The rules we play by

Why are you playing by their rules? Every time I hear someone advocate for a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 ( or the Flood, or the story of Jonah and so on) I wonder, “Why are you playing by the rules of scientism?” The rules of scientism are, simply put, that truth and truth claims must be empirically verifiable. It is a sort of reductionism – all truth can be reduced to physical and/or historical evidence. And in addition, if one’s claim cannot be physically, historically verified it cannot in any sense of the word be true.

This mindset, that all truth claims must be historically, physically true, seems to be what fuels  six day creationists to  insist on a six day creation. The Bible is true.  Something can only be true if is physically, historically  happened. So the world was created in 6 days.  The idea that truth claims must be physically, historically verifiable seems to be what motivates Intelligent Design advocates to seek “proof” of a designer. This same set of criteria are used by atheists to deny the Bible and God’s existence.

Historical accuracy is important. As is being able to physically verify that an event occurred. No quarrel on that from me. Science, as a way of understanding the universe and the world we live in, has been a tremendously accurate, trustworthy and helpful endeavor. We would not live as we do without science. Medicine, technology, and other branches of science have enriched our lives in a myriad of ways.

But, while science explains many, many things, it doesn’t explain everything. I don’t mean any disrespect to science or scientists when I say that science doesn’t explain everything.  It’s just that some things, by definition, reside outside the domain of science.

The Collins English Dictionary defines “science” this way;

 the systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation,experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms.

By this commonly accepted definition, God and experiences of God would not be included as part of the work of science, but God is not the only thing not included in this definition. Some  atheist scientists claim that everything will, ultimately, be explained by science because nothing resides outside of the material, physical world.  But I think they are wrong about this.

Music can be explained by physics- sound waves, and by anatomy and physiology- ear drums, and neurons. But is that everything there is to know about music? Is that all there is to the experience of music?

Love can be explained by physiology- hormones and by the evolutionary drive to survive. But is that everything there is to know about love?

Beauty- most of us agree it exists and that it has value, but what exactly is it?

What strikes me as odd is that some of my Christian friends claim a similar view to my atheist friends. Namely, that events described in the Bible must have happen, as described, within our conception of space and time to be true.  Now I know these Christians don’t believe every act of God, every experience of God can be understood, examined and explained by physical, material, historically verifiable means. That is not their experience of God and it is not my experience of God. And so I wonder why they think everything described in the Bible must meet scientism’s  limited criteria?

Could the Bible be exploring ideas for which human language and understanding are inadequate? Did the Holy Spirit and the writers of the Bible decide to use various literary genres to help us catch a glimmer of who God is and how God is at work in the world? Can a “story” tell us the truth? Is  Tom Sawyer “true”?  Great Expectations? Cry the Beloved Country? The Lord of the Rings?

Can a poem tell the truth?  A song? A Psalm?

Stories, songs, poems move us in mysterious and profound ways. As dense as we humans can be, I don’t know why God wouldn’t use every trick in the book, so to speak, to help us understand who God is and what God wants for us.

I’ve never met a Christian who believed that Jesus’ parables were historically verifiable. Or for whom the parables non historicity was a problem. We don’t look for the inn where the injured man was taken by the good Samaritan. We don’t wonder where the  home was to which the prodigal son returned. We accept these stories tell us important and true things about God.

I’m not sure why the early chapters of Genesis are such a flash point among us. Many Bible scholars are very comfortable believing that Genesis 1-3 are not about science but rather are about Israel’s understanding of who God is ( as opposed to the false gods of other nations), why we are here,  and Israel’s wrestling with the reality that the world is not as it ought to be. Genesis 1 is a stirring statement of faith. Genesis 2 and 3 have profound and important things to say about the human condition.

As much as I value science, I don’t feel a need to accept scientism’s limited claim about truth. The rules of scientism are inadequate and insufficient for us to use when we talk about God. As a Christian I want to claim a large truth. Truth that is more than mere facts. Truth that transcends the material world. Truth that embraces the entire cosmos and more. Truth beyond understanding but not beyond knowing.

For previous posts on Truth, see here.
For previous posts on reading Genesis, see here, and here and here or put, “genesis”, “biblical interpretation”, “creation” and so on in the search box.
Want to read the New Testament this Year?  Join me at Westminster Reads, a new on line opportunity from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids MI.

25 thoughts on “The rules we play by

  1. To me Genesis is like a great love stories – neither fact nor fiction but words and meaning. We don’t give out valentines cards that say “I love you because scientifically your pheromones have a genetic code my receptors find appealing.” to explain the value of our love. And, we probably shouldn’t do that with the story of God’s love either.

  2. ” if one’s claim cannot be physically, historically verified it cannot in any sense of the word be true.”

    that’s not the view from science. not quite. what science would say is, ” if one’s claim cannot be physically, historically verified you cannot yet claim that it is true.”

    equally, if one’s claim cannot be physically, historically denied, then it cannot yet be determined as false.”

    you’re playing with words here. you want to say that genesis is true, but you want to say that you’re playing by different rules. that’s talking from both sides of the fence. at the time that genesis was written, people certainly knew what the length of a day was. no doubt about that.

    1. I wasn’t talking about science but the view of scientism. I do want to claim that truth is a larger, more complex idea than scientism wants to define it as. I’m not a historian nor a philosopher but I think scientism’s narrow view of truth is a fairly recent phenomena and in the past, truth was understood as more than facts.

      Ancient people did certainly know the length of a day, no argument here. But they also recognized a variety of literary genres as well.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. You actually touch on a theme written around 80-100 years ago in the math-philosophy novel, “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions,” by Edwin Abbott, a mathmatician.

    Basically, the novel boils down to this: if we humans live in two dimensions like a flat sheet of paper, and if God is a 3 dimensional sphere, then the human morons in the two dimensional world could never have a full concept of God because all the two diminesional folks could “see” was an “invisible” point if the God sphere was sitting on the paper. In math, points have no size, so are basically invisible. Man would falsely conclude there was no God, or have an imperfect understanding. If the God sphere was a ball or globe intersecting with the two dimensional folks, then all those in two diminesional land would only see a circle, once again not having a complete understanding of who God is. Likewise, scientists in two dimensional world pulling out all their tools, whatever they can come up with even the most high tech particle smashers, will be impossible to prove or disprove God. The same inability to comprehend would exist for the atheists as well.

    This novel was a deliberate attempt by a scientist to tell folks what you are saying. You cannot use tools from our world to measure what may be happening in higher dimensions. In fact, the scientists and atheists should give up. The believers need go on believing and not having to measure everything in scientific terms. This is a brillant novel putting forth very powerful ideas. Scientists go stay in your room and discover all kinds of neat things, but stay away from the higher dimension God. To the atheists, you are lost and not understanding the limit of rationality and the scientific method.

    Finally, I end with this observation. We can believe that God created this universe like in the Bible, and the atheistic scientists can believe that some big bang blew up out of nothing and created all that we see including you and me and that it was all just a random explosion out of nothing. I find that the biggest fantasy or mythology that ever existed. The hubris is incredible. Maybe God did do the big explosion, but the Bible warns and transcends our limited understanding by warning of man thinking he knows too much. Eating from the tree of knowledge is simply the most powerful projection from the higher dimensions to us morons to be careful. It is masterful in its exposition. And how incredibly ironic it is today that particle physics is following String theory that posits, depending on which version you follow, that the cosmos contains nine or eleven dimensions, or even many universes occupy the same place. And in that theory there are few or no truly provable hypotheses in our realm. At best they are looking for the God particle, a marker, in their super colliders. By the mathematicians novel, even if the marker is found, they will still be clueless as to the overall picture.

    1. I have heard of “Flatlands” but never read it.I’m not sure I have the math or philosophy background to appreciate it.
      It is a big, complex, wonderful universe and we will never understand it all, but there is great value in trying. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Wandered over from Frank’s site.
    Interesting argument you make.
    As an atheist (or at least agnostic), I think that as science goes deeper, less and less will be unexplainable. I don’t think that will take away the majesty of anything, like the universe or music(just listen to anything by Tchaikowsky or Buddy Guy), but I do believe that many things identified as “miracles” will turn out to be other.

    I also think that while the bible offers (as you say), wonderful stories to lay out a moral and behavioral code, it is very much a product both of its time, and of the times in which it was translated, and offers very little in the way of provable or unprovable anecdotes, and I would go even further to say that the current bible might bear very little similarity to the original document…

    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree, as science discovers more and more, the cosmos becomes more majestic, more complex, and more awe inspiring. One of the best things about science is that it will never be “finished”.

      The Bible is very much a product of particular times and places, no doubt about that. In fact that particularity helps scholars verify some events. The Bible ends up being a collection of various genres spread across time and various locations and so requires some careful consideration about what we believe we are reading (history, poetry, etc)

  5. Also came over after Frank’s blog. Very interesting. I worry when some leave comments telling scientists to give up. Scientists are not trying to disprove the existence of God. Why would trying to understand the universe from science threaten God?
    I appreciate deep-thinking Christians as well as all others who have open minds to the many possibilities of mutually acceptable belief systems. Anyone who claims “their” proof from the bible has to accept other interpretations.

    1. I’ve been known to remind people that since God is the creator of everything, science won’t find anything God doesn’t all ready know about. Of course science can discover things that challenge our human perceptions of how things are.
      Thanks for coming over and commenting.

  6. This remindes me of the “conflict” between Star wars
    geeks and Star Treck geeks. Unlike the God/Science
    Argument, neither believes what they love to be real in
    any since. And yet who will tell them what They love is
    not important? My issues with God stem more from the
    fact my deepest held ideals are far different from those
    championed in the bible. If God can be said to exist
    – we are in dissaggreement. Unless the Bible is

    Often I wonder if these arguements are more about
    what we feel should be – then any interest in science
    or myth. Often I feel the human-animal connection is
    what is driveing people in many of these arguements.
    I feel some Christians simply don’t like the idea that
    they may be eating their relitives, or they wish to feel
    fundamentally supierior to other forms of life. This is
    often used as an excuse to exploite the planet as they
    see fit. Others have used evoloution in the same way –
    claiming that one ethnic group can be better then

    You however seem open-minded with
    re-gards to the possible litteral truth of
    scientfic theory. You may or may not be
    one of the “God-fearing – Evolutionists”
    I’ve always wanted to see, I’ve always
    felt that the theory didden’t nessarily
    prove or disprove the existence of
    God, and that free-thinking shoulden’t
    be considered a sin.

    Allowing one’s opions to differ from
    those of the all mighty shoulden’t be
    a sin either. 🙂

    Loved the article, very interesting

  7. “Often I wonder if these arguements are more about
    what we feel should be…” That is a very interesting question. I find it interesting that across time and cultures, we humans have the common feeling that something is not right with the way things are. It is as if (to borrow the idea from N.T. Wright) we have a faint memory of what was or of what should be. Interesting idea to think about.
    And yes you have run into a Christian who accepts evolution as an accurate description of how life develops. There are more of us than one might think!
    Thanks for reading and for you comments.

  8. Nancy, I jumped over from Frank’s blog. I really appreciate your post. It’s a conversation that Christians need to start having more and more, and louder and louder. I am a Christian and believe that science and the Bible go hand-in-hand: science tells us where, when, and how; the Bible tells us Who and why, and God created it all. I can’t imagine life without the glories of science that has been discovered and is yet to come. The Bible says we see through a very dark glass and I think that pertains to both science and the Bible. Without science, the Bible becomes a cartoonish fairy tale; without the Bible, science becomes a rudderless ship of ill-defined purpose and hopelessness. I think both are saying: stay tuned–all will be revealed!

    1. You, me and Einstein who said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Thanks for reading and your comments.

  9. Hi there Nancy. I found your post through the recommendation of Frank, and liked it very much for its rational approach. Science is often used as an excuse for political opinions. The search for truth includes the understanding that there are some things unknown. Thank you for presenting this aspect so well.

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