by Conrad Hyers
Dr. Hyers is professor of comparative mythology and the history of religions at Gustavux Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 24, 1984, pp. 411-415. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Apparently it is almost unthinkable to the militant creationists that the ancient Hebrew texts could have been written without a understanding and interest in the physical relationships of space and time. But they were.
Creationist bills demanding equal time for a “creation model” of origins have been submitted to legislatures in more than 30 states. State boards of education, among them those in Texas and California. have been pressured to mandate as acceptable textbooks that include creationist materials. Local boards of education have also been targeted by creationists for grass-roots action as a means of achieving their goals regardless of legislatures and state boards.
Publishers of science textbooks have come under similar pressure. Fearful of having their books omitted from lists of “acceptable” texts, a number of publishers have acquiesced to creationist demands in various ways: by considerably reducing the space given to discussion of evolution, by referring to evolution as “only a theory,” by including creationist materials, or by placing references to evolution in a final chapter which the teacher could conveniently Omit. A recent report from People for the American Way, Norman Lear’s liberal public-interest group, notes that three new biology texts (from Scott Foresman, Silver Burdett and Holt, Rinehart & Winston) have managed to avoid the word “evolution” altogether.
While mainline publishers of religious books and church-school curricula have been virtually silent on the subject, there are currently in print more than 350 books challenging evolutionary science and advocating a “creation science” based on six 24-hour days of creation, a “young-earth” dating, and a worldwide “flood geology.” A considerable, well-financed effort has been made to inundate the Christian bookstore and mail-order markets with similar literature.
There are now nearly 50 creationist organizations in the United States, another dozen in Canada and more in other countries from England to Australia and from Germany to India and Brazil. Many have their own newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, tracts, study programs, graded materials, Cassettes, films and books, as well as field workers and speakers’ bureaus. The combined circulation of creationist periodical literature is in the millions, while other fundamentalist magazines also frequently contain creationist essays, such as Herbert W. Armstrong’s The Plain Truth, with its 7-million monthly circulation.
There is, further, a growing network of fundamentalist private schools dedicated to an antievolutionist and biblically literalistic creationist position. The American Association of Christian Schools, with more than 1,000 member institutions, makes as a condition of affiliation acceptance of the statement, “We believe in creation, not evolution.” Simple as that. This position is not only taught in the AACS science textbooks but in texts for history, geography, social science and literature. “Equal time” is given to evolutionary materials only in the sense that evolution is repeatedly dismissed as evil. There are essentially no alternatives given, not even any alternative approaches to biblical interpretation. Literal creationism is right; all other positions are wrong. So much for fair play and free inquiry and the rest of the Christian community.
An example from a text on Old World History and Geography, by Laurel Elizabeth Hicks of Beka Publications (Pensacola, Florida, 1981, p. 37). reads:
In our modern world there are many people who make up imaginary stories about early man. They teach that man is a production of evolution. Evolution is the false idea that man began as an animal and slowly changed (evolved) into man. Evolutionists scoff at the truth that God created the earth and man. But the more man tries to disprove the Bible, the more proof he finds that the Bible is true. . . . There is no scientific evidence that man evolved from animals, and all the evidence we have shows that the idea of evolution is not true.
Some people have found fossil bones of what they thought were “ape men”, but these were later found to be hoaxes or mistakes. . . . Adam and Even did not look like apes. Adam at his creation was undoubtedly the most handsome man who has ever lived, and Eve the most beautiful woman, for they were the direct product of God’s handiwork.
This attitude has also been held among scientists until recently, when the creationist pressures on public education and policy became so threatening that some scientists founded a new journal, Creation/Evolution, a “Committee of Correspondence” and a Creation/Evolution News letter, aimed at defending evolutionary science and dismantling creationist arguments. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association, lawyers, legislators and judges have been similarly forced to deal with the issue because of the numerous bills and civil suits demanding equal time for creationism.
One drawback of these developments is that they have tended to be confrontational, with punch-and-counterpunch tactics on both sides, each dedicated to defeating the opponent rather than to exploring the possibility of rapprochement. The result is an ever-widening and hardening polarization of the extremes of “scientific naturalism” and “scientific creationism.” The worst fears of both sides are constantly being realized and illustrated, while neither extreme seriously looks for or imagines a mediating position. It is a classic confrontation of tragic antagonists bent on mutual destruction and loath to see an accommodation with the other as anything but an act of disloyalty to the cause.
The average church member, who is usually a layperson in both science and religion, finds the situation confounding. Most have only a Sunday school knowledge of the Bible and perhaps a high school equivalency in science. While members of fundamentalist churches are very clear about their approach to such issues — namely, a simplistic, militant either/or mind-set — most members of nonfundamentalist churches are unsure how to respond to creationist challenges and evolutionist counter-challenges. This uncertainty is borne out by polls, which show that as many as 75 per cent of those surveyed thought it only fair to give class time to the biblical accounts of creation, or a “creation model” derived from them — as if they were of the same order as contemporary scientific accounts (“Division on Creation,” Events and People, September 29, 1982, Century).
The creationists have pointed to genuine problems in the teaching of science which the scientific community would do well to acknowledge: (1) Evolution has been presented by various leading evolutionists in an anti-theistic, secular, humanistic system of thought, suggesting that these are scientific conclusions rather than a credo attached to evolutionary readings of the data. (2) Evolution has often been taught with the implication that it was a rejection of the biblical creation account, by ignoring or dismissing the creation stories as prescientific myths surpassed by superior modern versions. (3) Evolutionary scenarios share in the naturalistic bias of science (as the investigation of natural processes), which tends to weight evolution in the direction of a philosophical naturalism. (4) Descriptions of evolutionary mechanisms also share in the mechanistic and materialistic biases of science — which easily becomes translated into materialism as a world view. (5) Evolutionary theory is similarly influenced by the reductionistic bias of science, with its tendency to try to understand phenomena in terms of the simplest explanation (the law of parsimony) and to do so by always explaining higher orders of things in terms of lower orders — as if nothing significant were being omitted. (6) Evolutionary schemas present a dramatic ascent from an elementary formlessness to the highest of forms, as though the movement from raw energy and the simplest atoms to highly intelligent life were fully comprehensible internally. (7) Evolutionary constructions, like scientific constructions in general, ignore questions of first and final causes — which omission easily gets read as the elimination of such questions from meaningful consideration, while terms such as chance and accident are substituted instead. (8) Evolutionary discussion often betrays a positivistic bias which sees scientific truth as the “real” truth about things, with other forms of truth, including religious truth, relegated to providing only an emotive, valuational and relativistic set of preferences about things. (9) The researching and teaching of evolution has had a secular bias as well, since science has been carried on largely in a secular context as a secular enterprise, in relation to which religious affirmations (such as creation) are seen as quaint and superfluous.
So far the creationists have done a service in calling to the tendencies in science and evolutionary theory to transform methodologically self-limited statements into all-encompassing metaphysical judgments. The problem, however, is that instead of forcefully challenging all these conclusions — which do not directly and necessarily follow from science or from evolutionary theory — the scientific creationists encourage them. They accept the either/or of evolution and creation, and they not only accept but insist on the thesis that evolutionary teaching logically and necessarily leads to naturalism, materialism, reductionism, positivism, secularism, atheism and humanism.
Thus, instead of pointing out that no ideology or world view automatically follows from scientific data and theory, but represents a leap to another level of discourse, the creationists invite scientists to draw the very conclusions that creationists claim to deplore. Rather than carefully distinguishing between evolution and evolutionism, and between science and scientism, the creationists concede everything from the start. “If you accept evolution, even a well-meaning, theistic evolution, this will eventually become pantheistic evolution, which in turn will become atheistic evolution” — as if this were a series of logical steps to inevitable conclusions. No position could have been better calculated to support and strengthen the case for secular humanism.
The scientific creationists also give further aid and comfort to the philosophies they so vehemently protest by proposing to offer instead a ‘‘scientific’’ interpretation of creation. This then places the biblical affirmations of creation, or supposed “scientific models” derived from them, on the same level as modern scientific theory and natural history, inviting their evaluation and rejection in the very same terms. Most of the 350-plus books written by “creation scientists” consist in large part of discussions of the supposed errors of evolutionary teaching, reviewing vast amounts of technical scientific data and theory, challenging this or that piece of evidence, method of dating or use of data, while producing evidences and counterarguments of their own in favor of a young earth, recent humanity, worldwide flood, etc. Little attention is devoted to a correspondingly careful study of the specific type of biblical literature being interpreted, or the ways this literature is different from scientific literature. Neither is time spent on the original issues that the creation texts were addressing and the original meanings of the words for those first using them.
“Scientific creationism” is hardly identical with biblical creationism. The creation texts represent a very different type of literature and concern from modern scientific discourse. To rush biblical statements into this arena, as though they were of the same order as Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species or Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb, or as though scientific conclusions could be drawn from them, is to be very confused about what it is the Genesis materials are teaching. One also plays directly into the hands of those who would dismiss them as quasi-scientific explanations of things for which we now have more sophisticated explanations.
Neither those who would set aside Genesis as primitive science nor those who would try to defend it as the true science of origins seem to grasp the differences between modern scientific and ancient cosmological literatures. What is more critical is that neither side seems to comprehend the relationship between biblical and other ancient cosmologies. The biblical teaching, after all, was not aimed at one or another of the various theories developed in the history of modern science but at the cosmological understandings of origins found among surrounding peoples. The question, then, is: In what senses was the Bible critiquing and rejecting these pagan cosmologies with which it had so immediately to do?
Ancient cosmologies were developed on the basis of phenomenal observations of the world — that is, things as they appeared to everyday observation. In this respect their descriptions of natural occurrences were similar to our own expressions, such as ‘‘sunrise” and “sunset.” Early cosmologies also pictured the cosmos relative to the human observer, as we continue to do when we speak of sending a rocket “upward” into space or refer to Australians as living “down under.” The ancients imaged the universe in terms of four directions or quarters horizontally, laid out relative to the society doing the mapping, with the center of the world located in the holy city and/or capital of each nation in turn. There were also three major zones vertically (heavens above, earth at the center, underworld and abyss beneath), with their subdivisions. We thus find the typical ancient picture of a domed canopy over the sky, supported by pillars, with a flat earth below floating on a watery abyss, with sun, moon and stars moving in the heavens relative to the earth, and with the world axis intersecting the sacred center of one’s nation.
These representations of the cosmos were not being questioned in the Bible or even discussed. They were not the point of contention between Jewish cosmology and the cosmologies of Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, Babylonia, Greece or Rome. The Bible simply uses the same general cosmological patterns and expressions familiar to all within and without Israel. Offering a superior cosmology in a physical sense was not a matter of theological concern, nor would it have made any particular religious difference. A few pre-Socratic Greeks in the sixth century BC. were beginning to speculate about the physical nature and arrangements of the natural order, but in Israel these were not issues. In fact, to have made an issue of physical cosmology would have detracted from, if not subverted, the religious message.
In the biblical texts the concern was to affirm the radical difference between a polytheistic and a monotheistic cosmology. All the surrounding cosmologies identified the major regions of the cosmos with their various gods and goddesses. Genesis, over against this viewpoint, affirms (1) that there is only one God; (2) that this God is not identified with or contained by any region of nature; (3) that the pagan gods and goddesses are not divinities at all but creatures, creations of the one true God; and (4) that the worship of any of these false divinities is idolatry. This is what is being taught and celebrated by the creation texts, not any particular cosmological picture that may then be placed in contention with existing or subsequent physical pictures of the cosmos.
What is often ignored in all this, however, is that the temporal as well as the spatial aspects of ancient cosmology were employed in the Bible: the physical progression from chaos to cosmos. This progression and its sequence were not a point of contention either. Most of the cosmologies in the ancient world began with a cosmic ocean, darkness and a generalized formlessness — just as Genesis does: “And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep’’ (1:2). Elements are introduced which give shape to the shapeless: light into darkness; a domed sky (firmament) dividing waters above from waters below; the earth with its vegetation separated from the waters; the sun, moon and stars to regulate the days, months and seasons. The specific order may vary, depending on which chaotic problem is resolved first, but the general pattern and progression is the same. It is a perfectly logical way of proceeding, though it is hardly identical with what we have come to call science or natural history. Its logic is cosmological, not geological or biological or astronomical.
The fundamental difference between the Genesis progression from chaos to cosmos and that of pagan cosmologies lies along the physical plane not in its chronological order but rather in its theological order. Here too the issue is religious: a radical contrast is made between a monotheistic creation and a polytheistic cosmogony (“birth of the cosmos”). The pagan myths commonly depicted the origins of natural phenomena in terms of the marriages and births of various gods and goddesses. In Babylonian myth the saltwater goddess (Tiamat) mated with the freshwater god (Apsu) and begat the gods and goddesses of silt and the horizon, which in turn begat heaven (Anu), who begat the earth (Enki). Genesis, on the other hand, portrays the One God who has created all that which surrounding people worship as the divinities of nature. The theological order, therefore, is a genealogy not of the gods (theogony) but of creator and creature: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The true opposite of creation, thus, cannot be any scientific model of origins, evolutionary or otherwise, but is this procreation model of polytheistic myth.
The creation accounts were not attempting to present a more cosmologically, let alone scientifically, correct way of representing physical relationships in space or time. Genesis is not offering or supporting a “creation model” that can be placed in competition with other physical models, any more than it is offering a “flat earth model” in competition with geological models or a “geocentric model” in competition with astronomical models. To put Genesis on the level of a physical discussion of the natural order is to secularize it — while complaining loudly about secularism in modern culture!
If Christians, school boards and God must be eternally committed to preserving the temporal side of biblical cosmology, then to be consistent there should be a return to preserving the spatial side as well. Both form a whole cloth. Some creationists have tried to avoid such consistency by arguing that the temporal aspects are of a different order than the spatial. Spatial relations within the universe are presently observable, whereas temporal relations in the matter of origins are not. So we are forced to take the spatial references poetically, but there is not enough evidence to force us to take the temporal references as anything but literal statements of simple historical truth. It is clear from such a dodge that the principles of biblical interpretation derive from modern scientific issues rather than from the issues which led the biblical writers to use this particular cosmological form.
The creationists think of themselves as staunch conservatives, engaged in a loyal defense of biblical teaching. To some extent they are, inasmuch as they are seeking to preserve a doctrine of creation vis-à-vis secularism and scientism. In other respects, however, they are themselves very influenced by secularism and scientism. They confuse what is being taught theologically with the cosmological garb in which the teaching is being presented. They are conserving the right things in the wrong ways. In so doing most of the attention gets focused on the physical issues of modern science — which were not issues at all in the Bible. Endless forays must be made on all scientific fronts — geology, biology, paleontology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, meteorology, genetics, sedimentology, radiometry and the like — either to try to discredit evolution or to defend creation.
The terminology favored by the movement is itself indicative of the degree to which modern scientific questions and secular modes of thought dominate the discussion of creation: Bible science, creation science, scientific creationism, creation research, origins research. These terms not only dramatize the confusion between biblical theology and matters of physical cosmology, but their use becomes a species of secularism and modernism in itself. Many of the leaders of the movement are scientists and engineers, not theologians and biblical scholars. It seems almost unthinkable, apparently, to such people that these ancient Hebrew texts could have been written without a passionate interest in the physical relationships of space and time.
It also seems unthinkable that divine revelation would not be concerned with the kinds of issues that preoccupy modern minds. Surely God would not stoop to employ the lowly earthbound categories of ancient cosmologies or descend to the language of common appearances!
Perhaps John Bunyan is still the safer guide in such matters of form and content:
Come, truth, although in swaddling clothes I find . . .
Art thou offended? Does thou wish I had
put forth my matter in another dress?
Or that I had in things been more express?
[The Pilgrim’s Progress