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Creation Revisited

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The series of short posts I wrote on creation last year I have compiled into a single article: “On the Dogma of Creation”.

All I have attempted to do here is show that it is possible to be modern, reasonable people and still be traditional, Orthodox Christians. The dilemma between being Orthodox and being educated, reasonable people is false.

You don’t have to agree with science, but it is not a buffet where the layman can take what he wants and leave the rest. Moreover, I would certainly never propose that the science of any generation is necessary to their salvation — whether it be the first century, the fourth, the sixteenth, the nineteenth or the twentieth. You may choose to reject modern science and believe instead in the four elements — earth, wind, fire, and water. (Personally, I think you would be silly to do that, but you are free to do so without fearing for your salvation.)

It is when you dogmatically proclaim your disapproval to be determinative and binding for all Orthodox Christians that you and I will come to rhetorical blows. Your false dichotomy, believed by too many of the loudest voices in the Church, is costing children their souls.

I won’t have it.

The original series will be left intact, of course.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 6:53 pm

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On the Dogma of Creation

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This article originally appeared as a six part series. Although I’d like to claim credit for imitating the six days of creation (hexaemeron), it’s quite coincidental. Still, I’ve learned not to underestimate the unconscious ability of my mind to form symbolism and connections which I don’t see consciously until well after I feel I’m finished with a project. The original series generated quite a lot of conversation in the comments, and I point it out to you for precisely that reason. The first post, like this single article, was entitled, “On the Dogma of Creation.”

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good. Gn 1.1,31a (NJB)

The doctrine of creation and the Genesis narratives

The doctrine of creation is that God created everything, both the visible worlds and the invisible, out of nothing. Without the continuing creative activity of God at every moment, the cosmos would not be; it would be nothing. Speaking of the Logos-Word of God, holy John the Theologian writes, “Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him.” (Jn 1.3 [NJB])

Moreover, the creation is good because it is created by God, who is the author of good. He is, himself, good and goodness, light and life, and so the work of his hands is innately good for that very reason.

God creates the cosmos out of nothing, and it is very good. That is the essential dogma of creation.

How, then, do we interpret the initial chapters of Genesis, with their wonderful stories of creation and fall?

An Orthodox believer receives the meaning of Scripture from the apostolic teaching as it is passed on to us (tradition). It often happens that the fathers make mistakes of fact which do not affect their primary insights into a matter. An easy example is the common patristic belief that the world is composed of only four elements, a belief received from the Hellenic science of the day. This susceptibility to be mistaken in matters of fact does not affect the main principle that the scriptural and patristic consensus guides our faith.

Before proceeding to examine the patristic consensus on creation, though, I must digress and explain why I cannot accept any interpretation that understands Genesis’ initial chapters literally. This may appear to contravene this patristic principle, but I believe it does not. If I am wrong, then I am a sinner and I beg your prayers. If I am right, though, literal interpretations of Genesis make a mistake of fact, and we must allow the fathers to transcend these mistakes of fact and reveal their divinely inspired guidance.

Growing up, I learned to interpret Scripture quite literally. I naturally understood the creation stories to mean exactly what they seem to mean. During my undergraduate work, my courses in Old and New Testament opened my eyes to a holistic understanding of the Scriptures.

To properly understand any particular book of the Bible, we must know its genre. This basic principle of hermeneutics undergirds any healthy understanding of Scripture. A book’s genre tells us whether the book is history, fiction, fable, prophecy, allegory, apocalypse, gospel, epistle, or something else. Here, the messiness starts. Most books — even books written today, in our post-Enlightenment rationalism — do not start out with a clear label of their genre. The audience picks up on the genre through cues in the text. In our case, readers populate the audience, but listeners constitute the original audiences of Scripture. Between two and four thousand years separate us from the world in which Scripture was written.

For a recent example:

From forth the loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

This opening of Romeo and Juliet tells us that this work is not to be taken as literal history, even if the characters are historical. How does it do this? The versed lines, ending with a standard A B A´B´ rhyme, tell us this opening is poetry, and it sets the stage for a poetic exposition to follow. There are similar clues in the creation stories of Genesis that tell us that the author is being poetic in describing the cosmos’ birth.

In Hebrew poetry, the main device is parallelism. It takes the place of rhyme in English poetry; parallelism immediately sets apart a piece of Hebrew writing as either poetry outright, or poetic prose. Parallelism is exactly what we see in the narrative of Genesis 1.

Day What is formed
(“Let there be…”)
Day What is formed
(“Let there be…”)
1 Light 4 Lights in the vault
of the sky (Sun/Moon)
2 Vault of the sky
Waters separated
5 Flying creatures
Water creatures
3 Dry land
Vegetation
6 Land creatures
Man
Seventh Day: Sabbath; completion; perfection

You can see from the above table that there is a parallelism between what is formed in the first part of the week and what is formed in the second part of the week. (Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko rightly notes, by the way, that only the initial act is properly creation — creatio ex nihilo — every other act is one of forming or fashioning or crafting a new reality from an old one.)

On day one, light is formed; on the fourth day, the sources of light — the greater light and the lesser light — are formed. On the second day, the vault or dome of the sky is created, separating the waters above the heavens from the waters below the heavens; on the fifth day, flying creatures and water creatures are created. On the third day, the waters below the vault of the sky are gathered together, so that dry land can be formed and vegetation brought forth; on the sixth day, land beasts and man are formed. In each case, there is a parallel between what comes first and what comes last.

Another way of determining the genre of a text is by comparison with other works from the era. By examining Mesopotamian creation myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, we find that the narratives in Genesis owe much of their language and symbolism to the pagan myths which they aim to refute.

As evidence, note that the author of Genesis refuses to call the “lights in the vault of heaven” by names like “Sun” and “Moon.” As a child, this both fascinated and confused me. When we examine the Hebraisms involved, we find the Hebrews did not have separate words for “Sun” and “sun god,” or “Moon” and “moon god.” The odd construction is specifically designed to underscore that there are no other gods.

Note also that man is formed out of the dust of the earth, not out of the body of a deity. Tiamat does get borrowed for the Genesis creation stories, but as a generic creature — the serpent of Genesis 3 — not as a goddess. “Now, the snake was the most subtle of all the wild animals that Yahweh God had made.” (Gn 3.1 [NJB]) Although anthropomorphized, the serpent creature has no divine qualities and is clearly subject to the wrath of God as a creature.

What we find, then, is that these initial chapters of Genesis are an anti-myth in mythopoetic language. If we call them myth, it is only because they clearly label themselves so by their own internal structure and language and by their relation to other mythical literature of the time. These myths, unlike the fantasies they refute, are true on a level that transcends the meager factuality of modern discourse. Some truths can only be communicated at the mythopoetic level, because the merely factual level is unable to express the mystery.

On top of this, we must remember that both the writers and the audience of these narratives were premodern. By this we mean no disrespect, but we simply recognize that our questions of factuality and historicity are foreign to their worldview. Such scientific questions make distinctions they never made and would not understand.

This realization — that the Genesis narratives were not even intended to be taken literally — opened up the possibility that I could accept science on its own terms.

In this first section, I have presented some reasons why the creation myths in Genesis should not be understood literally. “Myth” in this context is truth which transcends factuality to include the mysterious, archetypal and poetic. Additionally, reading the text literally leads to internal contradictions between the two separate creation stories. The most obvious contradiction is that in the first story, man and woman are created together, after every other creature. In the second story, man is created first, when “there were no plants or grain growing on the earth, for the LORD God had not sent any rain. And no one was there to cultivate the soil.” (Gn 2.4b-7) The fact that some ingenious interpretations have developed to reconcile the difficulties between the two stories already indicates that the simplest, most literal reading has been abandoned.

Investigating the science

After abandoning a literal reading of the Genesis mythology, I investigated the scientific stories of our origins. This was quite new territory for me, because growing up I learned the version of science peddled by the Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, and other similar organizations. Evolution was EVIL-ution.

In my undergraduate research on the subject, I found that scientists (regardless of religious belief) nearly all accept the science of our origins, whether astronomical, geological, or biological. Even at Asbury College, a very evangelical Christian college, the science department professors accepted the scientific consensus. Well, except for the veterinarian who taught Bio 101 part-time. I guess he was the token “Scientific Creationist,” though I don’t know why you’d want one.

Non-scientists who do not accept the science are roughly categorizable as follows:

  1. Those who read Genesis too literally.
  2. Those who misapply or misunderstand scientific principles and theories.

In the first part of this article we examined why a literal reading is unsupported by the text, but there is also a more fundamental flaw for some who make the first mistake. Some literalists believe so firmly in the absolute factual accuracy of Scripture that they hold that it can be used as a guide for science. They generally label themselves “Creation Scientists,” or “Scientific Creationists.”

Scripture was written under divine inspiration by men (and possibly women) millenia before the advent of empirical science as we know it. It uses modes of thought which appear to us unconcerned with factuality, chronology, and many other categories of thought we take for granted. “Scientific Creationists,” however, believe that every single word of the Bible was dictated by God to its authors. This is called plenary verbal inspiration. “Scientific Creationists” naïvely understand this theory of divine inspiration to mean that the genres and contexts of the various books of Scripture are irrelevant to their meaning. This is why they mistakenly use Scripture as a starting point for their “science.” Generally, “Scientific Creationists” are neither scholars of Scripture nor scholars in their field. Often, one finds a doctor of physics working as a biologist or a doctor of mathematics working as a geologist, and this lack of training in the appropriate field never strikes them as curious.

In the second group of people, some reject “evolution” because they believe that various theories to explain evolution are philosophical or even anti-theological rather than scientific. Others mistake the methodological naturalism of the scientific method for a metaphysical naturalism.

The scientific method employs what is generally termed “methodological naturalism.” This means that non-empirical evidence and hypotheses are excluded from scientific inquiry. The scientific method makes no claim about whether non-empirical knowledge is possible or whether non-empirical reality exists. It simply excludes their study as a method for gaining a very specific kind of knowledge. Some recommend that non-empirical hypotheses be included, but this has the effect of rendering the whole method void: how does one measure the acts of God? What is the breadth of his hand? Moreover, how would one set up a test case? “If God did not exist, it would be the case that….” Science becomes absurd.

Some mistake this methodological naturalism for a metaphysical naturalism, and religious believers are not the only ones. Perhaps the most prominent purveyor of this confusion is actually an atheist: Richard Dawkins. Dawkins makes his money writing and talking about how science has disproved the existence of God. In actuality, the methodological naturalism of science makes such a proof impossible, since it excludes non-empirical realities, such as God, from its field of competence.

Another confused soul is the lawyer Philip Johnson. His writings are uniformly directed against “evolutionary naturalism.” As a metaphysical system, naturalism is rightly understood to be opposed to religious belief. Naturalism holds that only nature exists. It is generally considered to be a subset of materialism, the belief that only matter exists. However, the methodological naturalism of science does not oppose itself to religious belief. The thousands of religious scientists attest to this simple fact.

Having examined the evidence from the perspective of an ignoramus in a field in which I had no competence, the evidence was clear. Simply accept the consensus of the scientific community. The consensus, once one exludes non-scientists and pseudo-scientists, is actually quite solid. And that among believing scientists, too.

In the next part, I continue to examine the methodological naturalism of science.

The philosophy of science

Why are scientists so convinced of the truth of evolution, whether expressed in astronomy, geology, or biology? Some have accused scientists of having a secret, godless agenda of metaphysical naturalism. After all, it is argued, why else would God be excluded from their descriptions of the world?

In the previous section, I stated that science is marked by a methodological naturalism. It may be helpful to define naturalism. Naturalism is a focus on nature to the exclusion of anything extra-natural or supernatural. Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that nature is all that exists. Metaphysical naturalism is a subset of philosophical materialism, the belief that existence is solely material (that is, that everything is matter in the philosophical sense), that there are no non-material substances, such as minds, souls, spirits, angels, demons, or gods. The famous description of metaphysical naturalism is the statement of Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be.”

Enter the religious, believing scientist. She recognizes that Sagan’s statement is false in the extreme. She believes in God, and she believes in knowledge about all the non-material things listed in the previous paragraph that Sagan, Dawkins, Gould and other metaphysical naturalists disbelieve. She also believes that science produces very useful information about the world, information that is true so far as it goes. But science seems to be entirely naturalistic. There is no talk of God, no examinations of the soul or the angelic host. How does the believing scientist reconcile these two apparently contradictory positions?

She recognizes that the naturalism of science is one of method. The scientific method uses empirical information to study the visible world around us. However, since it restricts its field of inquiry to empirical data, its competence is also restricted to empirical subjects. It is simply impossible for science to study things that cannot be perceived by the senses. The scientist is free to believe in the panoply of non-empirical realities like souls, angels, demons, and God himself, and science remains blissfully agnostic about them.

Thus, the information gained from science remains free of any theological statements referring to God as creator or to the purpose of a thing. It remains completely consistent with theological descriptions of the world, within limits. Obviously, if science finds that reptiles precede birds in the development of life, theology cannot then hold the opposite without also holding that somehow our senses are systematically deceived.

Scientists study empirical data, and then generalize their findings to produce a testable hypothesis. Further data then either confirms or disconfirms the hypothesis. To be more precise, further evidence either falsifies an hypothesis or it allows the hypothesis to stand. After much confirmation and peer review, where similar results strengthen the hypothesis, an hypothesis can be given the status of a theory.

A scientific theory is not mere conjecture. A theory is a model for explaining data that has not been falsified by the data and explains a wide variety of seemingly contradictory data. Theories also tend to confirm one another and lead to better theories which integrate into one new theory the earlier, separate theories.

The most famous example of this confirmatory power of diverse theories is that of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s theory of genetics. Though both men were ignorant of the other’s work, their theories confirmed one another. Darwin, in fact, recognized the lack of a mechanism for trait inheritance as a weakness of his hypothesis and expected that a later discovery would support his work. That support came from the genetic theory of the monk Gregor Mendel. Eventually, the two theories were brought together into a new theory, often called neo-Darwinism.

It is important to recognize two facets of the scientist’s work. First, the scientific method is thoroughly probablistic. It does not ever result in demonstrative proof, in the sense of a mathematical proof or a logically deductive argument, where the truth of the conclusion is guaranteed by the truth of the premises. A scientific theory is always more or less probable. Therefore, one will always be able to deny that one theory or another has been proven. To take two examples, some misguided believers disbelieve Copernican astronomy (that the earth revolves around the sun), others disbelieve the common ancestry of all life (evolution).

Second, many theories of science have a massive amount of evidence behind them. The common ancestry of all life (evolution) or the basic solar system (heliocentrism) are so well confirmed at this point in time as to be taken for granted. In teaching astronomy, it is common to refer to the earth revolving around the sun as a fact. It is technically a theory, but it is supported by so much evidence as to be accurately considered a fact. Even so, it is only probably true that the earth revolves around the sun. The same can be said of any scientific theory.

It must be admitted that the scientific method has its philosophical roots in the Enlightenment. This leads some Orthodox to question the foundation of science altogether. This is a fascinating question without easy answers, but it is a discussion for another time.

I believe that it is important to accept science and the knowledge it provides, while integrating it with the Orthodox faith in a coherent worldview. Presenting our children with a false bifurcation between Orthodox theology and modern science will force most of them to abandon the faith for a skeptical scientism.

In the next section, I will continue to discuss the integration of theology and science in a coherent worldview. We will examine how theology and science complement one another and how scientific knowledge sometimes forces us to reevaluate our understanding of divine revelation. Equally importantly, we will examine how and why science does not and cannot revise the revelation of God.

Do faith and reason conflict?

Several centuries ago, the Ptolemaic solar system dominated astronomy. Ptolemy’s system placed the earth at the center of the cosmos, with the heavenly bodies orbiting the earth in concentric circles. Two men became convinced that Ptolemy’s ancient model was false; the first was Copernicus, the second, Galileo. In the case of Galileo, the Roman Catholic Church ordered him to recant or face excommunication, because heliocentrism made it impossible to believe that the sun literally stopped in its course through the sky as described in the Bible. Galileo did in fact recant and remained in silent communion with his church; his sacrifice, made to remain in communion with his church, remains one of the most tragically beautiful displays of humility the world has ever known. Galileo and science, however, won. The Copernican solar system continues to rule the day in astronomy, and the Roman Catholic Church in 1992 apologized for its haste in condemning Galileo for teaching what has turned out to be true.

A similar battle is being fought now over evolution. Though evolution was proposed long before Darwin as a method of explaining certain features of the fossil record, Darwin’s hypothesis provided a model of evolution that has withstood many valiant attempts to falsify it. Evolution now has as much support as any scientific theory or historical event. Yet, some view evolution as a threat to religious belief since it renders impossible literal belief in the creation stories of Genesis.

Is science incompatible with religious belief? In previous articles, I explored science as thoroughly empirical and naturalistic in its methodology. Science can only analyze what is apparent to our senses. Conversely, its competence is limited to the world perceived by our senses. Science can say nothing whatsoever about God, angels, spirits, and all the super-sensible objects of religious belief.

Theology takes these objects as its primary subject. If theology concerned itself only with objects unavailable to scientific study, there would be no conflict whatsoever. Our problem arises because theology is — or, more precisely, the sources of theology are — always making very concrete statements about this world we see, hear, touch, smell and taste.

These statements, when reformulated so as to be falsifiable, give science and theology an area in which their competencies could overlap. Was there ever an historical Adam and Eve? Was there ever a fishing trade on the Sea of Galilee? Was there ever an Imperial Roman census conducted when Cyrenius was governor of Syria? Was there ever a massacre of every child under three in Bethlehem? Was there ever a man conceived without human seed by a virgin mother? Was there ever a man resurrected after three days in the grave?

Read the rest of “On the Dogma of Creation”

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Filed under: — Basil @ 5:33 pm

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Vatican Again Defends Scientific Description of Creation

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Evolution in the bible, says Vatican – The Other Side – Breaking News 24/7 – NEWS.com.au

A good article, until the last paragraph:

His statements were interpreted in Italy as a rejection of the “intelligent design” view, which says the universe is so complex that some higher being must have designed every detail.

Where do they get the monkeys who write these things?

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Filed under: — Basil @ 8:47 pm

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More on Creation

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On the Appearance: Bishop Alexander (Mileant) of Buenos Aires and South America, Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia
This tract discusses the reconciliation of orthodox faith with current scientific theory. Although I could quibble with its literality on a few points, it strongly confirms the orthodoxy of my views on this disputed subject. It makes especially clear that creating a false dilemma between science and faith is uncalled for and can lead to apostasy. The appendix on error in the patristic writings alone is an excellent resource:

Indeed, although many Holy Fathers were highly educated people, neither theology nor the natural sciences of their time had yet reached full maturity. Therefore one ought not to take every thought expressed by one Holy Father or another to be the Church’s teaching — especially in questions of science, which was then at a rudimentary stage. The Church is only error-free in its catholic conscientiousness, its concillarity.

And, further on:

Of great significance in the Holy Fathers’ experience is that they never opposed contemporary scientific data with their views. And here they left us a valuable lesson: it is reasonable to use the revelations of science — insofar as they may help us to gain a deeper understand of some facets of the universe. But one should do so with caution, taking into account the limits of the human intellect and the instability of scientific theories.

The Six Dawns: Dr. Alexdandre Kalomiros
Even more unnecessarily literal than his grace Bishop Alexander above; however, Dr. Kalomiros outlines a reconciliation of the Genesis account with science in a similar manner. May be helpful for some.
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Filed under: — Basil @ 7:49 pm

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Creation, Part VI: Conclusion

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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Part I in this series
Part II in this series
Part III in this series
Part IV in this series
Part V in this series

Many students, raised in Orthodox Christian homes, attend universities and colleges that are outright hostile to their faith. They are told, on one side, that all they have been taught is irrelevant and outmoded. On the other, they are told that everything they are learning in the university is lies and treachery, completely antithetical to the Orthodox faith. Faced with this dilemma, many choose to reject their faith, or at least compartmentalize it.

Read the rest of “Creation, Part VI: Conclusion”

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Filed under: — Basil @ 6:18 pm

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Creation, Part V: With Help from St. Maximus

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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Part I in this series
Part II in this series
Part III in this series
Part IV in this series

In the last article, I set up what seems to me to be the most problematic of the apparent conflicts between the biological account of our origins and the theological account. According to Christian faith, particularly in the Christian East, our first parents are responsible for the human race being subject to death and corruption, which leads inevitably to sin through the fear of death. According to biology, however, death and corruption are normal, natural elements in the cycle of life.

In this article I hope to reconcile these two complementary accounts and show that they really do not conflict at all. In doing so, I wish not to invent a new doctrine nor revise the unchanging revelation of God; rather, I hope to show that one quite Orthodox description of creation, recognized by at least one of the fathers, is quite compatible with modern science. I hope, indeed, to show that it is not necessary to be novel in order to be modern. I intend to show that modern man can be traditional and Orthodox without discarding modern science.

Read the rest of “Creation, Part V: With Help from St. Maximus”

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Filed under: — Basil @ 10:33 am

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Creation, Part IV: Do Faith and Reason Conflict?

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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Part I in this series
Part II in this series
Part III in this series

Several centuries ago, the Ptolemaic solar system dominated astronomy. Ptolemy’s system placed the earth at the center of the cosmos, with the heavenly bodies orbiting the earth in concentric circles. Two men became convinced that Ptolemy’s ancient model was false; the first was Copernicus, the second, Galileo. In the case of Galileo, the Roman Catholic Church ordered him to recant or face excommunication, because heliocentrism made it impossible to believe that the sun literally stopped in its course through the sky as described in the Bible. Galileo did in fact recant and remained in silent communion with his church; his sacrifice, made to remain in communion with his church, remains one of the most tragically beautiful displays of humility the world has ever known. Galileo and science, however, won. The Copernican solar system continues to rule the day in astronomy, and the Roman Catholic Church in 1992 apologized for its haste in condemning Galileo for teaching what has turned out to be true.

A similar battle is being fought now over evolution. Though evolution was proposed long before Darwin as a method of explaining certain features of the fossil record, Darwin’s hypothesis provided a model of evolution that has withstood many valiant attempts to falsify it. Evolution now has as much support as any scientific theory or historical event. Yet, some view evolution as a threat to religious belief since it renders impossible literal belief in the creation stories of Genesis.

Is science incompatible with religious belief? In previous articles, I explored science as thoroughly empirical and naturalistic in its methodology. Science can only analyze what is apparent to our senses. Conversely, its competence is limited to the world perceived by our senses. Science can say nothing whatsoever about God, angels, spirits, and all the super-sensible objects of religious belief.

Theology takes these objects as its primary subject. If theology concerned itself only with objects unavailable to scientific study, there would be no conflict whatsoever. Our problem arises because theology is — or, more precisely, the sources of theology are — always making very concrete statements about this world we see, hear, touch, smell and taste.

These statements, when reformulated so as to be falsifiable, give science and theology an area in which their competencies could overlap. Was there ever an historical Adam and Eve? Was there ever a fishing trade on the Sea of Galilee? Was there ever an Imperial Roman census conducted when Cyrenius was governor of Syria? Was there ever a massacre of every child under three in Bethlehem? Was there ever a man conceived without human seed by a virgin mother? Was there ever a man resurrected after three days in the grave?

Read the rest of “Creation, Part IV: Do Faith and Reason Conflict?”

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Filed under: — Basil @ 8:24 pm

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Creation, Part III: The Philosophy of Science

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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Part I in this series
Part II in this series

Why are scientists so convinced of the truth of evolution, whether expressed in astronomy, geology, or biology? Some have accused scientists of having a secret, godless agenda of metaphysical naturalism. After all, it is argued, why else would God be excluded from their descriptions of the world?

I discussed in the previous article that science is marked by a methodological naturalism. It may be helpful to define naturalism. Naturalism is a focus on nature to the exclusion of anything extra-natural or supernatural. Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that nature is all that exists. Metaphysical naturalism is a subset of philosophical materialism, the belief that existence is solely material (that is, that everything is matter in the philosophical sense), that there are no non-material substances, such as minds, souls, spirits, angels, demons, or gods. The famous description of metaphysical naturalism is the statement of Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be.”

Read the rest of “Creation, Part III: The Philosophy of Science”

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Filed under: — Basil @ 1:33 pm

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Creation, Part II: Investigating the Science

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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Part I in this series.

In the first part of this article, I presented some reasons why the creation myths in Genesis should not be understood literally. (Recall the dicussion of “myth” in this context as truth which transcends factuality to include the mysterious, archetypal and poetic.) Additionally, reading the text literally leads to internal contradictions between the two separate creation stories. The most obvious contradiction is that in the first story, man and woman are created together, after every other creature. In the second story, man is created first, when “there were no plants or grain growing on the earth, for the LORD God had not sent any rain. And no one was there to cultivate the soil.” (Gn 2.4b-7) The fact that some ingenious interpretations have developed to reconcile the difficulties between the two stories already indicates that the simplest, most literal reading has been abandoned.

After abandoning a literal reading of the Genesis mythology, I investigated the scientific stories of our origins. This was quite new territory for me, because growing up I learned the version of science peddled by the Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, and other organizations like them. Evolution was EVIL-ution.

I found that scientists (regardless of religious belief) all accept the science of our origins, whether astronomical, geological, or biological. Even at Asbury College, a very evangelical Christian college, the science department professors accepted the scientific consensus. Well, except for the veterinarian who taught Bio 101 part-time. I guess he was the token “Scientific Creationist,” though I don’t know why you’d want one.

Non-scientists who do not accept the science are roughly categorizable as follows:

  1. Those who read Genesis too literally.
  2. Those who misapply or misunderstand scientific principles and theories.

Read the rest of “Creation, Part II: Investigating the Science”

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Filed under: — Basil @ 11:33 pm

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On the Dogma of Creation

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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Note: This essay is already at 1295 words (according to wc), and I’m only getting started. However, if you’ve suffered through all the so-called “modernism” of this blog but wondered about my orthodoxy — if I’m still on your daily reading list, not to mention your blogroll — then this one is probably worth the effort. I’ll probably not convince you of my position, but at least you’ll know where I’m coming from.

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good. Gn 1.1,31a (NJB)

The doctrine of creation is that God created everything, both the visible worlds and the invisible, out of nothing. Without the continuing creative activity of God at every moment, the cosmos would not be; it would be naught. Speaking of the Logos-Word of God, holy John the Theologian writes, “Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him.” (Jn 1.3 [NJB])

Moreover, the creation is good because it is created by God, who is the author of good. He is, himself, good and goodness, light and life, and so the work of his hands is innately good for that very reason.

God creates the cosmos out of nothing, and it is very good. That is the essential dogma of creation.

How, then, do we interpret the initial chapters of Genesis, with their wonderful stories of creation and fall?
Read the rest of “On the Dogma of Creation”

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Filed under: — Basil @ 11:11 pm

«— In Memoriam
—» Peaceful Acquisitions

Venus Creations

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Victoria asks, “[W]hy should it be that what women do (have babies) leads to worshiping the creation? Whereas what men do, including the Holy Spirit (provide ‘seed’) — and again, I am not trying to be rude or stir up trouble — leads to worshipping the Creator?”

An excellent question, much like one asked by a very troublesome catechumen many years ago. I say this while winking in her general direction, because you would never know this pious woman ever raged against the Church’s legacy. She was rankled by the apparent dismissal by the Church of women and their contribution, evidenced by their exclusion from holy Orders. Today, she even covers her head in Church! You would hardly recognize her as the argumentative person we knew before.

I remember well my response, because with it a light dawned in her eyes, and she started showing a softer, receptive attitude towards Orthodoxy. Victoria is asking in a completely different spirit, of course, but I see the same honest struggle with the questions facing post-feminist Orthodox women.

The answer is intimately linked with the mythology and symbology of the ancient Near-East. Though the mythology is very localized, much of the symbolism is quite universal. You’ll remember that in the Enuma Elish humans were created from the body of the defeated goddess Tiamat. In the Jewish creation myths — more anti-myths, judging from their deliberate opposition of symbols to those familiar to their audience — humans are created from earth, from dirt. They are created in the divine image, but they have nothing of the divine substance within them.

Male gods are separate from their creation, while goddesses create from themselves — they pass on to their creation their own substance. The creation of a god is completely other and separate from him, while a goddess nurtures her creation within herself, flesh of her own divine flesh, and then gives birth to it. (Indeed, in most polytheistic religions, a god needs a goddess to be creative.)

In the Jewish mythology, the writers were careful to craft a creation story that portrayed God as masculine — though not male. He is completely separate from his creation. At no point in the creation stories is he portrayed as nurturing the creation as mother would a gestating child, or giving birth to the creation.

There are two nods in this direction: In the first creation story, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (Gen 1.2) This conjures images of a mother bird covering her chicks with her wings — yet, we do not see the creation taken out of the divine substance. In the second creation story (Gen 2.4-25), where Adam is fashioned from soil and receives the breath of life from God. The story here plays on the word breath, which in Hebrew and Greek is the word for spirit. Here it is even clearer, the man is “fashioned” from soil, from dirt, and then given life by the Spirit of God. The parallel to the Tiamat myth is present, and so is the clear opposition to it. Humans are not made from God, nor from a goddess: We are made from dirt, and we will return to dirt when our days on earth come to an end.

Hopefully, this provides some insight into why it might be of more than passing significance that God has a masculine and not a feminine gender — while of course being neither male nor female, having no sex. Ultimately, the Orthodox Church will resist all attempts to feminize God out of fidelity to the Faith we have received, but sometimes it helps to see some of the possible reasons why.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 7:38 pm

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You Won’t Believe How Ted Cruz Treats Syrian Christians

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Senator Ted Cruz wants the US to accept only Christian refugees from Syria and other ISIL-ravaged countries in the Middle East, reports Amy Davidson in the New Yorker. This is curious, because his past actions tell a different story than his recent words.
Read the rest of “You Won’t Believe How Ted Cruz Treats Syrian Christians”

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Filed under: — Basil @ 4:38 pm

«— PO;DR—Pop-over; Didn’t Read.
—» The Real Point of “The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt,” Part I

The Cross is a Time Machine (and It’s Bigger on the Inside)

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Good evening.[1] I have been asked to speak to you today about the Eucharist as sacrifice—something of a daunting prospect for an Orthodox speaker in front of a hall of mostly Roman Catholic and Lutheran Christians. So instead, I am going to talk about the Doctor.

Earls Court Police Box.jpg
Earls Court Police Box” by User:Canley – Photographer: User:Canley. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My patristics professor, Fr John Behr, told students in our first year at seminary that we have to learn to think about time in ways that seem more like science fiction than what we are used to.[2] So allow me to begin with this quote from Doctor Who: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint—it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… timey wimey… stuff.”[3]

We tend to think of time as a linear progression. There’s no rewind or fast-forward. I have no access to the Battle of Okinawa, because 70 years intervene between it and my present existence. When I lived on the island as a teenager, I could visit various monuments to those momentous events, but I had no access to the battle itself. Moreover, even though I lived on Okinawa as a youth, I longer have any access to Okinawa except as a memory. From our limited perspective within the system of time and space, subject to its constraints, as participants in it, we can only call to mind past events and imagine future possibilities.

Understandably, we bring this limited perspective to salvation history. The perspective of an observer outside this system (of which we know only one) would see things quite a bit differently. Classical theism and classical Judaeo-Christian faith both hold that God exists outside of the time-space system. With no frame of reference except that of our existence within time, so we tend to think of God’s eternity as merely extension in time—time, only longer. In fact, this is the quality of everlastingness, not eternity. Eternity is to be outside of time, unbound by it, time-less.

This insight has several implications for our theology. The most important for us this evening is that God’s acts or operations within creation will appear to us as discrete moments in time and will seem like separate acts or events, but in fact they are a single divine action. The cross stands at the center of the Big Bang.

This brings me to one more quote, which will require a bit of explaining: “The TARDIS is …burning. It’s exploding at every moment in history”[4] The TARDIS is the Doctor’s almost sentient time machine/spaceship, famously “larger on the inside than the outside,” an almost infinite amount of space and time crammed into the space of a 1960s London police box via the dimensional magic of television science fiction. As a space-time machine, its destruction in one episode occurs “at every moment in history.” A complete synopsis of the story is too complex to undertake tonight, but I think you can imagine what I’m driving at.

The execution of God on a cross does not simply occur on a hillside outside the walls of Jerusalem in first century Palestine. It is the eternal Word of God voluntarily sacrificing himself on the cross; the crucifixion exists eternally in the life of God. The cross stands at the center of all time and space. The Lamb of God is slain for the life of the world and its salvation “at every moment in history.”

Notice that this is not about repeating the Lamb’s sacrifice. The Apostle makes this clear in his letter to the Hebrews: “Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9.24–26 ESV). The sacrifice is not repeated; it is the single divine self-sacrifice that stands at the center of creation. The cross creates the world.

Now, finally, we can look at the Lord’s Supper in a new light. When we speak of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, it is not a new sacrifice or a repeated sacrifice. Martin Luther correctly opposed the idea that Christ was crucified again in the Mass, as did the Council of Trent. His sensitivity to scripture as a unique source of authority made such an interpretation of the “perpetual sacrifice” abhorrent, and he said so in very colorful language. To understand how the Lord’s Supper can be a perpetual sacrifice without “they are crucifying once again the Son of God to [our] own harm and holding him up to contempt,” we must understand the biblical concept of memorial.

The Israelites were instructed to keep the memorial of the Passover yearly. In this ritual (which continues to be remembered among Jews in the seder meal), the exodus from Egypt is not merely recalled. Let me read you a passage from Kevin Irwin’s Models of the Eucharist:

For the Jews the Passover is considered as much more than a past event that occurred once and for all. The Passover is also an event that is a present, effective reality. And in being commemorated (literally remembered together) in the present, it also necessarily leads to its fulfillment in the future. In biblical phraseology, saving events like the Passover and the death and resurrection of Christ [that is, the Christian Passover] are events that occurred “once for all (time)” (from the Greek term ephapax in Hebrews 7:27). The Passover of Israel and the paschal mystery of Christ are both events that occurred once and for all and yet they are also events that by their very nature occur still, here and now, in the unique moment of liturgical commemoration.[5]

So, the Doctor Who version of time and space actually takes on biblical proportions.

Thus, in the Lord’s Supper, it is the Lamb of God who offers and is offered on the altar, and the offering is the same offering he makes on the cross. The priest acts under the authority of Christ, making Christ present by his action—or rather, revealing the sacramental presence of Christ by his submission to Christ’s command, summed up in the Latin phrase in persona Christi. The Lord offers himself, a human being, through the action of offering the gifts of bread and wine and the gifts of the people which are his body and are made to be his body by the eucharistic action. Indeed, the priest acts on behalf of the people who corporately act in persona Christi to offer themselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12.1).[6]

Linknotes:
  1. In this post, I give you my answer for a take-home exam. The question asked the student to address an inter-faith gathering of Catholic and Lutheran Christians, speaking about the idea of sacrifice in the Eucharist—a notion notoriously hated by Martin Luther.
  2. He alludes to some of this in his book The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004).Behr talked much more extensively about this approach to time in class.
  3. “Blink,”Doctor Who, series 3, episode 10.
  4. “The Big Bang,”Doctor Who, series 5, episode 13.
  5. Kevin Irwin, Models of the Eucharist. (New York: Paulist Press, 2004), Kindle Locations 1590-1594.
  6. Ibid., Kindle Locations 2912–2937.
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Filed under: — Basil @ 8:14 pm

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The Alienation of Captitalism and Marxism

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“Bulgakov’s rejection of Marxism had a great deal to do with …the inadequacy of homo economicus [humanity defined by the economy]…. An account of human needs in terms of [economic determinism] leads — paradoxically — to an alienation… since it seeks a way out of personal struggle and growth, out of the risks of creativity. It sets up a mechanical opposition of economic interests, to be settled either by the logic of history (Marxism) or by the laws of the market (capitalism); but both resolutions sidestep the specifically human task of transfiguring the material world in and through the creation of community.” Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, on Fr Sergius Bulgakov

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Filed under: — Basil @ 6:45 am

«— Lenten Meditation I: On the purpose of the fast
—» Fasting’s Backstory

Expulsion

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We have been thrust out of the garden of paradise for our failure to see God through his creation. The world was meant to be transparent, a crystal clear window through which we saw God in all his splendor. Instead, we made the world an idol, and it became opaque. We can no longer see God through it.

Let us cleanse our minds through fasting.

Please forgive me, brothers and sisters, for all the evil I have committed against you.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 1:04 pm