Wednesday, 21 November 2007

The Day The Music Died

I have recently brought an end to a very discouraging couple of weeks on another blog. I was informed that there existed a blog written to declare to the world that the Sydney Diocese was heretical for not being adherents to Creation Science. I went over with the intention of getting an understanding of where they were coming from (and discovered that others had tried to speak to them, some under their own names like Michael, others anonymously). I was, to put it mildly, surprised that a group of people would write a blog for no other purpose than to call the Diocese heretical on a secondary point of doctrine.

In the end I decided to start a conversation (or argument, the two are fairly synonymous in these contexts) with some of the contributors. There were a couple of reasons why.

The first is that I had been a Creation Scientist up until my mid 20’s—I naturally tend towards taking biblical passages at their most straightforward and literal sense, and Creation Science tends to be a litmus test of orthodoxy in evangelical type circles in Brisbane.

I moved away from the position while still in Brisbane for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons will become clearer in some of what I say later. It wasn’t a full move. I’m still fairly sceptical about evolution, and I think it’s pretty obvious that there is no currently workable theory about life beginning on earth given current models of earth’s atmosphere and the like—one of the reasons why renown atheist philosopher Anthony Flew turned theist. But the objections are primarily scientific rather than theological. If ‘evolution’ turns out to be true I doubt it will matter. I believe God can work within nature and against it. Both nature and supernature are in the hands of God to accomplish his purposes.

I have moved away from any idea of a young earth. This is because of scientific reasons, not geology, but astronomy. Unless current astronomic theory is fatally flawed in multiple areas (which has been known to happen in science, but that’s not really a basis for dissenting, it’s a bit too sceptical in the bad sense) then it would seem that we receive information here on earth about events that occurred a long, long, long, long time ago (about things far, far, far, far away). So, the universe is old. (But again, if that’s wrong and science returns to an 8 000 year old cosmos, I don’t think that will somehow ‘vindicate the Bible’. If people won’t accept the apostles’ testimony about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead I doubt a young cosmos, or finding Noah’s Ark, will suddenly create faith).

So, I’m not a creation scientist. First, because I think the universe is old. But more importantly, because I think it’s a scientific question first and foremost, and not a biblical question. But I think that science is demonstrably fallible, and that a literal reading of Genesis 1 has a good pedigree in church history, so as a theological position a literal reading of Genesis 1 has credibility for me. So I’m willing to listen to the concerns of Creation Scientists.

The second main reason why I started the discussion is that I have been noticing (particularly since the Diocese’s 10% goal, interestingly enough) a number of accusations of heresy (or something similar) against the Sydney Diocese. Obviously, there is the subordinationism charge that I’ve been involved with. And I’ve spoken with Anglicans who consider any idea of lay presidency at the Lord’s Supper as ‘heretical’. But these charges are from areas far more theologically divergent in their views of Scripture and the nature of the gospel.

More troubling is that I’ve also heard of graduates of Moore being hassled in Presbyterian circles for not caring about ‘true worship’ when the church gathers, and people writing off their ministries as (more or less) ‘heretical’. There’s also been criticism from some overseas quarters, I understand, because Moore engages with some of the contemporary non-evangelical theologians and isn’t only critical of them. Creation Science seems to be the other main area of complaint, generally voiced by people who seem to think that almost every problem in the modern world can be traced back to evolution and so see any position other than an explicitly anti-science literal reading of Genesis 1 (and both the anti-science and the literal reading are necessary) as surrendering the farm.

My trouble at this point is that I don’t like people thinking I’m (or those I’m connected to) a heretic. Strange of me, I know. But heresy is a very serious charge. A heretic is so wrong theologically that they cannot be saved. I take theology seriously, but ‘heresy’ is the theological equivalent of WMDs. Bringing it out is far more serious than conventional theological criticisms that such and such a view ‘isn’t in line with the Bible’, ‘dishonours Christ’, ‘is potentially fatal to the coherence of the Christian faith’ or the like. ‘Heresy’ is in a class all of its own.

When the people making this accusation against me are theologically divergent themselves (not accepting the creeds, or rejecting Scripture as the word of God) then the accusation can (almost) be a badge of honour. But when the criticisms come from closer to home, so to speak, I take the concerns more to heart. Ironically, if it had been a thread on a forum just generally discussing evolution versus creation science I would have yawned and moved on. But a charge of heresy makes things far more serious.

The final reason for talking is that I have pursued a policy of deliberating engaging people who I might otherwise disregard, because they’re ‘obviously’ wrong. This is partly because I think true humility is shown by taking seriously even people who seem unlikely to be right. If we are sinners, and can’t trust that our minds will always add two plus two to get four (and I would have thought any experience of human beings will produce countless examples of otherwise sane and intelligent people who, in some situation or area of life, can’t see the nose on their face while looking in the mirror) then sometimes we are going to be most wrong when we think that it’s ‘just obvious’ that we’re right. There’s no silver bullet to this dynamic, but being prepared to hear out people and reconsider what they say has to help, particularly when it is a corollary to our sitting in humility under the enscripturated Word.

So I started a conversation. Given my approach things, it was a debate or argument. I have never thought (and still don’t) that listening to another person carefully means just agreeing with them or not challenging what they are saying. Truly listening can mean pushing them on areas of their position that you find problematic or unconvincing, so that they have the chance to try again to win you at that point.

However, this conversation went badly. I thought that would happen. But it managed to match some of the worst expectations I could set (and I’m a pessimist). It went very badly. It was unpleasant, and both Jen and I breathed a sigh of relief when it came to an end, the spiritual atmosphere at home lifted enormously. Given just how bad it was, I think it’s probably worth some reflection, so I’ll be doing that over the next couple of entries.

By the way, for the curious or aggressive reader out there, please don’t go searching out the blog with the intention of ‘putting them right’. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s one of those groups that needs an enemy to feel that it’s truly ‘doing the Lord’s work’. If you have to track the blog down (and I’d advise against it, there’s much more positive expressions of Creation Science on the net) then I’d suggest not making comments. I don’t think it’ll have any kind of positive effect, sad to say.


CraigS said...

Don't worry Mark, I doubt they hate you as much as they hate me... ;-)

Flint Cowboy said...

Thanks for the good thoughts. I live near the epicenter of creationism and teach at a Christian college. Many of my students have been thoroughly indoctrinated in creationism when they arrive. Nearly all freshmen begin with OT 1, which means their first week in class they are faced with a challenge to their understanding of Genesis 1.

It went badly this fall. Next time, I will focus on the theological meaning of the text and avoid discussion of scientific issues. I will save that until they have had a couple years of study.

One amusing/disturbing aspect was that many of them had been followers of a well-known creationist who has quite a following. One student loaned me six videos, which I watched. They were someone entertaining, the guy was somewhat likeable. He claimed there were over 200 web sites against him and challenged the viewers to check them out.

I did a google search and found that he is now in federal prison for tax evasion. It seems that he also has some unique political ideas. His rejection of the modern world is complete.

Still, I don't want to ridicule anyone. You have to admire the motivation behind their beliefs. But trying to reason with them is frustrating.

Baddelim said...

Yeah, craigs. I kind of noticed that they didn't like you at all. It was part of what makes me think that they are just determined to demonise us - if you're nice approach and Gordo's blunt approach both leave them outraged, then one feels it's a bit like they're just spoiling for a fight.

Hi, flint cowboy, nice to have you along. I take it you're from the States? It'd be interesting to compare notes, to see how many of the more 'sociological' features I'm going to comment on in post VII (and then some posts afterward) are just speaking to the Aussie experience.

I'd tend to agree about focusing on the theological issues and not the scientific. Unless they're scientists (and so have a professional need to work through that angle) the key thing is the theology. And it's less likely to get people offside than trying to frontally attack things that they think are essential for faith.

You're experience with the jailed guy fits with my knowledge of the leaders of this movement. Although it's 'good' to hear it confirmed again. While the followers are people of good will (and so, I agree, I don't want to ridicule them--I'm trying to keep the animus down in these posts), there's a bit too much dodgy stuff happening with the leaders for it to sit right.