Monday, September 3, 2012

Galileo's telescope

James K.A. Smith has an essay in the latest Christianity Today that is well worth the read.  I can't find it yet on the CT website, so I'll briefly summarize for those who don't have access to the print version.

The basic objective of the article (as I see it) is to explore the applicability of the "Galilean analogy" to the modern creation/evolution controversy.  You've probably heard this analogy as much as I have.  Back in Galileo's day, the church was worried about cosmological evidence threatening scriptural interpretations that placed the earth at the center of the universe.  Today, the church is worried about evolution threatening scriptural interpretations of human uniqueness and a historical Fall.  In Galileo's day, the church acted in an alarmist and reactionary way by defending scriptural interpretations that shouldn't have been defended.  I think you can put two and two together to figure out the lesson for today's creation/evolution debate.

Smith finds this analogy problematic because it already assumes the outcome.  Since the solution to Galileo's challenge really was better and deeper understanding of scripture, then that's going to be the outcome here.  More seriously, Smith writes
These "Galileans" exhibit an essentially "whiggish" stance toward the theological tradition - an underlying confidence in progress and the unquestioned assumption that "newer is better."  At work here is a sense that faith needs "updating," and that clinging to historic concerns and formulations is merely "conservative," as if seeking to preserve historic doctrines were just a matter of fearing change.
I have no doubt that paragraph will set a lot of people off (the whole essay will), and I don't blame them.  It paints some pretty broad strokes, but I think it also hits a very important theme for many who question evolution's compatibility with Christian theology.  It's one thing to talk about the nuances of interpreting indirect and uncertain scriptural references regarding cosmology.  It's quite another to claim that Paul was wrong when he said Adam's sin was the reason Jesus died.

Smith concludes on a guardedly optimistic note with a brief discussion of the Council of Chalcedon, based on Mark Noll's Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.  Smith writes,
There is a model to follow here: Early Christians mined the mysteries of the faith to grapple with the challenge of the day rather than whittling down what's scandalous to fit the expectations of the day.  Guided by the Chalcedonian consensus, church leaders did not have to settle for a merely defensive or conciliatory posture.  They were not reduced to looking for nooks and crannies in the reigning scientific paradigms that left room to make religious claims. Instead, their central conviction of the lordship of Christ over all creation gave them a courage and confidence to theorize imaginatively and creatively.
Sounds great, doesn't it?  I just wish I had a better practical sense of what that would look like in today's debate.

I guess I have that problem in general, though.  We're all stuck in this deadlock, and we don't even agree on how to think about the issues.  I think the example of Chalcedon really is a great model for us, but I think it will take some really radical bridge-building to get things moving.  Creationists of all stripes will have to talk to each other.  We'll have to admit that we don't know everything.  We might even find out that we were wrong about some things.  Now that I think about it, that sounds like a really good conversation, doesn't it?

When the full essay turns up on the web, I'll post a link.  In the meantime, if you have access to the print version, it's definitely worth a read.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.