Moving Past Origins

What virtues are most valued in your church community?

What is the significance of human uniqueness?

Elaine Ecklund in her new book Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values that Move Us Beyond Fear suggests that scientific and faith communities share many virtues – although this may depend in part on the specific communities involved. An important resource for digging into this question is found in many of our church communities – scientists who are active in the local church. In her interview with Christian scientists she found (not surprisingly) that some churches do a better job of this than others. The scientists within a congregation can provide an important and trusted perspective. But this will only happen if there are some shared values and virtues.

Before digging into these virtues however, it is worthwhile to step back and look at the largest area of concern for many Christians … the question of human origins and human uniqueness. For good reason, Christians hold strongly to the position of humans, created in the image of God. For many, this rules out the possibility of  evolution, especially human evolution. But the choices and range of views is not quite so clear cut. In her survey, Ecklund found (see Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think) that a little less than 40% of evangelicals claimed that some version of young earth creationism was definitely true, but about a quarter of these also claimed that a contradictory old earth view was definitely true. There is an important lesson here. Surveys can obscure the truth by forcing respondents to choose the more acceptable of options without nuance or careful consideration.

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Why Science and Faith Need Each Other

I received a new book recently – Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values that Move Us Beyond Fear by Elaine Howard Ecklund.  Elaine Ecklund is a sociologist – a professor at Rice University and the director of the program in religion and public life. She has worked in the area of science and religion for something between 15 and 20 years now. I’ve read and/or posted on several of her books over the last 10 years. This latest book is somewhat different. It is based on her research, but is less academic. It is directed to lay Christians and pastors.This is the kind of book that can make for a good group study. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion. Elaine begins the book with a discussion of fear and the need to overcome fear to think clearly.

What fears does science raise in your church? Why does it raise these fears?

The church I attend right now (online these days unfortunately … ) is fairly open to science and discussions about science and faith. It hasn’t always been this way though. Not so long ago, a graduate student at our University was treated abysmally by some of the leaders of the church for daring to broach the topic. (Well OK, perhaps 20 years ago … so not recently either.) We were members of the church at the time and didn’t know this had happened, but it doesn’t surprise me. On several occasions I sat in the audience while a speaker warned us to beware of the Godless professors at the University next door,especially, but not only, the scientists, who were seeking to destroy our children. I was safe in the church as long as I stayed under the radar – known as a wife and mother rather than as a scientist and professor.

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The Servant of the Lord

Several months ago I started a series on the recent book by Ben Witherington III, Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics. It has been a rather interesting time since the last post on the book, and I have not had the time or mental energy to dig into it. But today we return to look at Isaiah 49:1-13. Chapters 49-55 in  “Eschatological Isaiah” are among the most significant passages for us as Christians.

Hear the NIV translation of verses 1, 3-6:

Listen to me, you islands;
hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.

He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”

And now the Lord says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—
he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

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Seven Last Words of the Unarmed

Several years ago, while reading David N. Livingstone’s book Adam’s Ancestors I wrote a piece entitled Father, Forgive Us. While Christian history includes many honorable incidents, many Christians viewed the abolition of slavery as a mandate of their faith, our history is far from clean. Christians have often used faith as a tool for oppression and the history of race in the church includes a lot of dirt. We should not see this as a evidence to dismiss Christian faith – after all many oppressed people have found hope in the gospel (as they should).

Idon’t have a great deal to add to the discussion today, but I wanted to highlight an outstanding piece by Joel Thompson and performed by the University of Michigan Glee Club under the direction of Dr. Eugene Rogers. This dates from five years ago (it was premiered in 2015) – but is oh, so timely today. The movements focus on the last words of seven African-American men who were killed by police or by other authority figures. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Amadou Diallo, John Crawford. We could add to the list … and it is rather telling that the words of the Eric Garner in this piece were repeated so recently … I can’t breathe.

Wow!

I know Eugene (and a few of the students who were involved in this performance). Dr. Eugene Rogers is currently Director of Choral Activities, and Conductor of Chamber Choir at Michigan and starting this summer Artistic Director for the Washington Chorus. This is a powerful performance piece. You can find more at this site: Seven Last Words.and also here.

The video ends with a performance of Glory

Now the war is not over, victory isn’t won
And we’ll fight on to the finish, then when it’s all done
We’ll cry glory, oh glory
We’ll cry glory, oh glory

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Posted in Public Issues

When Science Meets Biblical Studies

The Dead Sea Scrolls offer a treasure trove of information. They inform our reading of Scripture in many ways. They provide testimony to the antiquity and reliability of many texts in our Bibles and on the political and cultural climate surrounding the first century. In addition to some larger scrolls, like the Isaiah scroll above, there are thousands of fragments of manuscripts on leather and papyrus. Piecing these together is like solving one massive jigsaw puzzle. … Or rather many smaller jigsaw puzzles of various unknown sizes with the edges of the pieces worn by the elements of nature. Some of the fragments thought to be genuine, but of unknown provenance as finders looked to profit.

Now for the science. We are all aware that radiocarbon methods have been used to date the texts. Other methods less well known to the general public have also been used. In general the recovered texts from Qumran and surrounding areas date between 200 BC and 70 AD. This testifies to their importance. But now science has gone one giant step further. DNA sequencing has been used to connect fragments together – identifying those that come from the same animal, and thus likely the same scroll. Initial work in this vein is reported in an article that appeared in the journal Cell earlier this week. You can find the article here if interested: Illuminating Genetic Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls. A press release may be more readable: Dead Sea Scrolls “Puzzle” Pieced Together with DNA Extracted from Animal Skins on Which Scrolls Were Written.

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The Lord’s Day

The final chapter of Michael LeFebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation sums up his argument that the creation story is primarily a calendar narrative guiding human work, rest, and worship. He runs through the negative side effects of the modern obsession with a scientific interpretation of the text. The text was never intended to provide a detailed scientific and journalistic account of God’s acts of creation. Issues with an overly “scientific” interpretation were noted even by early church fathers such as Origen and Augustine. In fact, Luther seems to be the first major figure in the church to focus unambiguously on creation in six 24 hour days some 6000 years ago.

Modern science doesn’t dictate interpretation of Scripture – but it can help us sort through plausible interpretations. “Modern astronomy, geology, biology, and other sciences have not threatened “the historic” interpretation of the creation week. Modern science has helped the church to better sort out which historical interpretations are viable.” (p. 200) In fact, LeFebvre argues that the only consistent historical interpretation of the creation week lies in its cadence of work and worship. The calendrical function of the text endures.

What does that mean for us today? Most Christians do not observe the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship. Most of us focus on the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day. It is on this day that we worship and (possibly) rest. Given the institution of the Sabbath tied to the creation narrative, is this justified? In Exodus 20 we read:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. …For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex 20:8-11)

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A Day of Rest?

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27-28

Michael LeFebvre, (The Liturgy of Creation) sees the culmination of the creation week in Genesis 2:1-3. Having ordered and filled the earth, God now rests.

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

In Exodus 31 the wording is more specific, even in English translation.

The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. (vv. 16-17)

Did God really need to rest and refresh, weary from the labor of the previous six days? Clearly there must be something more going on here. LeFebvre suggests that rather than commemorating God’s need for refreshment, the Israelites are called to remembrance of the fruitfulness creation that God has provided. “The implication is one of resting among the fruits of the week’s labor just gathered for the sake of feasting.” (p. 187) God blessed the day and made it holy in  remembrance of his everlasting providence and provision. LeFebvre concludes: Continue reading

Posted in Creation, Genesis | Tagged

Ordered and Now Populated

In days one to three the creation, originally formless and void, was ordered for fruitfulness culminating in the sprouting of vegetation – both grasses and trees. Now it is populated to fulfill God’s purpose. Michael LeFebvre (The Liturgy of Creation) notes:

The God of creation is a being of wisdom, goodness, and beauty. But he is supremely a God of love. Having ordered the world with a capacity for fruitfulness, God next fills it with creatures whom he blessed to enjoy those fruits. (p. 167)

Day four: The sun and moon to govern time and seasons.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day. (v. 14-19)

Light is created on day one, plants appear on day three, but it is only on day four after three cycles of evening and morning that the sun and moon are placed in the expanse. Clearly the purpose of this passage is not a scientific recounting of the creation of the earth. This is not a conundrum revealed by modern science. Early Christians also found it rather confounding. LeFebvre notes the considerations of Augustine and Origen in their writings on Genesis. In the early 200’s AD, Origen wrote:

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? … I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally. (from the Greek, p. 365, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4)

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Ordered for Fruitfulness

These texts were written to guide the common worshiper in weekly life, not to plant “bread crumbs” for scientific researchers. (p. 149)

The overarching argument of Michael LeFebvre’s recent book The Liturgy of Creation is summarized by the above quote. Having set up the argument in the Pentateuch in general and explored briefly the focus of Genesis 1:1-2:3 it is time to dig into the text. Today the focus is on days 1-3, Gen. 1:1-13.

Prologue:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (vv. 1-2)

Although some Christians see creation from nothing affirmed and described in the opening verse of Genesis, many others have argued that this is not the intent of the verse. Other passages of Scripture affirm that God created everything and it all exists only through his sustaining providence. However, this is not the purpose of Genesis 1. LeFebvre agrees and notes that 1:1 and 2:1 (Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.) serve as bookends for the creation narrative of 1:3-31.Verse 2 describes the state of the earth as God prepares it for fruitfulness and habitation – it was formless, empty, and dark. Nothing but water.

Day one commences the creative work in Genesis 1.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (vv. 3-5)

The light is good. Without light plant and animal life cannot thrive. Thermophilic bacteria are about it – drawing energy from deep sea heat vents. LeFebvre suggests, however, that this focus of day one is not on light, but on the institution of the day as a cycle of light and dark. A day is the fundamental unit of the calendar narrative. He also notes that the translation above calling it “the first day” misses the point. It isn’t just the first day – here the unit of one day is defined.

Day two separates the waters above from the waters below, making space for fruitfulness. Continue reading

Posted in Creation, Genesis | Tagged

Follow the Plot

The creation week of Genesis 1-2:3 is a culturally situated historical calendar narrative designed to lead God’s people in God’s ways. So argues Michael LeFevre in his recent book, The Liturgy of Creation. Many people, both Christians and Jews, have noticed and commented on the structure of Genesis 1 (including 2:1-3). The six days of creation have a parallel structure 3+3 followed by a day of rest. LeFebvre writes this form as an equation (3+3)+1=7.

The six days of creation followed by the sabbath day of rest shape Genesis 1. Exodus 20:8-11 makes this explicit.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. … For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

While it is common to view the reference in Exodus 20 as a recounting of Genesis 1, LeFebvre suggests that it isn’t this simple. Genesis 1 is a calendar narrative setting a rhythm for human for human stewardship of God’s creation as his image bearers. “Everything revealed about the wisdom and beauty of God in his labors during those six workdays is a model for human stewardship of the created order.” (p. 137)  The seventh day is “a holy day for the image bearers to commune with the creator.” (p. 137)

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