Creation, Evolution, and the Over-Active Imagination, Part 2

Guest post

By Jeremy Begbie

In yesterday’s post I had to skip over a lot of detail and nuance, but only to make what I hope is a fair point: that behind much of the polemics of the evolutionism controversy lies an imagination that has got out of hand. The problem is not with the imaginative drive to find and construct patterns, which help us make sense of things, or the fact it often works with metaphors. The difficulties start when the imagination gets over-confident too quickly, ending up with patterns that extend beyond their proper use, and thus distort our view of reality.

How can artists of Christian faith help us here? At the very least, artists can help us imagine the universe as the creation of the God of Jesus Christ.

The Christian imagination is, or should be, in the business of discovery, disclosure—just as it constructs its visions, metaphorical or otherwise. (Just think of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.) It cannot indulge in undisciplined fantasizing, only in disciplined truthfulness to the vision of the cosmos disclosed in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In this light, with limited space, I close with four reflections.

First, artists need to be invited to explore the distinctive depths of the Christian tradition, and not settle for a shallow theology which stifles the magnificent vista which biblical faith makes possible.

So, for example, to say that God created all things out of nothing is not to claim God made everything “at a point in time”; it’s to say the entire universe (including time) depends on God at every point for its existence. God is not another cause on a time line; God is the one who creates time. A Christian account of creation is not a rival to a scientific account—for how could science ever establish the existence of the One on whom everything depends?

Science cannot account for the existence of the universe, nor for the fact that it is ordered—the Christian faith can indeed give an account of these things. In short, the Christian account of creation is both subtle and vast in its implications, and artists ought not to be content with anything less.

Second, artists can help remind us that Scripture is awash with “artistic” genres—myth, parable, narrative, extended metaphors, drama, and so on.  To make that point with students I often point to Isaiah 40-55, where the prophet longs to jerk the imaginations of the exiled Jews in Babylon out of their apathy. He does not deliver a lecture on international relations; he offers streams of potent metaphors—law courts, rivers, plants breaking through dry earth, a mother in labor. That is how the Jews’ vibrant hope will be restored.

Third, artists can help rescue us from the bleak wilderness of “reductionism.” The creationist-evolutionist debate is bewitched by reductionism, the idea that one type of explanation can account for everything we encounter. So, for example, the creationist wants to shrink the notion of “truth” to what can be encapsulated in a certain kind of historical statement; the evolutionist (or at least one type of evolutionist) wants to explain the whole of human life in terms of genetic variation.

This kind of move may appeal to our sense of control—once we have the key to everything, we can control the world. This is the imagination run wild. But reductionism leads to a withered life. The arts, by their very nature are multiply allusive (as Calvin Seerveld puts it), always suggesting more than can be perceived at one level. The arts remind us that the world always exceeds our grasp, always eludes our control, that it is an arena of suggestiveness, in which, as Jacques Maritain said, things “give more than they have.”

The arts can’t prove reductionism is wrong, but the artist can bear witness to a world in which one type of explanation is never enough. Indeed, in this light, there are some respects in which creationists and evolutionists need each other; at their best they can prevent each other from succumbing to reductionism.

Fourth, artists can testify to the world’s good future. The problem with some forms of evolutionary theory is that when they get over-inflated by the imagination, they encourage a kind of optimism that suggests the world is progressively improving. Applied to the human sphere, humankind is thought to be on a steady march of moral betterment. Fortunately, this type of thinking is less popular than it used to be. Even so, many of us are slow to face up to the wider picture that the sciences do indeed unfold for us—that the cosmos is heading inexorably and predictably towards dissolution. In purely physical terms, the future is dark and hopeless.

The Christian hope, however, is not rooted in evolutionary optimism. It is grounded in God’s raising of Jesus from the dead, itself a promise of re-creation, a re-making of the cosmos (Rev. 21). Moreover, the claim is that foretastes of this new creation are possible here and now. Artists can help us counteract the facile optimism of the undisciplined, over-active imagination with evocations of what the dying and rising of Jesus actually promises for the future.

I came across a remarkable example of this the other day in a TV documentary about Auschwitz, a place devoid of all newness and creativity, flat with a grey sameness and horrific predictability. The virtuoso Maxim Vengerov played the entire Chaconne from J. S. Bach’s D Minor Partita for solo violin while walking around the death camp.

Significantly, some think Bach wrote this piece in the wake of the death of his wife. It is, in effect, a breath-taking musical protest against death—over sixty variations on one simple bass line and a set of chords; each variation is full of the unforeseen, alive with newness, and at the same time directly engaging dissonance. Into this site of mass annihilation, comes music which demonstrates an almost infinite possibility, one that is gloriously unpredictable.

Newness from beyond. A sonic preview of a world to come.

Jeremy S. Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, North Carolina. His particular research interest is the interplay between music and theology. He is also Senior Member at Wolfson College, Cambridge, and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge. He is author of a number of books, including Theology, Music and Time (CUP), Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker), and Music, Modernity, and God (OUP).

This post was made possible through the support of a grant from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution and Christian Faith program. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BioLogos.

Image Used: Linnea Spransy, Maelstrom 2009, Acrylic on canvas 48 x 36 in, Byron Cohen Gallery

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  • aedgeworth

    You stated: So, for example, to say that God created all things out of nothing is not to claim God made everything “at a point in time.” Actually, the Bible states “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The “beginning” is a point in time, and is actually when time as we know it began.

    You have managed to lump logic, rationalization, and all thought processes into a single term which you refer to as “imagination.” Exactly what part does reality play in all of this? What constitutes calling logical conclusions about observable data merely a product of one’s imagination? Both of your posts appear to be the product of an over-active imagination, with a few good observations thrown in.

    • Melissa Gutierrez

      Imagination is a logical rational thought process that really happens in reality — you imagine a table, then you build it; you have to have an idea of a table in your head before you can put the legs together and make it happen. Fred Sanders has a great post to help explain this (imagination as the association of form and content) that you can read here:

      It sounds like your view of imagination — “merely a product of one’s imagination” — is one informed by a culture that associates imagination with “magic” or other such “silly” or “frivolous” activities; a “low” view of imagination. Begbie here seems to be arguing for a more serious, “high” view of imagination, asking what is inherently real about the human imaginative process from a scientific/psychological standpoint, and how we can wield it in the same way that we do other things like logic or reason (as it is, Begbie explains, a part of logic itself). In doing so Begbie shows how we can fit that word in among with the world of observable data, thereby helping to bridge the gap between scientific and religious narratives.

    • Guest

      I fear you haven’t read Begbie charitably or fairly here. In the quote you pulled, for example, it appears you instantly read this as an attack against the idea that God is the author of the world and time, ignoring the next sentence, which clearly agrees with you that God is the author of time: “God is not another cause on a time line; God is the one who creates
      time. A Christian account of creation is not a rival to a scientific
      account—for how could science ever establish the existence of the One on
      whom everything depends?” Begbie’s point is that the Genesis creation story is more open-ended as to God’s method of creating than young earth creationists like to admit – it puts God behind it all, but the opening statement that God created everything in the beginning is far too general to justify a young earth creationist basing a scientific theory of instantaneous creation of absolutely everything in the universe, even adult life forms. The point is it all started with God. Even if you disagree with that on broader principles, one must admit there’s room in the opening words for other interpretations.

      Begbie states, “the creationist wants to shrink the notion of “truth” to what can be encapsulated in a certain kind of historical statement.” Another way of putting this – young earth creationists tend to argue from post-scientific revolution foundations, reading Genesis 1 strictly as a scientific textbook explanation from which we can then “disprove” any scientific theory we encounter. Young earth creationists operate from scientific principles even as they attack science – they have a low view of the role of myth and literature in the Bible, believing that if Genesis 1 isn’t a scientific account of how and when the universe began, it’s somehow less true, important, or reliable. This is a serious problem, because it bases Scripture’s authority on standards of truth outside of Scripture.

      Melissa answers your concerns about imagination better that I could have
      – essentially imagination as Begbie uses it is a good thing, the collective product of our experiences, worldviews, and knowledge which can
      be misdirected, “over-active.”

      • aedgeworth

        It appears you haven’t read me charitably or fairly. I said nothing to indicate Begbie said God was not the author of the world and time. The only issue was if “In the beginning” indicated a point in time, nothing more.

        It is your opinion that the Genesis creation account is just
        a “story” as you called it, and is more open-ended as to God’s method of creating than young earth creationists like to admit. My opinion is that the creation account is not as open-ended as theistic evolutionists choose to believe.

        Theistic evolutionists will never accept a literal interpretation of scripture, at least in regards to the Genesis account of creation. They may accept other passages of scripture literally, but not creation. There is room in the opening words for other interpretations if you chose to not accept it literally, or to compare it with other passages of scripture that indicate God spoke the earth and universe into existence out of nothing. He would have to be speaking awfully slow for that to happen over billions of years wouldn’t He?

        You are also sending mixed messages. On one hand you indicate the creation account in Genesis can be considered a scientific explanation, then say it is used to disprove “scientific” theories. That at least borders on calling “evolution” science, and “creation” a religious belief. You state that young earth
        creationists attack science, that is not true.

        The Bible itself indicates every word of God is true and is
        God-breathed. You state the Bible contains myths and literature and indicate that includes the Genesis account of creation. You indicate you do not believe it is a scientific account of creation.
        That is your opinion, which I believe is in error. You accuse young earth creationists of not accepting that the Genesis account may be more open-ended, but you will not accept the possibility that it isn’t. You are no more open-minded about this issue than they are.

        Evolutionists claim the supernatural is outside the realm of
        science. Actually, science is supposed to be neutral in regards to the supernatural. Young earth creationists believe the beginning of life, of the universe, of man, and the great flood were supernatural events. Why should it be the job of science to try to prove they were only natural events? Why shouldn’t that be determined to be outside the scope of science? What an eye is, what it does, and how we treat it for disease is science. When we get into why and how we got an eye we are operating in the area of philosophical worldviews, not science. Sad
        to say, most today are unable to recognize the difference.

        My only point about Begbie’s view of imagination was that he
        tried to be too all-inclusive.

        • Guest

          Perhaps I misunderstood what you were trying to critique about Begbie, your statement seemed to imply he was attacking God’s creation of time. You find it important to insist that at one moment God created everything – let me know if I’m misunderstanding you here? – I think it’d be hard to define “beginning” as “moment in time” definitively, however, as opposed to Begbie’s broader sense of God being the beginning and source of everything. In common usage, beginning is often used to describe sources and origins of things more broadly than just a moment of time. At any rate, that doesn’t seem a very damaging critique of him.

          I didn’t say Genesis was “only a story” – recognizing it as a form of literature and not primarily a science textbook does not denigrate its authority – that seems to come from a low view of literature and literary styles. And you may very well be right that even within the literary genre its written in it supports the idea of instantaneous creation of everything out of nothing in a moment of time. But even within the six day structure, there’s clearly some life forms that come later, so God’s method is a little unclear. I would argue God in his wisdom allowed for such ambiguity. It isn’t a scientific explanation, but that doesn’t make its written form any less important.

          My main point about young earth creationists is they tend to base their ideas of the “literal” meaning of the passage on scientific principles – rather than principles of authority within the scriptural text itself. So if we can’t read Genesis 1 as a clear scientific explanation, or if not all genres in the Bible are to be interpreted “literally” (whatever that means) they are somehow less valuable. I think Begbie recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of this ongoing debate very insightfully, but you are free to disagree.

          • Guest

            I should add we may be using the word “scientific” or even “literally” differently – you seem to be using it to mean true or accurate? I don’t think Genesis was intended to function as a scientific theory – John Calvin says the same in the Institutes – although it certainly informs science to operate from the principle of God as the source and origin of this universe. When people use the world “literal” to describe the Bible, they often seem to mean that it’s not literature, which disappoints me as someone who loves literature and loves the fact that God inspired his word in beautifully diverse literary styles. So the fact that you don’t necessarily read a biblical poem “literally” when it says the sun rises and sets (because the sun actually stands still) doesn’t make it less authoritative.

          • aedgeworth

            Let me touch briefly about Begbie being all-inclusive in his use of the term “imagination.” For example, he says if he sees your “eyes open, a slight wrinkling of the forehead, your head nods every now and then,” he says that tells him you are awake and perhaps even listening to what he is saying. He says that is the work of the imagination. Since when is using our brain to arrive at a conclusion based on observations a result of our imagination? This act does not require imagination, just the ability to think.

            He says that making sense of things is the work of our
            imagination. No it isn’t. It is the work of our brain to make sense of things. The imagination considers things not in evidence. Begbie is attributing almost any thinking process to being our imagination at work. In Begbie’s mind he has widened the scope of imagination to include almost anything that requires thinking, then he accuses
            others of having an over-active imagination.

            He then says thinking about the fact it is almost Easter is
            the work of our imagination. He didn’t imagine it was almost Easter, he thought about the fact it was almost
            Easter. His imagination had nothing to do with this.

            Paley believed the world showed overwhelming evidence of design, Begbie says this belief was the product of an over-ambitious imagination. Michael Denton said: “Even if only one hundredth of the connections in the brain were specifically organized, this would still represent a system containing a much greater number of specific connections than in the entire communications network on Earth.

            Because of the vast number of unique adaptive connections, to assemble an object remotely resembling the brain would take an eternity, even applying the most sophisticated engineering techniques.”

            The complexity of the human brain is a scientific fact, not
            the product of an over-ambitious imagination. The imagination pictures things not in evidence, such as the belief in common descent. Now that is a product of
            an over-ambitious imagination! The evidence for design is all around us, it takes an over-active imagination to believe the complexity that exists in our world is the product of accidental, random, chance, mutations and natural selection. Common descent only exists in the imagination.

          • Otto Tellick

            The evidence for common ancestry among species consists of patterns in DNA that have been observed repeatedly and reliably. Our current understanding of how DNA patterns operate through inheritance is based on careful tests of specific predictions based on evolutionary theory, with repeated and reliable confirmation of those predictions.

            Not only is that NOT IMAGINATION, but it is the very same quality of factual evidence that allows DNA to be a solid and incontrovertible basis for confirming who your biological parents are, and which children have you as their biological parent. Relations of genetic descent are patently obvious in the DNA evidence, and the more evidence we gather, the more obvious it becomes.

            To take just one of the most well-established cases, the chromosomes of chimpanzees contain such a significant quantity of genetic signatures in common with humans – signatures that could ONLY be shared on the basis of having descended from a common ancestor – there can be no other rational conclusion. Distinct species are genetically related. That is a fact. You can reject it if you like, just as you can reject equally irrefutable facts about the true age of the earth and cosmos. You’ll just be indulging in your own imaginative wishful thinking.

  • Otto Tellick

    I appreciate Dr. Begbie’s call to seek a more “artistic” approach when trying to ponder the many deep questions of existence, purpose and destiny, though I find it odd that such a pursuit should necessarily exclude viable options like Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, pantheism, deism, etc. Granted, these have nothing to say about Jesus, but it wouldn’t require an excess of “artistic license” to show how these alternatives achieve something that is effectively the same goal as the one attributed to Jesus’ resurrection.

    (I can understand excluding Judaism and Islam, given that both of these explicitly deny the special status of Jesus in Dr. Begbie’s world view, despite the fact that they are adamant about some other points that he would presumably not dispute, based on scripture. Still, we ought to recognize that even in those faith traditions, there have been, and continue to be, practitioners who rise to level of artistry.)

    Charges of “straw man arguments” are rampant in this domain of discourse, and while it would be easy to show how some of this going on in Dr. Begbie’s two-part essay, it would seem banal and redundant to do so. I’d just like to point out, as a firm matter of fact, that methodological naturalism can inspire an artistic approach to understanding, and can justifiably offer hope, without over-indulging the imagination.

    Yes, the evidence does point toward some rather unsettling odds regarding our chances of continued existence as a species; yes, the evidence suggests that the sun will someday incinerate the earth; yes, the evidence seems to be leaning toward ultimate heat-death of the universe. But none of that is entirely conclusive, yet, perhaps, and in any case, the one thing we seem to know the least about is our true potential.