Ask Dr. Cobb

February 2004 Question

The "young earth" folk and others have made great efforts to have their point a view on creation accepted. They believe modern science is incorrect in many ways, which is disconcerting. What does process thought have to say on the creation?

Dr. Cobb's Response

The first and most obvious response is that process theology has little interest in the young earth hypothesis.  The process cosmic vision is of slow evolutionary changes over long periods of time.  It is even in tension with the idea of the Big Bang!

Nevertheless, there is a second response.  There are two important points of sympathetic contact.  First, the "young earth" folk are trying to bring their faith and their science into a coherent whole.  Process thought shares this goal.  Second, the young earth folk find flaws in the dominant theory of evolution.  So does process thought.  If I, personally, were forced to choose between subscribing to standard neo-Darwinian theory and young earth theory, I would find it a difficult choice.

Our differences with young earth theory are twofold.  First we read the Bible differently.  Second, we read the scientific evidence differently.

We read the Bible differently both in the way we understand its authority for us and in terms of what it actually says.  On the latter, we do not find in the Bible a doctrine of creation out of nothing.  We find instead the idea that God brings order out of chaos.  Catherine Keller in Face of the Deep develops this point in great detail.  She especially emphasizes Genesis 1:2.  The New Revised Standard Version translates this as "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters."  Keller renders the latter part of this verse more directly as "and the ruach elohim vibrating upon the face of the waters. . ."  Ruach elohim is often translated as Spirit of God.  The image offered by this verse is of a gentle movement of God on the deep waters, which brings forth the new order of creation.  This is a very different image from the creation out of nothing doctrine developed in the early church, and it does not especially favor contracting the history of the earth in the way "young earth" thinkers do.

With respect to the authority of the Bible, while process theology takes the Bible very seriously, it does not suppose that the authors of the Bible were supernaturally protected from reflecting in their writings the world views of their times.  Indeed, they were not protected from writing things that are inconsistent with one another.  We see no need to engage in the task of harmonizing different accounts of the same events, for example, even the two stories of the creation of human beings found in the first chapters of Genesis.  The biblical authors no doubt believed the earth was in the center of the universe, had no idea of the processes of evolution, and were ignorant of the age of the earth.  To us, this does not detract from biblical authority, because such authority has nothing to do with inerrancy.  We see commitment to inerrancy as a form of idolatry, that is, treating something creaturely, in this case the Bible, as if it possessed properties that belong only to God.

On the side of science, process theologians such as myself certainly cannot claim expertise.  But the evidence for an old earth seems to be very extensive, coming from many different sources.  It fits into a cosmology that deals successfully with the universe as a whole.  In other words it has in its favor both direct evidence and also coherence with other well-established ideas. To abandon all this in the name of science would require a vast amount of new evidence and theory, far beyond what has been offered by the young earth folk.

Despite the gulf that separates us from the new earth folk, we appreciate their quest for unifying science and Christian faith.  We believe that the task of moving toward a coherent vision of which Christ is the center is of the greatest importance.  We think that this requires continual adjustment and revision both of theology and of standard scientific theories.  The attempt to achieve coherence by forcing either one to fit the demands of an unrevised version of the other has disastrous consequences.

We see the young earth folk as trying to make science fit an unrevised, or too little revised, theology.  In many circles, the effort has been to make theology fit with an unrevised science.  This, too, is disastrous.  Usually, the "fit" is achieved by giving up any claim on the part of theology to speak of the world of which science speaks.  Theology is forced to retreat to the sphere of values and ethics.  It avoids factual claims.  "God" ceases to name a personal being who acts creatively and redemptively in a real world, since any such belief about "God" impinges on the world studied by the natural, social, and psychological sciences, none of which, in their present form, have a place for God.  Similarly, any claim that human beings are truly free and responsible must be given up.  It clashes with the mechanistic model of the sciences.  Indeed, when this approach is consistently carried through, theology has nothing of much interest to say.

Better than such reductionism is a full and frank dualism.  This dualism simply abandons any effort to render what is said theologically about God and the human soul consistent with what is said scientifically about the world and its human inhabitants.  However, from a process perspective, this abandonment of the quest for a coherent vision is existentially destructive.  It belittles God.  And it confines the implications of faith to a narrow sphere at a time when the whole world cries out for a faithful understanding and response to its desperate crises.

Hence the revisionist alternative!  Let us rethink theology repeatedly in light of all that we learn, not only from the sciences but also from other religious traditions and new cultural insights.  The rethinking is from our center in Jesus Christ, but it is not committed to any inherited Christology.  At the same time, let us challenge the fundamental metaphysical assumptions on which the sciences have developed.  These are materialistic, reductionistic, and mechanical.  The actual evidence at the frontiers of science is that these assumptions block scientific advance.  They have never allowed biology to take life seriously.  They exclude from the study of animals and their evolution the subjectivity and purposive behavior of the animals studied.  Process thought provides, with its understanding of interrelated organisms a better model for interpreting the data.  To call for revision is to ask the biological sciences to be more faithful to the scientific ideal of adjusting theory to evidence.

In critiquing the dominant evolutionary model, we welcome the support of the young earth folk.  We think, however, that their way of going about it arouses prejudices in the dominant community that block hearing what is true about their criticisms.  We hope we can do better.

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