Before Galileo

I picked up another new book this week – to add to my stack. This book Evolution and the Fall contains a collection of essays by a number of authors including Biologist Darrel Falk, philosopher James K.A. Smith, theologian Joel Green and Old Testament scholar J. Richard Middleton. It looks well worth dipping into over the coming months. This book is the result of a collaboration facilitated by the Colossian Forum where these Christian scholars met together regularly over several years for worship, fellowship, and intellectual engagement on the issues surrounding evolution and the fall.

The introduction lays out the premise. Christian thinkers need to gather together in communion to thrash through the kinds of hard questions raised by evolution, especially human evolution. Our model shouldn’t be Galileo. Rather,  we should be looking before Galileo to the manner in which the church worked through key issues. The preferred model should be the Council of Chalcedon where the leading thinkers and bishops of the church gathered to thrash out issues surrounding the nature of Jesus as both divine and human.

Why is this a better model? First, comparison with Galileo sets the wrong tone.

Since we now tend to look at the church’s response to Galileo as misguided, reactionary, and backward, this “Galilean” framing of the new origins debate does two things: First it casts scientists – and those Christian scholars who champion science – as heroes and martyrs willing to embrace progress and enlightenment. Second, and as a result, this framing of the debate associates concern with Christian orthodoxy as backward, timid, and fundamentalist. (p. xvi)

Second, this model focuses on the importance of Christian fellowship and worship in the discussion.

Creative and constructive theological work requires faithful imagination. But that requires two things: time and worship. We need time to train and stretch our imaginative muscles; time to ruminate on issues and opportunities; time to listen and contemplate; and above all time to pray. So the cultivation of faithful imagination also requires bathing and baptizing the imagination in the cadences of the biblical story – which is precisely the goal of Christian worship. Thus the cultivation of constructive theological imagination begins with liturgical formation. (xviii)

This emphasis is not surprising given the thrust of much of James K.A. Smith’s recent work including Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom. Intentional liturgical formation is an indispensable condition for faithful Christian scholarship. To think together, we must also worship together – ideally in communion with each other (but this is asking too much for many these days, … and science isn’t the issue).

In the introduction Cavanaugh and Smith also dig into the importance of tradition. Rather than an image of jettisoning old ideas and replacing them with new ideas, we should realize that knowledge and understanding develops within a tradition and heritage.

From the point of view of a tradition like the Christian tradition, “reasons” and “advances” are understood differently because there is a weight granted to the tradition as tradition; there is a requirement that any advance be seen as an extension, not a supersession, of the tradition. There are no prizes for novelty in a tradition. (xxiv-xxv)

The extension, modification, or reformulation of a “traditional” position must be demonstrated to be faithful and subject to the discernment of what Cavanaugh and Smith term “the community of practice” (the people of God).

Some thoughts: The discussion begun in this book, and in the recent book by Scot and Dennis Adam and the Genome that I’m also in the process of reading, is an essential one. As we wrestle with these questions, the emphasis of Cavanaugh, Smith, and the Colossian Forum, on worship and faithful community is indispensable.This needs to be a community effort in the church.

In one respect the comparison to Chalcedon rather than Galileo is clearly appropriate. The nature of humankind and the origin of sin raise questions that are far more theologically significant than those raised by the mechanics of the motion of heavenly bodies. The theological thinking required in the church resembles Chalcedon and Nicea more than it resembles the Galileo affair.

However, the introduction by Cavanaugh (a theologian) and Smith (a philosopher) also left me scratching my head. I would add the caveat that to avoid turning this into a Galileo moment, with the church seen as “backward, timid, and fundamentalist,” the conversation must include on equal footing faithful Christians with real expertise in a range of sciences and social sciences. Not because we are heroes and martyrs, but because we are all committed to the same end, which is truth about God, his creation, and his purposes. A consensus shaped in ignorance that orthodoxy requires the biological equivalent of a flat or immovable earth would have devastating consequences.

On the other hand, ignorance and arrogance can be a fundamental a problem among scientists (both Christian and non-Christian). Far too often there are pronouncements about the theological significance of this or that discovery without rigorous and careful consideration. We need to be in conversation with theologians, philosophers, and biblical scholars. Christian scientists must take the effort to understand the theological issues and questions.

Finally, the key questions revolve around Christian orthodoxy, but we need a good definition of orthodoxy. This is easier said than done. In a footnote Cavanaugh and Smith use an illustration involving the game of soccer. When does a change in the rules transform the game into something that is no longer soccer? Would a rule that a player could catch and drop the ball cross this line?

Likewise, when does a position become non-Christian, beyond the pale? Christianity, of course, is not a game. Here we are in search, to the best of our ability, of God’s truth. Error is error, whether overly stringent or overly lax. The book looks to Chalcedon for a model – which may be too late in the game. For the fundamentals of orthodoxy perhaps we should be content with the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds. I favor the Apostles Creed, the essence of which is found in a number of early church writers, predating the Nicene Creed.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

A position that denies the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, the incarnation, crucifixion or resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body or the life everlasting – this steps outside the realm of orthodoxy. Inside of these bounds, an argument or formulation may be right or wrong in varying degree, but we should be slow to push it beyond the pale of Christian orthodoxy.

Nothing here about a creation week, original sin, Adam or the Fall. This doesn’t mean that anything goes. It does mean that we can afford to be slow and methodical as we consider the issues involved. Evolution and the Fall should lead us into some fascinating discussions.

How should issues like evolution and the Fall be approached?

What defines Christian orthodoxy?

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

You may also comment on Before Galileo at Jesus Creed.

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