A Sign of Love, a Sign of Hope

The final chapter of Justo González’s short book, [Creation] The Apple of God’s Eye, ends on a note of hope. At several places in the book González has described creation using an analogy with human parenthood. There are limitations to the comparison of course, but it also helps direct our understanding. God’s act of creation is an act of love comparable to the act of love involved in deciding to bear children.  “When properly made, the decision to have children is both a sign of love and a sign of hope.” (p. 95) Because the children have freedom of will, there is no guarantee that they will provide joy – in fact there is the very real chance of great heartbreak. God has chosen to give us the freedom to mature and follow him or to rebel against him. (Human parents don’t have a choice – their children inevitably have the ability to rebel.)

Creation is an act of hope for the future. Christian faith is grounded in this hope.  A key passage illustrating this hope is found in Romans 8.

I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. (18-23 CEB)

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A Civil Disagreement

I recently received a copy of a new book courtesy of the publisher, Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation edited by Kenneth Keathley (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), J. B. Stump (BioLogos) and Joe Aguirre (Reasons to Believe). This is an unusual book – it isn’t a polemical defense of a view. The contributors, despite very real disagreements, regard each other as fellow Christians and treat each other as such. The book is a discussion (as much as a book can be a discussion) between individuals from BioLogos (Evolutionary Creation) and Reasons to Believe (Old-Earth Progressive Creation) moderated by Southern Baptist seminary professors (at least some of whom may hold a young earth view and all of whom represent conservative evangelicalism).

The book arose from face-to-face conversations between the participants over a number of years. (Jim Stump describes more of the background in a post Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation on the BioLogos blog.) These conversations move forward the best when we know and trust each other as human beings and as Christians.

The opening chapter by Deborah Haarsma (President of BioLogos), Hugh Ross (President of Reasons to Believe) and Ken Keathley lays the groundwork for the conversation in the subsequent chapters. I know Deb fairly well, met Hugh at the 2017 BioLogos Conference (Christ and Creation), and have had the opportunity to talk with Ken on a couple of different occasions including the first open BioLogos Conference in 2015. My meeting with Hugh was unexpected, although I knew that he would be at the conference (one of the breakout sessions was a conversation between Hugh and Deb) I did not know him by sight and sat next to him for lunch completely randomly. We had an interesting discussion and I thoroughly enjoyed the lunch. My conversations with Ken were also friendly and enlightening. This book should provide an excellent framework for discussion on this blog. I encourage you to pick it up and join the conversation.

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God’s Absence?

As Christians we are taught much about the presence of God in creation and in our lives. Less is said about God’s absence in creation. Justo L. González ([Creation] The Apple of God’s Eye) digs into both God’s presence and God’s absence. There is much that we could discuss in these two short chapters, but here I will highlight only two points.

First, God’s presence in creation is exemplified most significantly in his role in history. Our faith is anchored in history, a progression of events in time and space. God acts in history, through and in relationship with imperfect people, to achieve his desired end. Process is an important part of creation. From the beginning (Genesis 1:26-28) humans were intended to be fruitful and multiply, to tend and “subdue” creation. Unlike the gods of the ancient Near East (and other places) our God is not the answer to the cyclical processes of life, days, months, seasons, years. Humans were not created to supply his needs. “Yahweh is not content with nature and reality as they are but is a god with a purpose, a god who moves in nature and society to certain goals.This is what is meant when we say that Yahweh acts not only in nature but in history.” (p. 66)

González highlights several patterns.

(1) “God chooses and uses the small and the apparently insignificant in order to achieve great things.” (p. 72) This is an important aspect of the Christian understanding of the world and the progress of history. Ordinary people doing the right thing (Ruth for example) move the mission of God forward. “On this basis, one may well say that the most important events in human history, those that move history toward its intended goal, are not the earth-shaking, first-page news items but millions of lesser, less noticeable events of justice, peace, and love.” (p. 72-73)

(2) “God chooses to dwell in particular and unexpected places. … God is present everywhere, yes. But God is particularly present in Jesus Christ.” (p. 73)

(3) “God’s love never fails, even though we may not see it.” (p. 74)

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The Seeds of Life

Can These Bones Live? This is the question posed in Chapters 10 and 11 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology where he gives a brief overview of the chemical requirements for the origin of life. A more recent book, A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life by Ben McFarland examines this in detail from the point of view of a biochemist. Chemistry constrains biology and evolution.

There are two facets to this discussion.

The first is really a continuation of the general observation of fine-tuning in the universe. Life as we know it requires (1) the intrinsically flexible chemistry of Carbon, with Oxygen, Nitrogen, and Phosphorous also thrown into the mix and (2) the unique properties of liquid water (H2O). Of course it goes beyond just these, but this is a good start. The presence of these elements and the presence of a water layer on earth arise from the fine-tuning of the primitive universe to produce the right chemical elements and the right environments.

But these building blocks – the chemical elements – are not the biggest mystery. The more profound questions involve the emergence of life – the origin of self-replicating molecules that lead to the formation of humans capable of abstract reasoning, creative thought, and love. The second facet to McGrath’s discussion of fine-tuning is the complex question of the development of life from the primordial soup of chemical precursors. This is an enormous puzzle and McGrath only sketches the tip of the iceberg.

Ah, … but before we ponder this we must consider, with McGrath,

What is life? When can an ensemble of molecules, comprised of atoms, themselves composed of elementary particles, be said to be “alive”?

On the most elementary level life consists of an enclosed system capable of metabolism and reproduction – although the later needs some nuance. So a discussion of the origin of life must consider these elements.

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The Image of God

The next five theses on the Adam and Eve of Genesis in their context (Adam and the Genome) develop the significance of humanity created in the image and likeness of God.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (1:26-28)

The Adam and Eve of Genesis 1-2 teach us about the place of humans in God’s very good creation. Scot’s five theses can be abbreviated or paraphrased as follows:

Thesis 4: All humans – male and female – are made in God’s image.

Thesis 5: Humans are unlike other creatures.

Thesis 6: Humans are gendered for procreation and mutuality.

Thesis 7: Humans are called to work for earth and its flourishing – to cocreate and conurture as part of God’s design for this earth.

Thesis 8: Humans are called to name creatures in order to understand fit and function so that all creatures might flourish.

Adam and Eve serve a literary function to give a coherent picture of the purpose and nature of humankind. Continue reading

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Remember the Sabbath, to Keep it Holy

Exodus 20 ties the command to remember the Sabbath directly to the Genesis 1 story of creation.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male servant or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (8-11)

Deuteronomy 5 adds to our understanding of this commandment, but does not tie the sabbath to the creation week. Rather the Sabbath is tied more directly to the rescue from slavery in Egypt.

Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (12-15)

These passages raise a number of questions.

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Does the Universe Point to God?

The second section of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology deals with fine-tuning and natural theology in the context of a number of scientific theories and observations. The first of these relate to cosmology and the fundamental constants of the universe.

It has been noted by many scientist that the universe appears to be fine-tuned for the existence of life. Many of the fundamental constants appear unconstrained in their values, yet have values that, if they were even slightly different, would lead to a sterile universe unable to develop life. This leads to the so-called Anthropic Principle which is expressed in two forms (p. 116): weak:what we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers” (after all to quote Robert Dicke “It is well known that carbon is required to make physicists”(p. 122)) and strong:the universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage.

This observation does not provide a deductive proof for the existence of God, and certainly does not demonstrate the existence of the Christian God. Yet it is consistent with Christian theism. And this leads to the question McGrath poses in his book.

Does God offer the best empirical explanation for the anthropic phenomena, the fine-tuning of the universe for our existence?

For those who are interested, the development of our understanding of the nature and origins of the universe is a fascinating story. For an accessible introduction McGrath recommends a book by Amir Aczel God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe and I concur. This is a fascinating and readable book. I picked it up on a whim at a bookstore many years ago, and couldn’t put it down. The title, God’s Equation, refers not to any theistic view, but to the fact that there is a relatively simple fundamental equation that describes the universe.

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