative of creation running through the Bible?
On Saturday night at the recent Spectrum/AF conference, Chris Blake focused on the Beyond in the conference title. He tuned our collective imagination to the indescribable New Earth when God will make all things new. Anticipating that future time and place, the alluring love of God, focused through Christ, draws all things forward. God calls. The universe becomes progressively more aware of itself and our creator through developing human consciousness, a process recorded in part by the inspired biblical authors. We respond. Life on earth is an ongoing interdependent process of becoming rather than a perfect unchanging state of divine emanation—more like a child growing and developing with surprising combinations of inherited traits than a genetically engineered designer clone.
Creation becomes. The movement, interaction, and progressive organization of everything from heavenly bodies to subatomic particles is coordinated by four intrinsic attractional forces. Everything is relational. Not only is everything related, but all that we know was once completely connected in a single infinitesimal point before exploding up into the approaching God of love. All is connected.
In the upside-down, inside-out Kingdom of God, the grand narrative of creation is best read beginning at the end—beyond a literal Adam and Eve and before the big bang there was, is, and will be the full mystery of God’s love most clearly revealed through Jesus Christ.
—Brenton Reading writes from Shawnee, KS where he lives with his wife Nola and their three children. He is a pediatric interventional radiologist and a member of the Adventist Forum board.
This is the last essay for the Summer Reading Group series on the book The Language of Science and Faith. Here is the first post: What is BioLogos? The second. The third. The forth. The fifth. The sixth. The seventh. The eighth. The nineth.