Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Creation Museum

I'm frequently asked--both by believers and unbelievers--about the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum that opened in May of 2007 across the river from where I grew up in Cincinnati. So I thought I'd share a post that I wrote back nearer that time. It included three apt quotes. The first, from an essay by Michael Patrick Leahy titled The Trouble with Fred and Wilma, specifically addresses the museum.
The trouble with the $27 million Creation Museum, which replaces the scientific method with word for word Christian Biblical literalist theology, is that it makes all Christians who don’t accept evolution look stupid. In doing so in such a publicly visible way it undermines the credibility of all Christians, especially those who are researching alternatives to Darwinian evolution using the tools of the scientific method. It also gives the growing movement of militant atheism, as exemplified by the works of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, an easy opportunity to misrepresent all Christians as “irrational”. The mainstream media, including the Los Angeles Times itself, are only too happy to lend assistance to this misrepresentation.

Owned by the “Young Earth Creationist” organization Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum claims that the universe, earth, and man are only 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs co-existed with man. The premise worked well for the Flintstones cartoon show, but has zero credibility within the scientific community in general and the Christian scientific community in particular.
The rest of the essay is well worth reading. Leahy is a theistic evolutionist, and I hope my regular readers will by now recognize that I find extremely little evidential support for that position. Nonetheless, I agree with most of what Leahy writes in this article.

The second and third quotes, by Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine, respectively, were not written specifically about the Creation Museum (obviously), but I take Ham's ministry in general and the museum in particular to be perfect examples of what these church fathers had in mind. First, Aquinas...
The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Christian, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.
Now Augustine, from The Literal Meaning of Genesis...
Usually, even a new Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world...and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. [Be prepared for a good deal of this in the months to come with regard to the Museum.] The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Star of Bethlehem

One of the questions that comes up at this time of year is "What was the star of Bethlehem?" That is, "How should we understand the phenomenon referred to in Matthew 2 as a 'star' that guided wise men out of the east to the place of the young Messiah?"

The modern scientific materialist has a couple of options. He may discount the account altogether, or he may seek some strictly natural explanation that explains the event and explains away the idea that it had anything to do with the appearance of God in human form.

We'll talk about strictly natural explanations in a moment (since it is an option available to the theist as well). But we can dismiss the materialist view itself, because it is an inaccurate understanding of the world in which we actually live. The term 'scientific materialist' frequently misleads folks; it is not a scientific view, one arrived at by consideration of the scientific evidence. Instead, it is a metaphysical view (a religious one), involving belief a priori (that is, 'before the evidence') that nature is the whole show and that there is no God.

But both the evidence and reason lead away from that view, confirming instead the Judeo-Christian understanding of the universe. To put it another way, scientific discoveries--and especially the biggest discoveries of the past century--powerfully confirm the metaphysical claims contained in the Bible, many of which anticipated those dicoveries by thousands of years.

This Bible--unique among the world's holy books in this scientific accuracy--tells us several important things. Besides the fact of the existence of a Creator/Sustainer that is transcendent to (outside of the time and space of) the creation, Scripture tells us to study the creation itself to learn about that God. And both that study of the creation and the Scriptures themselves tell us that God is not merely transcendent but also immanent. By immanence is meant that He actual enters in to, supernaturally intervenes in, that creation. Such supernatural intervention is usually given the term 'miracle,' and the star over Bethlehem is generally considered to fall into that category.

[By now, some of my readers are becoming exasperated by my taking the long way around to answer the question. "Just tell me what you think the star was!" they are saying. But I'm hopelessly big-picture, and feel the need to put that answer in its larger context, and, well, it's my blog, so they'll just have to hang in there while I do that, or move on in their impatience.]

Now, given all that--that we live in a world accurately described by the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, one created and sustained by a transcendent yet immanent God--we can rightly go on to distinguish between two categories of miracles.

First, there are those miracles in which God uses strictly material things (that He previously created) and purely physical laws (that He already put into place). In such instances, the only supernatural aspect of the event is the fine-tuning, the timing and/or location, of it. The evidence (from science and Scripture) indicates that many of God's miracles have been of this type.

Generally, the question "What was the star of Bethlehem?" has in view this category of miracle. The person posing the question usually means, "Is there some well-documented physical phenomenon, some understood physical laws, that can be invoked to explain the account in Matthew 2?"

And for the person looking for such an answer, many options exist. This is in part because the Greek word aster, which is translated 'star' in the gospel account, has a broad range of potential meanings. That is, objects and events that in English are distinguished among by the terms star, planet, conjunction of planets, meteor, comet, and supernova all would be covered by the single Greek word translated star. And each of these things has been proposed as the explanation for the star of Bethlehem. Most can be quickly dismissed for a variety of reasons, each presenting problems even for the scant textual evidence that is given us.

In my opinion, the most likely explanation (from within this category of miracle) is that the star may have been a recurring nova. Novae are the explosions of stars as they die. And a small percentage of such explosions occur in stages, such that the initial explosion (resulting in a period of great brightness that may last weeks or even months) may be followed (after a period of dimness) by a second explosion. Such an event could be reconciled with the star seen (according to Matthew 2) in the east, and later as the wise men neared Bethlehem.

But there's a second category of miracle that should be mentioned. This category encompasses those cases where God does not limit Himself to already-created material and established physical laws, instances where (as is His perogative) He actually suspends those laws for His good purposes.

Take, for example, the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale. There have been those Christian apologists who have sought to allay the incredibility of this miracle by finding similar, natural examples. They posit a baleen whale (the large species without teeth that filter krill and other tiny organisms from the water), and look for records of such a whale engulfing, say, a sea otter, which was subsequently released unharmed when the whale once again opened its jaws. I consider this approach misguided. It seems to miss the main point, which is that however much natural material was involved there was something very supernatural that went on.

Or take a more obvious example, the account of Yahweh speaking to the false prophet Balaam through the mouth of an ass. Is it clear that I would be wasting my time if I searched for a race of donkeys with a wider vocal repertoire than the ones with which we are familiar, in order to try to make this Old Testament account more palatable to folks in a modern scientific age? If we really take this account seriously, we acknowledge that in this one instance God suspended the natural laws that He put in place (those governing the vocal capacities of equines), and did something supernatural.

The same could easily be true of the star of Bethlehem. Perhaps the light guiding the shepherds cannot be understood as a natural phenomenon (even with supernatural timing) of this universe. It could be that God provided a supernatural, other-worldly light on this one occasion for His own purposes.

We may never be able to answer this question with any certainty, to avow that the star in question was a recurring nova (or some other natural event with miraculous timing and location) or, on the other hand, that it was almost certainly entirely supernatural. But while it is God Himself who gives us our native curiosity about such issues, the important thing is that we recognize and acknowledge that it is He who is sovereign over this world, and He who can intervene when and how He chooses, that it was He who, about 2000 years ago, made a way of reconciling the world to Himself through the Baby born at the other end of that star-guided journey.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Next Semester

The schedule of classes is out for the spring semester at Kilns College (where I teach in Bend, Oregon). There's a great lineup of courses being offered, and you can go here to check them out, and to register. I'm most excited about the History and Philosophy of Atheism course, which will be taught by Ken Wytsma (I'll guest lecture on the night on which we discuss science and atheism and then evolution and atheism).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Making Sense of the World

In my last series of posts (on the faulty analogy central to the arguments of New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), I mentioned in passing that atheism (in the form of scientific naturalism) does not provide a logical justification for doing science, whereas Christian theism does. I want in this post to flesh that out just a bit.

The fact of the matter is that modern science arose and flourished within a Christian understanding of the world. And this was not mere historical coincidence but precisely because Judeo-Christianity uniquely provides the set of assumptions that make science a worthwhile endeavor.

A short list of such assumptions includes... the existence of the universe, the order in the universe, the fact that the laws of mathematics apply to the universe, the fact that the laws of logic apply to the universe, the reliability of our senses in discovering the order in the universe, the reliability of human reasoning in drawing accurate conclusions about the universe, the necessity of honesty and integrity in conducting and reporting research...

Science depends upon these assumptions, and Christianity has a reasonable explanation for each and every one. Naturalism, not so much. In the case of most of these assumptions, scientific naturalism does not deny them, but accepts them as unexplained, unexplainable, brute (and fortuitous) facts. For others, naturalism would seem to fare even more poorly. As just one example, if naturalistic evolution is true, and human consciousness and reason are merely the purposeless results of undirected interactions of biochemicals, there seems no reason to accept that human reasoning should lead to meaningful and accurate conclusions about the world.

This problem has been recognized in recent years by a variety of thinkers from across the theological spectrum. Agnostic physicist Paul Davies, for example, wrote
People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature—the laws of physics—are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least not in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.
Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it this way:
Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Christian theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think, I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Darwinian naturalism.
Some of my readers will be familiar with a famous sentence of C.S. Lewis':
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
What some may not realize, however, is the context of this quote. It is the final statement of a paper titled "Is theology poetry?" (which can be found in the compilation of essays The Weight of Glory). And what Lewis is dealing with is exactly what I've been writing about, how scientific naturalism (what Lewis calls the "mythical cosmology derived from science") cannot explain things nearly so well as Christian theism can. So, although it's lengthy, here's the final paragraph of Lewis' argument:
I was taught at school, when I had done a sum, to "prove my answer." The proof or verification of my Christian answer to the cosmic sum is this. When I accept Theology I may find difficulties, at this point or that, in harmonising it with some particular truths which are imbedded in the mythical cosmology derived from science. But I can get in, or allow for, science as a whole. Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test. This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams; I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner; I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world; the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.