Creationism: Beguiled by Story

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Published:
August 24, 2017

In a book published a number of years ago titled The Power of Story, Jim Loehr explores the uniquely human trait of operating within the framework of “story.” It is “story” that assists in making sense of chaos and in organizing experiences into a comprehensible matrix of understanding. Some of the varied expression of these narratives that evolve can be represented by overarching themes—victimhood, impoverishment, failure, empowerment, privilege, success, limitations or freedom. These and many other scripts act as the master background account that explains the world to self, acting as a filter that delivers to the individual a framework of understanding.                                                                                                                       

The stories we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, begin at birth and are shaped by parents, teachers, and peers who instill a sense of time, place, and history, as well as faith, fears, and hopes. These inputs all influence personal identity and form the basis for the scripts that are adopted with them being in a constant state of evolution as daily inputs get incorporated into the narrative. One of Loehr’s more hopeful points, though, is the proposition that each person is in control of story and can modify it to alter the trajectory and transform destiny—more about this later.

As human observers, it is possible to see story weave its way into human institutions. Judaism is centered in story, as is Christianity. It also drives Adventism and includes such things as the Great Disappointment, Investigative Judgment, Cosmic Conflict, and Time of Trouble. Also, not to be forgotten is the Adventist story of a recent creation. These all convey something about who Adventists are and the lens through which their world is viewed. By most measures it would seem that the Church has excelled at story, with perhaps the centerpiece of it all being the spiritual gifts of Ellen White who has had a compelling influence that hovers to this day in the background of Church life and doctrine. The Adventist story could not be told without a discussion of her ministry and its immense impact on the Adventist master narrative.

Many of us, having been reared on the Adventist story, have lived with the belief that the Spirit of Prophecy afforded access to the modern voice of God on earth. Even though few would make the argument for inerrancy on explicit terms, in practice it has been a little more complicated. Perhaps, even for some of us, it has been a gaze upon an idolatrous pedestal. From that framework, it has been clear that earth, and life on it, was about 6,000 years old with no possibility that science could be right. In important ways, this gaze has conceivably given permission to ignore all the pieces of scientific evidence that suggested a far different narrative. 

In spite of this history, “time” has allowed a more human prophet to emerge, first with the transcript from the 1919 Bible Conference in which White’s contemporaries discussed her appropriate role as they understood it, a position significantly less elevated than what would later evolve. Added to this were the subsequent revelations of literary borrowing without attribution on a fairly large scale. Such disclosures were alien to the underlying assumptions from which the pedestal paradigm had emerged, necessitating some to modify such conventions so as to comport with this new informational landscape. Yet, for many others of the Adventist community, the story tradition has remained too compelling for any of these more recent revelations to matter at all. This is evident from a church culture seemingly at ease in overlooking objective measures by which to know the prophet was both human and mistaken on some points.[1] Such unfiltered and non-discriminating reliance upon this part of the Adventist story has set in place the preconditions that have given rise to conflicts in the Church’s relationship with science and scientific data.

Sometime back, the Adventist Review (AR) published the Sabbath sermon from the “Faith and Science Conference” held in St. George, Utah, in the summer of 2014. The sermon was presented by a General Conference Vice President in which he told his listeners that the Adventist emphasis on a recent creation “comes from the Bible,” though he never quite showed the audience where, nor did he raise the possibility of this idea being sourced in some other way. Perhaps offering a window view into the mood of the corporate Church over the “recent creation” (RC) issue was a picture accompanying this AR article that portrayed Daniel in the lion’s den, seemingly a metaphorical depiction of a persecuted Church under assault by facts and scientists.[2] Otherwise, why have such a picture accompanying an article on faith and science?

So, what is the real source for the tensions that now exist within Adventism over the dating of creation?

The answer to this would seem to be that it appears to be largely sourced in the thinking and writings of Ellen White who has given the Church two conflicting story traditions—one being her advocacy of a strictly evidence-based theology,[3] and the other being her belief in RC.[4] With San Antonio 2015 in the rearview mirror, it is quite clear that the Church has now attempted to resolve this tension by giving RC superseding authority over “evidence-based” theology by formally canonizing a “recent creation” in a revised statement of the Fundamental Belief on creation—this in the face of both compelling and growing physical evidence to the contrary. 

The great lament that some may feel about what occurred in San Antonio could perhaps be more easily accommodated if the probability equation—both for and against RC—were a 50/50 proposition. But as a reality check, we must face squarely the gnawing poverty of subject-matter experts in the key sciences who believe the evidence even remotely points toward RC. Even the Church’s own prominent scientist from Geoscience Research Institute candidly admitted a while back, “There are no available [scientific] models” for a recent creation.[5]Nevertheless, it would appear that to many leading Adventist minds a “recent creation” story coming from an inerrant prophet has been too much of a certainty to deem evidence worthy of a full and fair hearing—perhaps forgetting that Ellen White emphatically embraced an evidentiary basis for faith and practice.

The alternative to the path outlined above would be to start taking God-endowed “sense” and “reason” seriously as it applies to His “book of nature.” When we observe, in real time, the birthing of new stars and solar systems in distant nebula, we must now recognize that “In the beginning” must be understood as a relative term at least as we move forward from the big-bang cosmology. When we see stars at billions of light-years away, we have compelling evidence that those stars existed billions of years ago; otherwise, we would not see their light. On both of these counts, it is difficult to claim a literal understanding for a singular recent creation of the stars within the framework of Day 4 from a few thousand years ago. Nor can the many other pieces of compelling evidence aid the traditional version of the creation story.

The quiet forbearance against formal implementation of RC dogma that marked the first 150 years of Adventism has now been displaced by what appears to be a wholesale dismissal of the physical evidence, incubated in a subculture in which the RC version of story has simply been too sacrosanct and driven by Adventists too certain about the details of RC to consider the array of evidence honestly and objectively. 

Michael Lewis, in his most recent book, The Undoing Project, provides an account of two Israeli psychologists—Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—who spent their lives studying the mechanics of human thinking. One of their many conclusions was that “story” has the capacity to blind people to more compelling understandings of reality. In other words, this is not just an Adventist problem—it is a human problem.

But lest this all lead to despair, it is worth circling back to the beginning of this piece which offers the possibility of hope, holding out the prospect that humans ultimately control story, having the power to modify both it and its trajectory by way of an editing process that should have as its intent to keep it in touch with the real world. Perhaps one of the best ways to undertake an editing project would be to move the focus from the substance of belief to the process itself.  After all, belief is only credible to the extent that the process that gets us there is credible.

Given what took place in San Antonio, we cannot assume the current Church hierarchy has any interest in an editing program at this time. For them, and perhaps for most members, it is likely that the complexities of science represents too steep a hill to climb. Perhaps, for some, the pedestal version seems too certain. But the march of human knowledge is ever growing in light of the continued accumulation of evidence, and it is the evidence that will be the final arbiter on such matters for most people. This reality should be the basis for sober reflection by those interested in the evangelistic future of the Church.  

For a long time, there existed a fork in the road in Adventism with one sign pointing toward a tradition-based confessional, the other to evidence-based principles. Informally, the Church had been camped at that fork on matters regarding RC, that is, until San Antonio when it chose to formally side with tradition. Those who are process-oriented and evidence-based can only mourn over the abandonment of this founding principle as the basis for faith and practice. Perhaps a more circumspect approach will eventually emerge with a rediscovery of this principle central to Adventism. Such a rediscovery could provide a framework upon which to construct a sound doctrine of Creation that takes both science and Scripture seriously. Until then, surely there will be the hard lessons of history that will have to be relearned.

I summarize here several key points I have attempted to articulate either directly or indirectly in this article. They are as follows:

1. All functional humans live within the framework of story. These would include the presuppositions that result in a worldview as well as the personal narratives that we create from our interactions with others. Perhaps, one of the most fundamental presuppositions is that of theism. For many Adventists, Creationism also plays a central role as story.

2. “Story” can be non-negotiable, or it can be flexible so as to be accountable to the real world of sense and reason. Accountability requires that we may need to either edit story or respect data enough to resist impulses to act counter to it. The less accountable story becomes to the real world of data, the less connected we become to reality and the more the conclusion can be drawn that “story” has become a form of idolatry.

3. Ellen White and the influence she has had on the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a part of the Adventist story. It is possible to harbor deep respect for the pivotal role she played in the formation of the Church as well as her leadership in its overall success. Yet, there has been a long history within the Church of some elevating her thinking well above any appropriate level of authority. She was human—not infallible or inerrant—and never claimed to be—even though many have seemed to operate with such assumptions by way of action. 

4. In fact, there are examples of statements in which we can objectively know that Ellen White was not always right, even on specific, “I was shown,” types of statements. Such knowledge should inform the RC “story”, particularly when it runs up against wide scientific consensus to the contrary.

5. It has been argued in this article that San Antonio’s formalizing of the Adventist Fundamental Belief for RC is symbolically distinct from the prior informal predisposition. This action, while perhaps solidifying a widely held informal consensus, violates basic epistemological principles that should have otherwise given respect to sense and reason as a sufficient basis for rejecting this formalizing step.

6. There was an alternative course—to have simply maintained the prior informal tradition for RC. Given the weight of evidence that runs counter to the RC tradition, there is, in fact, a great deal of wisdom to be found in walking back the San Antonio action by allowing the evidence to continue to accumulate. After all, that position served the Church for its entire prior history.

7. Eventually, the appropriate way forward may have become clearer to the Church, making it more comfortable to take a position faithful to evidence (as Ellen White always recommended). This latter suggestion would certainly have conveyed greater respect for the Adventist commitment to seek truth.

8. While mentioned only tangentially in the article above, there hovers in the background a concern for the lessons of history; to ignore physical evidence can come at a very steep cost.  

9. With this in mind, it would seem that we should be facing squarely and publically the physical evidence seemingly contrary to the Adventist traditional understanding, finding wisdom in attempting to harmonize physical evidence and revelation. There are many Christians who are working on such issues, and just perhaps, Adventists could contribute constructively to such endeavors.     

10. One finally thought, in the midst of what for some is theological certitude on these matters, it is perhaps worth remembering that ambiguity remains as a fundamental part of the sacred paradigm. With this in mind, perhaps it would be worth viewing “physical evidence” on friendlier terms, offering the potential of guidance in the framing of our “traditions” and “stories” in a way that keeps us accountable. It will require dexterity, but it is possible to maintain a respectful attitude toward our traditional understandings while, at the same time, working toward keeping them in touch with the real world.   

 

Notes & References:

[1]See Ellen G. White, Vol. 1 Testimonies p. 131-132 as one small example of the point made. Here White details out the content of a vision in which she saw a Church conference she had attended. Quoting her attending angel, she says she was “shown” that some attending the conference would die before the return of Jesus while others would be alive. The date of this conference was 1856.

3Regarding “evidence,” it is worth noting that while some Adventists would likely argue that a “recent creation” comes from the Bible—specifically by way of chronology—there are many, and perhaps most, Adventist biblical scholars who do not regard this as a reliable method. As one example, see http://www.scribd.com/doc/221255795/Can-the-Bible-Establish-the-Age-of-the-Earth. It is also worth noting that many conservative Evangelicals who take Scripture seriously, remain open to the apparent message emanating from the physical evidences of nature.  As for Ellen White's attitude toward an evidence-based faith, see, for example, Ed. 128; see also CWE, 33-42; 44. At this latter page citation, White states: “If the pillars of our faith will not stand the test of investigation, it is time that we knew it. There must be no spirit of pharisaism cherished among us. . . . We are to exercise the ability God has given us to learn what is truth.”

[4]It must be remembered that even in 1900 there was quite a bit of evidence for an ancient earth and universe but far, far less than what exists today. It would probably be appropriate to give allowance as to Ellen White’s lack of formal education for some of her thinking re RC, but should such generosity be extended to 21st century, educated Adventists who have the capacity to know better? As an example of RC from Ellen G. White, see Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 3 (1864), pp. 91-92. 

[5]http://spectrummagazine.org/article/keith-lockhart/2010/06/30/under-wilson-church-begins-process-rewrite-creation-belief

                                                                                                                                

Jan M. Long is the recently published author of the book titled: When Religious Faith Collides with Science: A Navigational Guide, published by Wipf & Stock Publishers. The book is available on Amazon and from other major book retailers. You can also follow him on Twitter at: @JanLong1

Image Credit: pexels.com / Miriam Espacio

 

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