February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
December 3, 2011
Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution and Christian Faith (2006) is a gentle, thoughtful, and—to me—unsatisfying book.
For one thing, confirming my initial impressions from a few weeks ago, I am frequently unsettled by the sense that its voice has been crafted to allay or bypass the suspicions of readers who take the Bible as a more or less perfect guide to everything, including biology. Although disavowing literalism, Roughgarden seems to choose to play her exegetical game on the inerrantist chessboard, by the rules of those for whom every phrase of the Bible must, somehow, work out OK—agree with science, with archaeology, with every other phrase of the Bible, and so forth. She argues, somewhat laboriously to my eye, that the Bible doesn’t rule out common descent (16, 23), or the mutability of species (25, 27, 29); and that it does rule out a God who creates life using anything but “natural processes” (35). More on the latter interesting claim below.
The trouble with playing on the inerrantists’ chessboard is that it is their board, their rules, and therefore ultimately their win. If in order to avoid offending some fellow Christians’ biblical sensibilities we strain to show that science is totally “consistent with the Bible,” or that the Bible even favors the scientific world-story, we entangle ourselves at once in the usual inerrancy tap-dance (on which I spent a fair amount of time and effort myself, as a teen): that is, we start to concoct special interpretive workarounds for all the difficult passages, each workaround different from all the others, arbitrary and ahistorical. Intellectually, this is an uncomfortable proceeding because we know that it is deeply fishy; by its means one can make anything mean anything. We claim to be (and may convince ourselves that we are) reading the Bible straightforwardly, but are in fact running it through a complex transmogrifier of our own invention. The more complex our interpretive machine, the more full of parts specially designed to solve individual puzzles, the more implausible the whole enterprise. There is literally no limit to the power of determined interpretation: a sufficiently complex set of interpretive rules can transform a stream of pure electronic noise into the text of the Encyclopedia Britannica, or force-fit the Bible to be anything we want it to be: a Creationist textbook, an evolution-friendly, transgender-friendly short-story collection, whatever. By agreeing to play this game at all, to whatever end, one implicitly affirms the legitimacy of its rules—which is already a loss.
Here’s how Roughgarden plays. She believes, in effect, that she can checkmate the Creationists on their own inerrantist chessboard, and this is her gambit:
For me the position that God created the world, and continues to create it, through natural processes is not a compromise. God created those very processes as part of nature, so why should he jump outside of them? The Bible offers no ground to believe that God would rather work in ways inexplicable as natural processes, even though he could do so if he wished. . . . You can’t be consistent with the Bible on this point and yet also say that natural processes are inadequate to achieve God’s design for his creation. (35)
I sympathize with the first two sentences, but the rest flummoxes me. The Bible “offers no ground to believe that God would rather work in ways inexplicable as natural processes”? Yet the sun stands still over Gibeon, Jesus turns water into wine. The thing is packed with miracles. Various Jews and Christians credit all, some, or none of these stories as literally true, but they are inarguably there. So if a Creationist wants to insist that biological history is thick with miracles, from rabbits pulled out of vacuum-filled Divine top-hats to bacterial DNA tweaks, I will have all sorts of problems with that view, both scientific and theological, but it will not be one of them that a miracle-making God is not “consistent with the Bible.” The gambit fails.
Another point about the foregoing passage: it seems to accept an ahistorical, anachronistic way of reading our assumptions about reality into the Bible. That wonderfully weird and ancient anthology contains no trace of our modern, science-structured assumption that “natural processes” are self-operating webs of cause and effect upon which God acts, if at all, from “outside.”
On the plus side, Roughgarden — an Episcopalian evolutionary biologist — is interesting and balanced on Catholic doctrine, gender ambiguity in nonhuman animals, the Bible on gender, why Intelligent Design is a no-starter, and other subjects. But can she really believe that having excluded ID (correctly) from public-school science classrooms on the ground that it is not science, we should “favor teaching [it] in a religious studies curriculum as an example of junk religion”? That’s a little hair-raising. We should not favor any such thing, at least in any public school, where it would surely be unconstitutional to classify anything as “junk religion” in any curriculum.
Roughgarden’s best or most challenging bit is the chapter on “Gender and Sexuality” — perhaps because, being a transsexual person herself, this is where she speaks from a personal and original perspective, pushing on conservative Christian understandings rather than trying to accommodate them.
There is much more to say about this curious little volume, and in future posts I may say some of it.
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.