Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What am I?

I'm a creationist, of course.

Or am I?

You're probably thinking, AH HA! He's finally going to come clean as an evolutionist! Not really. I've actually been pondering labels and definitions thanks to an interesting paper by Richard Peters titled "Theodicic Creationism: Its Membership and Motivations." In this remarkable paper, Peters tries to identify a unifying theme for what he initially calls "radical creationists:"
Radical creationists are radical in that they strive to reinterpret all of the data of of natural history to show that it is compatible with their religion. These are the creationists who are sometimes called anti-evolutionists, young Earthers, Flood geologists, and biblical creationists - none of which are very apt titles.
He evaluates each of these terms and finds them insufficient for at least some "radical creationists," so he proposes instead the term theodicic creationism. Why? Because he views the goal of radical creationism to create an explanation of creation that removes responsibility for pain and suffering from God. According to Peters:
... evangelical Christians often view the universe as an arena in which every sentient being is infinitely valuable, as a place in which every decision, every action, every thought has cosmic and eternal significance. From this mountaintop vista of traditional religious faith, the evangelical Christian can only imagine a world without a traditional, personal Creator as a desolate wasteland in which everything is dull and grey and empty and futile and cold; in which a child's love for its mother is like a computer's love for the assembly line that produced it; in which human pains, struggles, and accomplishments turn to dust as soon as we do and so were really nothing but dust before; in which judgments of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness - even truth and falsehood - are merely ecstatic outbursts or weapons in plays for sociopolitical power. When evangelicals survey this Valley of Death, they find that they cannot live there; they are even filled with the conviction that they do not live there, because God makes life meaningful and valuable and eternal.
I have to admit that that passage resonates pretty deeply with me. I think Peters may be onto something, but I don't think he's got it quite right. The problem as I see it is that he doesn't really discuss Old-earth creationism, which in many ways is as radical or perhaps more radical than young-age creationism. For example, Hugh Ross accepts the conventional age of the earth and the fossil record as recording millions of years of history, but he is also radically antievolution, possibly even a species fixist. In other words, Ross accepts millions of years of death and suffering prior to the creation of humans, which according to Peters is precisely the thing that radical or theodicic creationists want to avoid. Ross would therefore seem to be an example of a radical creationist who is not a theodicic creationist.

On the other hand, perhaps what unites these radical creationists is something far more personal. As one radical creationist dismissively told me when I was talking about bombardier beetles, "No one cares about beetles." That's a bit of overstatement to be sure, but the point is well-taken. The primary concern of radical creationists seems to be humanity itself. Historically, the subject of human origins has been the major sticking point for many radical creationists. William Jennings Bryan, for example, didn't really care about animal origins, but he drew the line at humans evolving from animals. So do many others, and I think that's the thread that unites Ross with his young-earth cousins. We're not trying to relieve God of the responsibility for evil. We're trying to prevent the degradation of humanity as mere glorified animals. We're made in the image of God not the image of ape. Would that make us anthropocentric creationists?

Frankly, I'm not all that enamored with the idea of coining a term to describe such diverse characters as Kent Hovind, Hugh Ross, and me. Such a broad term loses what I consider to be extremely important differences. I suppose if you're outside looking in, it's the unifying weirdness of creationists that makes you long for some sense or reason to it all. Thus, a single name for us seems warranted. But from the inside, there are some very important differences that really need to be emphasized.

It's not that Peters ignores these differences. He acknowledges some of the deep divisions among creationists, but he thinks the differences sort of average out over time. Why do I think that these differences are so important? Because the differences in philosophy or theology or science to a large extent modulate how creationists of all stripes behave in the public arena.

Personally, I do not consider myself an antievolutionist. I am not content to critique evolution only. As a scientist, I feel a need to put up or shut up. If I don't have a better explanati0n, then I need to find one. I know other creationists who feel the same way. You're not likely to find such creationists testifying at creationist trials or state school board hearings. Time and again I've heard anticreationists say of me that they don't have a problem with my position if I'm not misrepresenting evolutionary science or trying to squeeze my admittedly religious views into the secular school curriculum.

On the other hand, those who consider themselves challengers to evolution or perhaps just a persecuted minority actively confront evolution in the public arena. As open opponents of the dominant view in science, these individuals inspire much public opposition from scientists. Indeed, it's the lumping together of creationists that I think has fueled a lot of the recent propaganda war. It's as if someone who thinks ID might be a legitimate part of science is just as bad as some anti-evolutionist charlatan or worse - a flat earther! Such lumping is hardly warranted and understandably infuriating.

Most radical is Peters's conclusion. He thinks that without understanding the underlying theodicy concerns of creationists,
their behaviors will seem at best merely bizarre to conventional scientists, who will therefore likely respond in the most counter-productive of ways: with mockery, caricature, censure, neglect, and the like. What theodicic creationists deserve instead is sympathetic understanding, sincere engagement, and the freedom to evolve their tradition of inquiry in the only way that seems to work for anyone: by allowing the world to press back against what are almost always our initially stupid ideas about it (Dewey 1933). But if theodicic creationism is making too stinky a mess to be merely tolerated, if the need for a more parental style of intervention is felt, then would-be champions of orthodox science should begin by addressing the contemporary loss of meaning that they themselves have wrought - a loss felt so very deeply that some would rather attempt a radical overhaul of conventional natural history than be reconciled to it. An effective response to theodicic creationism requires nothing less than a world picture that affirms (or at least does not deny) that life is deeply meaningful.
While I (really) appreciate his respect for creationists, I don't think his solution is going to quite do it. If I wanted a personally meaningful and theologically rich view of the world, there's always evolutionary creationism or theistic evolution. I do not accept such views because I do not believe they are consistent with Scripture. On this point, Peters is uncharacteristically dismissive. He argues that creationists are not nearly as "Bible-believing" as they claim to be. Why? His point seems to be that we creationists sometimes deny what he sees as the "plain meaning" of Scripture. So he condemns our dogmatic interpretation of Scripture with a dogmatic interpretation that he prefers instead? That smacks of hypocrisy, and it ignores the important reality that creationists often differ on their interpretations of Scripture. Some think Genesis teaches a vapor canopy or that critters only reproduce after their kinds. Others (like me) are not so convinced. What we share however is a deep respect for Scripture as authoritative on all topics not just religious ones.

That's why just coming up with a meaningful view of our personal lives isn't going to be sufficient to change our views on creation. We're still left with trying to understand Genesis. Changing my mind on Genesis will require a lot more than just a warm fuzzy feeling about my own life. I need to know that I've "rightly divided the word of truth."

It's an interesting paper nonetheless, and definitely worth a read.

Peters. 2009. Theodicic creationism: its membership and motivations. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 310:317-328.