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Creation: Fiddling While Rome Burns

There is no substantive advantage to young-earth creationism. Simple faith in God will do.

As for the ideology of evolution, on the other hand, it has overwhelming disadvantages. If you take the values made flesh in Jesus to be the true picture of the truly human, the ideology of evolution is a sure path to de-humanization.

Objection One: There is no evidence of aggressive, young-earth creationism among the early church theologians—the interpreters who were closest in time to the completion of the writings in the Christian canon. Some did read Genesis as a report, in some sense, of historical events, and some, like Origen, took creation to be fundamental, yet rejected Genesis literalism. But no one made young-earth creationism into a litmus test. The conversation about these matters did not provoke attempts to expel proponents, on either side, from full participation in the life of the church. What is more, people on both sides risked their lives to follow Jesus.

Objection Two: The Adventist Statement of Fundamental Beliefs does not entail young-earth creationism. Belief number 6 says that “God is Creator of all things, and has revealed in Scripture the authentic account of His creative activity.” But this by no means precludes the figurative reading of the creation story, any more than it requires the literalistic one. “Authentic” is not invariably synonymous with “literal.” The word more naturally brings to mind integrity. It would make perfect sense, for example, to say of Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (with its seeming premise of soul immortality, with which Adventists rightly disagree) that the parable, though figurative, has integrity with respect to its purpose, and is thus “authentic.”

Objection Three: Whether you are a young-earth creationist or a believer who takes modern science seriously, the Bible’s stories and affirmations regarding creation have the same practical significance: the earth is good, we are meant to be God’s junior partners, the Sabbath is a gift for everyone. (The idea that the Sabbath requires literalism is misguided: the twentieth century’s foremost interpreter of the seventh-day Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel, read the first chapters of Genesis as a figurative account.)

Objection Four: The Adventist Statement of Fundamental Beliefs forbids what is typical of some young earth creationists, namely, the mindset that tortures every doubt or innovation into an instance of heresy. Adventist landmarks matter—if anything goes, faithfulness will go—but the ultra-suspicious frame of mind is forbidden. The pioneers themselves forbade it: Ellen White said fear of “new questions” and “difference of opinion” is a recipe for spiritual decline; James White opposed a “creed,” saying it would be enmity against the Holy Spirit. As for the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, its preamble clearly teaches us to expect that, under the Spirit’s guidance, our beliefs will undergo revision.

At the farthest remove from young earth creationism is the ideology of evolution. Here I may be more precise, and say that I have in mind a two-fold dogma. One tenet is materialistic naturalism, to which all other ideas about life and culture, including all ideas about development in nature, must conform. The other is the claim to superiority not only in knowledge of the world but also in knowledge of morality. This ideology leaps beyond science to say that with the advent of Darwinian investigation, no account of reality, beyond what science can provide, is either plausible or helpful. The world is matter, nothing more, and for all useful purposes, God is dead. Religion is at once irrelevant and pernicious.

Ideologues of this stripe—I am thinking, in particular, of the so-called “new atheists”—cannot, however, make an adequate response to the following objections:

Objection One: The ideology of evolution crowns and miters itself the final arbiter of truth, but fails to see that scientific methodology can neither verify materialism nor explain why anything at all actually exists. It puts forward as fact what is a metaphysical bias.

Objection Two: The ideology rests on the assumption that all natural development is a function of chance under the iron sway of physical law. This suggests that human freedom is, at best, a useful illusion. It thus makes little sense to say (and really mean) that wise choices matter, or that love and justice refer to anything remotely like what we take them to be in ordinary life.

Objection Three: The ideology assumes that nature can support a moral vision of human dignity and human rights. But as David Bentley Hart says, “nature admits of no moral principles at all, and so can provide none.” Certainly it cannot be the basis for the preciousness of every human life, or for deliverance from the tribalism that undergirds so much of human violence.

Objection Four: The ideology demonizes the religion of the Bible when that religion (for all its hypocrisy and fraud) constitutes history’s single most effective revolution—against resignation, against oppressive power, against indifference to suffering and injustice. The ideology of evolution fails to comprehend what Nietzsche saw and (to his discredit) celebrated: when God is dead, mercy, sooner or later, must lose sway before the willfulness of power.

Faith in God as our Maker matters deeply. And that is why fighting with one another over how or when creation happens is like fiddling while Rome burns: it is a distraction, a neglect of our larger responsibility to bear witness for God.

On a long drive with my wife a few weeks back, I listened to a distinguished anesthesiologist explain why blood transfusions, used in connection with cancer surgery, may have fatal consequences.

Although the surgeon may succeed in removing a malignant tumor, stray cancer cells continue to float through the blood stream. Ideally, the patient’s immune system concentrates on killing these stray cells. But strange blood distracts it—with measurable negative impact on the patient’s likelihood of sustained recovery. Because the distracted immune system pays inadequate attention to the stray cancer cells, they get, in effect, a free ride, and the cancer has a better chance of making a successful new attack.

The physician’s point was that medicine should develop strategies for minimizing the use of blood transfusions.

In Adventism, we fight over the details of creation. But such fighting, though it may energize the disputatious, is a kind of strange blood, and we end up paying too little sustained and cooperative attention to the threats that really matter. Because we get our priorities wrong, the true enemies of faith get, all too often, a free ride.

If we were to minimize divisive and pointless internecine squabbles, we’d bear a better witness. Why don’t we?

These remarks constitute the next-to-final draft of the editorial I will publish in the next issue of Spectrum. Although it cannot be longer, I can still repair egregious error, and will read your comments with that in mind. —Charles Scriven

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