Mapping the Debate

Earth Moon Small2A few months ago I received, compliments of the publisher, a book by Gerald Rau Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything. Scot posted a brief introduction to the book, Origins and Models, shortly after it came out, but the book is worth a more extended engagement. Several of the scholars at the workshop on Evolution and Christian Faith referred to this book and the usefulness of Rau’s discussion of models in framing the discussion.

The opening chapter of Rau’s book provides a brief philosophical introduction to the discussion. He starts by asking “what is eternal?” There are only two logical alternatives – natural or supernatural. The natural comprises material cause and effect determined by the laws of physics (known or unknown), while supernatural would include any alternative that transcends the natural. He then considers two concepts (p. 21) – the first is worldview, which Rau limits to “elements … picked up wholesale or piecemeal from culture around us, often without conscious thought, because the ideas are deeply embedded in the language and fabric of the culture.” He uses personal philosophy to refer to “the set of philosophical presuppositions that affect the way we individually see the world.” This isn’t a unique division and it glosses over deep debates, but it provides a useful distinction to help to begin to map and analyze the debates over origins.

Although a person may change his or her personal philosophy as a result of some experience, the worldview formed in childhood has a strong influence on a person throughout life and often remains largely unquestioned. (p. 21)

This is an interesting distinction to keep in mind when considering any part of the discussion of origins, including the appropriate interpretation of a biblical text. It is not one that I had separated quite so usefully before reading this chapter of Rau’s book. Any text will contain a message shaped by both the personal philosophy (and theology) of the author and by the entrenched worldview of the culture. It is not possible to use language to tell a story without being influenced by this worldview. We read the same words (or a translation of the same words) in the 20th or 21st century and the interpretation is shaped by a different culturally embedded worldview. This is seen quite clearly in the general interpretation of certain verses in scripture. Consider, for example, pillars and storehouses:

He shakes the earth from its place
and makes its pillars tremble. (Job 9:6)

When the earth and all its people quake,
it is I who hold its pillars firm. (Psalm 75:3)

or

The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. (Deut. 28:12)

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail (Job 38:22)

He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth;
he sends lightning with the rain
and brings out the wind from his storehouses. (Psalm 135:7)

Because we know that the earth does not stand on pillars, and that snow, hail, and wind are not released from storehouses we “naturally” view this as a poetic expression rather than a literal statement. It is not clear, however, that the original audience viewed this as anything other than literal – embedded as they were in the ancient Near Eastern cultural worldview.

Walton Cosmology ImageOr consider Genesis 1:6-8. The NIV 1984 translated this as:

And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.”So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

The NIV 2011 provides a more literal translation changing only one word:

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

This one word makes a big difference. Many modern Christians will read the first translation and envision clouds (waters above) is a sky that gradually gives way to space with planets and stars and galaxies. But this is not the view conveyed by the more literal translation, The vault in the ancient Near Eastern view is a solid object holding back the waters above. The sun, moon, and stars are set in this vault to give light (Gen. 1:14-19). They are not set in the vast expanse of space, a meaning one could take from the NIV 1984 translation. Perhaps others had different experiences – but I know that I envisioned from the word “expanse” a modern view of the vast expanse of space. One aspect of my 21st century cultural worldview was read into the language I heard.

Worldview will also shape the way we view scientific evidence about the world. While Rau does not take the detour I just did into the interpretation of Genesis, he does look specifically at this question.

A person operating from a naturalist, materialistic, atheist perspective will take an inherently different view of origins than a person operating from the theistic perspective. The most important question is how and where this difference should play a major role. In my opinion the biggest divide in our culture is over the issue of naturalism – not evolution or the age of Earth. I wrote about my thoughts on this question most recently in a post Evolution Isn’t the Problem.

In the next post on this book I will consider Rau’s discussion surrounding the other foundational question “what is science?” and his presentation of the significant questions that need to be addressed in any serious discussion of origins.

What role does general cultural worldview play in the debate over origins?

To what extent does worldview shape the way we read the scripture?

Is the separation of “personal philosophy” from the more general cultural “worldview” a useful distinction?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you would like to comment please see Mapping the Debate on Jesus Creed.

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