the science of inspiration


A reflection on scripture and the recent news about the Big Bang.

Yesterday was more important than people seem to realize.

News went viral across the interwebs that a team of scientists at the South Pole discovered proof of the previously-theorized cosmic inflation theory. Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde, one of the main authors of the theory which built upon and further articulated Einstein’s relativity, broke down when he heard the news that his life’s work had been validated. It’s a pretty cool story, if you haven’t read it yet. So, we no longer have a Big Bang theory, but a Big Bang fact, not only proving cosmic inflation, but a very old universe.

This also pretty much directly negates the literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis and thus, literalism in general, which is a great ramification of yesterday’s news. We can finally, and with sobriety, have a serious conversation amongst Christians across the board, but in particular, Evangelicals and fundamentalists, about the nature of scripture.

I preface this with an anecdote from my graduate school faculty advisor, now the Dean at Bethel Seminary, Dr. David Clark. He told us in several courses about a time when he was participating in a formal public debate, fielding questions from the audience. One student came to the microphone and asked what he apparently thought was a killer question: if incontrovertible proof came to light that disproved God’s existence, would he still believe–the implication, of course, being that real Christians hold faith, in this case, built of straw as reason to believe in the absence of valid reasons. Professor Clark responded with a clear-throated no, which took the student and the audience aback. Without reason to believe, faith in faith (fideism being the essential technical term) is not and cannot be justified; in the light of dis-proving God, there is no valid reason to continue to believe. Religious faith must be informed by–and even governed by–the data we have available, be it science or the scriptures.

With the scientific community publicizing these findings–take note, conspiracy theorists and Chicken Littles, doing so without ulterior motive–we need to seriously reconsider how we’ve traditionally approached and interpreted Genesis 1. Now, this is where I need to note that it should have never come to this point to have this conversation. There is sufficient prima facie evidence in the text without needing to connect scientific dots to reasonably and compellingly call literalism into question. There is also prima facie evidence in the world to undercut a literal reading of the creation account. Our strength, though, is our weakness: we are so staunch and bullheaded in our religious mindset that there is no room for questioning or doubt, never mind that staunchness or bullheadedness and questioning or doubt need not be mutually exclusive.

So, can we finally concede that the Bible is not, and was never meant to be, literally and factually accurate? Because the validity of the big bang obliterates any reason we had to believe in a literal six-day creation. It’s almost a shame Ken Ham got all that publicity a few weeks ago hosting that debate with Bill Nye: now he doesn’t have a leg on which to stand.

I’ve already anticipated the response from most believers, ‘If the Bible isn’t absolutely literally true, how can we believe any of it?’ First, this kind of response, though understandable and natural, doesn’t cast the question on the scripture so much as it betrays the amount of anxiety believers have in a fundamentally-fideistic framework. The accounts in the text are true because the scripture is God’s literal word, and God doesn’t lie, so the scripture must be true. It’s question begging, for one, and, while we’re here in fallacy country, it’s a slippery slope for another: so the universe wasn’t created in six literal days. Who cares? It does not change the nature of the Abrahamic covenant, the poignancy of the prophets and certainly needs not cast a pall over our claim of resurrection as our mode of salvation or the wisdom of Paul (properly interpreted, that is. Suck it, complementarians.) To invalidate everything because we were wrong is philosophically inappropriate and existentially weak. Then again, our tendency to react to problems like we’re two-year-olds who had our favorite toy taken away after beating our little brother with it is also weak in kind.

Necessarily, a recalibration of the text’s literal factuality must also raise questions about the nature of inspiration. Most Evangelicals and fundamentalists hold that the Bible is verbal plenary inspired, which is absurd fancy talk for the idea that God sat these writers down and told them exactly what to write. The difference between verbal plenary inspiration and, say, something frowned upon in church circles such as trance writing is no more than special pleading and the wife barging in on the philandering husband, who ejaculates, ‘uhh, this isn’t what it looks like!’ No, it is exactly what it looks like: if it is wrong to believe that a person is in-spired by sinister entities to write things, it is wrong for a person to be in-spired to write anything. The nuanced equivocators (equivocants, perhaps?) amongst us believers will ironically take a figurative sense of inspiration as being moved to freely write, though that isn’t at all what verbal plenary inspiration means and is about as accommodating as the foreign policy of the current presidential administration.

Again, I anticipate the response from most believers: ‘If the Bible isn’t inspired, how is it God’s word?’ Well, the text itself doesn’t claim to be God’s ‘word’: Paul, though clearly having a healthy ego, does not refer to his own work when he says that all scripture is God-breathed and profitable: even then, he does not equate ‘scripture’ with logos. Logos doesn’t even rightly translate to ‘word’, but to ‘idea’ or ‘concept’: ‘logic’, as in “In the beginning was the idea, the idea was with God and the idea was God…” The text is clear that the logos of God was first in Torah, then fulfilled in the person of Christ, which is John’s poetic [read: figurative] meaning in his prologue. It should also be clear that Jesus ~ the Bible, unless we’re engaging in biblicism which negates everything the covenants stood/stand for and makes the scripture itself a graven image worshiped in place of God.

I want to deal with this aspect at another time, but the scripture is a heritage, passed down from generation to generation, written by us for us in our understanding of who God is and what God, through us, is doing in partnership to be a blessing to the world, reconciling creation to God. And this is entirely and wholly OK!

We ought to take care of this text, and negotiate with it on its own terms and clauses. It has the power to change people and it chronicles a history of us as people missing the point and God’s faithfulness to keep his end of the bargain. It is still vital, essential and necessary to who we are, just as the stories, myths and legends we tell ourselves have meaning and inspirational efficacy. Not all of it may be factual, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

The garden of Eden is a story, not history. And that fact gives it real teaching and correcting power, for it tells us that we’ve been easily deceiving ourselves from the dawn of our existence, that we’ve been in need of help to save us from ourselves this entire time. And, if that’s not all, there is still one wink to be had with the amazing news broken yesterday: they know what, but still can’t say how or why.

Congratulations, Dr. Linde, and the community of astrophysicists involved, you’ve done truly remarkable work. In so doing, you’ve accomplished more for biblical studies than you could ever imagine.

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