One of the off-the-main-floor happenings at the General Conference Session will be a series of noontime and evening talks called “Yes, Creation!"
The phrase “Yes, Creation!” hits the bull’s eye for relevance. And as an expression of the biblical ethos—of its joy, and of its affirmation of God’s gifts—it is quite simply wonderful. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with two better words for summarizing the Bible’s teaching about the world and our place in it.
But in a secular age, the conviction these words condense is constantly under siege. Everyone knows how modern thought’s assault on God proceeds as noisily as ever, and how it blasts away at faith’s conviction that life on earth is at once a gift and a moral responsibility. Many realize, too, that the death of God, or of the biblical God, entails the death of humanity—the death, that is, of the human spirit as construed by the great prophets and great sages of the past.
When you marry sheer happenstance to the rule of physical law, it’s hard not to end up a model of human nature that reduces our noblest aspirations—wise choices, generosity, universal solidarity—to mere delusions. Stripped of all inherited accretions, modern thought takes us to be nothing more than (highly evolved) machines. Our aspirations—and indeed everything we experience as purposeful—can be explained away at a deeper level. Competition for survival is what drives us, and it drives us below the level of consciousness. Within groups, members may cooperate to stave off threats and assure group survival, but the motivator is never, at bottom, the well-being of the person or group different from our own. It makes no more sense to contest violence or scorn hierarchies, as a matter of principle, than it does to ask a fencepost for a helping hand.
A main thread of modern thought is the theory of evolution, and in making a case for biblical faith “Yes, Creation!” will be taking aim, at least indirectly, at aspects of this theory. It may discredit the claims of the theory’s most extravagant and undisciplined champions, the exponents of what Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, calls “parascience.” Lecturers may argue that not everything, after all, is explicable in terms of the laws of physics and natural selection. They may argue further that the evidence of our cultural heritage—its testimony concerning moral responsibility, its witness to divine presence—counts against the arrogance, at least, of parascience and for the plausibility, at least, of faith in God.
Or these lecturers may deny that evolutionary science offers any insights at all that deserve our attention; or even say that no deliverance of science may be countenanced if it conflicts in the least with the view that the world was made about 6,000 years ago over the span of six consecutive, 24-hour days.
We will see.
To the degree that “Yes, Creation!” stands up for the biblical anthropology—we were made a little lower than the angels; we are objects of God’s care—it will strike a welcome note. But to the degree that it makes a fixation out of literalism, it will veer into profound and destructive folly. Should the fixation turn out, as we would all guess, to be popular, that popularity will by no means prove the truthfulness of the goings-on. Pandering does not guarantee integrity.
When I listen to these lectures, I will be giving my attention to three questions. The answers will go a long way toward establishing the faithfulness (or not) of this great-themed General Conference feature.
Question 1: Will these lectures be a step toward the closing of the Adventist mind?
A literalistic reading of Genesis is clearly plausible. Many Christians, and most Adventists, embrace such a reading. But every Adventist scientist (including the most conservative of them) knows that at least some insights from the modern consensus about how the world took shape are also plausible.
When in this light you recall how Scripture says the human mind cannot plumb the depths of divine mystery, it is abject intellectual failure to rule out readings that treat Genesis creation accounts as somehow poetic. Surely what God does may be, at least at times, too deep for literal reportage, and has to be pictured or told or sung. Did God say his thoughts and ways are higher than ours, and not really mean it?
I cannot say for sure, but I imagine that humility born of similar insight may have entered into what James White said in 1861. That was the year the first conference of Adventist churches was organized, in Michigan. At the organizing meeting, he opposed adopting a creed-like statement of belief because it would block “new light” and stand in “direct opposition” to the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Now, unlike James White, some creation literalists want to place ever-tighter controls on what Adventists can explore and discuss. How can we compete for influence in God’s world when we retreat into an intellectual cocoon?
Question 2: Will “Yes, Creation!” be a step toward the hardening of the Adventist heart?
People who attend to current conversation on the interpretation of our creation teaching have repeatedly heard voices declare: “If you don’t embrace Adventist doctrine, you shouldn’t take an Adventist paycheck.”
But when you point out that the statement on creation in the Twenty-Eight Fundamentals document was meant, by its still-alive authors, to keep the door open for both literal and metaphorical readings of Genesis, what happens? Calls go forth to revise the statement into something implacably and exclusively literalistic. What could be more disingenuous?
Although creed-like statements are, from the standpoint of the pioneers, dubious in any case, the most doctrinaire of the creation literalists want to sharpen our teaching into a kind of theological elbow, the more easily to shove aside not only the quest for deeper understanding but also the fact of difference inside the fold.
So here is another abject failure, this time a failure of moral imagination. For the most doctrinaire among us, ungenerosity has become a virtue. We ought to pay attention to whether “Yes, Creation!” ends up catering to people of this stripe.
Questions 3: Will these lectures help to unite us in an energetic witness against the dehumanizing thrust of dogmatic evolutionism?
Perhaps “Yes, Creation!” lecturers will crystallize the deep meaning of creation faith. Perhaps they will repudiate hegemonic science (“parascience”) without repudiating the deliverances of scientific research. Perhaps they will motivate us to join together in a truly mindful witness of faith to an increasingly secular world.
That, in any case, is what you and I should be hoping for. Anything less is folly, and a check against the march of folly would be welcome indeed.
Charles Scriven is President of Kettering College of Medical Arts and chairman of the board of the Adventist Forum|SPECTRUM.