Christians think evolution’s just a big hoax, right? Christians don’t believe in dinosaurs do they? And don’t Christians think the world’s, like, 6,000 years old?
A few weeks back I shared some of John Calvin’s comments to the effect that Genesis 1 was not to be read as a scientific textbook. Of course, there are plenty of people around nowadays who would disagree. Ken Ham, the dean of Creationists, over at Answers in Genesis, for instance, wants to understand Genesis in precisely the way that Calvin says we shouldn’t. This results in Ham and other Creationists not only being quixotically pitted against both mainstream modern science and mainstream biblical scholarship, it means also that they must appeal to some quite bizarre and dubious pseudoscience to make their case. You can see this most vividly displayed in their Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
In my estimation this religiously motivated “denialism” is an embarrassment and a detriment to both the Church and to wider society. But it should never be forgotten that such denialism is simply not in keeping with the Church’s historic practice and that the leading lights of the Christian tradition were decidedly not on the side of these so-called Creationists when it comes to dealing with the relationship between the Bible, science, and theology. The Church’s relationship with the natural sciences has, no doubt, had its rough patches. But that is because the Church has always held the natural sciences in the highest regard and sought to integrate our new scientific discoveries with our understanding of the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, believing that, at the end of the day, all truth is God’s truth. Such integration is frequently difficult, for sometimes this new scientific wine requires us to seek new theological wine skins. Nevertheless, the Church has always seen such integration as being a vital part of her call to love her Lord with all her mind.
We have already seen what Calvin had to say on the matter. Today let’s take a look at what Saint Augustine had to say about how Christians should engage with the sciences in his book The Literal Meaning of Genesis (fascinatingly, Augustine’s literal reading is by no means literalistic):
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous 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.
The biggest tragedy about Christian pseudoscience is not so much that Christians embarrass themselves and each other, but rather that outsiders come to associate the Christian gospel itself with these Christians’ pseudoscientific confusions. Augustine goes on:
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside of 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, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
The irony is that such pseudoscientific tomfoolery is always intended as “apologetics,” as, somehow or other “defending the faith.” But the fact is that engaging in such nonsense winds up being a liability for the gospel rather than a bulwark:
Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.
Simply put, engaging in pseudoscience is not simply unscientific and irresponsible, it is also sub-Christian and detrimental to the mission of the Church. It is incumbent upon Christians to engage the sciences with intellectual honesty and rigor, refusing to compromise our integrity for the sake of protecting our preconceptions. On this point I will stand with Augustine, Calvin and others in the Church’s grand tradition over against modern Creationists any day of the week.