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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Creationism eats itself, while theology seeks understanding

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In the same way that aliens from outer space always choose to invade the United States, creationists also find themselves a happy home there. And, in the same way that now South Africa has its own blockbuster alien invasion (albeit with a quantum leap in social analysis beyond the unknowingly self-parodying Independence Day), the ID UFOs are coming for the rest of us.

The first line in Europe’s defence has unfortunately fallen to Prof. Ellen van Wolde, chair of Old Testament exegesis at Radboud University Nijmegen. The Torygraph went for the headline “God is not the Creator, claims academic: The notion of God as the Creator is wrong, claims a top academic, who believes the Bible has been wrongly translated for thousands of years”, which certainly talks up her research.

Expecting Nijmegen to have constructed the theological equivalent of a particle accelerator, I was not a little disappointed to find out that Van Wolde’s thesis was that the second word (bara ברא) of the book of Genesis should be translated ‘spatially separated’ rather than ‘created’. I can see the appeal of this translation. After all, the first three days of creation are separations: light/darkness, rain waters/sea waters and sea and dry land. However, the revised translation makes little sense in this introductory clause (or elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible that this word is used)

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

b-rešit bara elohim et haššamayim w-et ha’areṣ

In the beginning when God created the sky and the land

There are plenty of problems in the literal meaning of Genesis 1, but I’m not sure that Van Wolde’s approach is the best way of sorting it all out. At best, her interpretation forces us to look again at whether this text is really supporting creatio ex nihilo, which is much more a philosophical necessity rather than a scriptural injunction. A good English interpretation of her Dutch inaugural lecture can be found in Joel Hoffman’s blog.

She said she hoped that her conclusions would spark “a robust debate”, since her finds are not only new, but would also touch the hearts of many religious people.

She said: “Maybe I am even hurting myself. I consider myself to be religious and the Creator used to be very special, as a notion of trust. I want to keep that trust.”

A spokesman for the Radboud University said: “The new interpretation is a complete shake up of the story of the Creation as we know it.”

Prof Van Wolde added: “The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now.”

At the heart of these statements is an oddity that suggests that this kind of questioning might ‘hurt’ faith, and considers that a blind and unquestioning faith is the only option. This is just the kind of morsel of woolly religious thinking that Dawkins and Hitchins love to pounce upon.

The rest of that statement looks like the kind of hype that is now necessary to get funding for academic research. Oh, how I wish I could carry this off with a straight face!

Unintelligent design

Although I can see problems with Ellen van Wolde’s thoughts here, they still bring something to the discussion. Such cannot be said for the always well-funded theologasters behind Intelligent Design, who have stolen those words (‘intelligent design’) to describe their brand of creationism in pseudoscientific clothing. Creationists have always loved to play pseudoscience; the congregation love it. However, ID is a specific attempt to get around US law that discourages the teaching of other creationisms in schools. ID tries to divorce creationism from its religious background so that it cannot it be seen as religious doctrine. It takes the speculative philosophy of the teleological argument and tries to make a scientific theory out of it.

Intelligent Design is the brand of creationism that is being exported from the Discovery Institute in Seattle around the world. They don’t like to be seen reading the Bible literally or even talking too much about God. They will try not to have the word ‘creationism’ anywhere near them, but they are still creationists and mostly Christian.

The thing I hate most about the Intelligent Design bandwagon is that it revives the old God-of-the-gaps argument, that God exists because there are things that science cannot conclusively explain. However, every time science explains something, God gets a little smaller. This ID make-believe belittles God with its arguments: creationism is sinful.

I and most big church groups believe in theistic evolution: crudely evolution+God. The difference is that we say that the evolution is science, only to be questioned scientifically, whereas theism is our view and outlook on the world, our understanding of the meaning of the scientific reality. However, be aware that it is not a big jump to move from here over to ID. The difference, we should remind ourselves, is that theistic evolution is not a type of evolution, it is the pure scientific theory, and our Creator God is the meaning we see in it, not the philosophical conclusion we end up with.

Back on our media-driven earth, Ellen van Wolde makes outrageous claims to get funding for her thought-provoking research, while the IDers milk their credulous constituency to propagandise their outrageous claims. I certainly know which one I prefer.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

2 thoughts on “Creationism eats itself, while theology seeks understanding

    • Hi, thinkpoint! Thanks for pointing me to your article. I think we are starting to see new varieties of atheism develop. Of course, atheism is by definition negative: positing that God or gods do not exist. Naturally, atheists need to find something positive too, like the ethical framework of secular humanism.

      The thing that came to mind as I read your article was the theism wager from Pascal’s Pensées. It is the most dismal argument for believing in God: believing because you lose nothing if you chose theism and you’re wrong, and you gain nothing if you choose atheism and are right. I’m sure any thinking person could point out the problems with this argument. I suppose, someone using the phrase “I hope there’s no God” sounds like they’re betting on the hopeless side of Pascal’s wager.

      In the end, I think Nagel is more honest than most theists and atheists, acknowledging that there is no conclusive evidence to say that there is or isn’t a God, and one simply has to choose and hope. Later, then comes the reasoning and justification, but the raw hunch shouldn’t be forgotten.

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