Were You There?

The question “Were you there?” probably has two resonances for Christians. It is the title of a famous spiritual. And it is a phrase that Ken Ham encourages people to ask in science classes. One of them is an invitation to bridge the distance between past and present. The other closes that bridge in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.

Christianity has at its core claims about the past. For some conservative believers, those claims are arguably excessively numerous, and sometimes called into question by historical evidence and investigation – e.g. that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that the accounts of Adam and Eve and the Flood were passed down faithfully and represent traditions earlier than the Babylonian parallels which are older than the Book of Genesis in its present form. But for all Christians, there are historical events at the core of our identity: in particular, the life of a historic individual, Jesus of Nazareth.

The classic spiritual invites the Christian to bridge the gulf that separates us from those past events.

Ken Ham’s sarcastic and inane question, on the other hand, closes the bridge. Because if it can be asked of scientists (who generally have very specific and concrete data to work with), it can be asked all the more about matters of history.

The question “Were you there?” that Ken Ham poses is not the question of a Christian. It is the question of a naive critic of Christianity, which might well be posed to equally naive conservative believers, in the manner of the following:

Claim: Jesus died.

Response: How do you know? Were you there?

Follow-up claim: The Gospel authors wrote about it, and they saw it happen.

Response: How do you know? Were you there?

Follow-up claim: Even if they weren’t there, they had oral traditions to work with.

Response: How do you know? Were you there?

And so on ad infinitum, about any claim about the past that is simply asserted. But the naivite of the assertions and the retorts are both ignoring the legitimate processes of reasoning whereby we can use evidence to deduce things about the past.

Ken Ham’s question is fundamentally anti-scientific, but also anti-historical one, and as a result anti-Christian one. While it may appear an appropriately simple retort to simplistic claims about the past of the sort mentioned above, it can be posed in annoying fashion even to those who use the best historical methods and legitimate deductive reasoning with respect to the historical figure of Jesus – the same sort of deductive reasoning with evidence that provides abundant support for evolution in the realm of biology. As a response to deductive reasoning, it reflects a foolish stance of uncomprehending and simplistic criticism, one which denies all possibility of knowing about the past – whether about evolution or about the historical figure of Jesus, not to mention the countless other topics to which deductive reasoning is also applicable and necessary.

And so Ken Ham is teaching an approach to science that leads naturally to rejection of Christianity.

Remind me again why Christians listen to him and take his advice?

From Hymnary.org – click image to go there.


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  • Wayne Ferguson

    That’s a beautiful song. And, in fact, we can be there — here and now — as we “take up our cross” on a number of different levels:

    1) we are buried with Him in baptism and raised in newness of life.
    2) we are crucified with Christ (as we die to the mind of the flesh)
    3) we live in the Spirit (as we abide in his eternal presence)

    Likewise, we can be there at the moment of creation– here and now, in the beginning with God –since creation is ever fresh and ever new (the beginning is near). And just as we attempt to piece together a narrative about the life of Israel and of Jesus that helps to illustrate the reality of his/our LIFE, here and now, so we attempt to piece together a scientific account of the unfolding of our natural and cosmological history. The scientific account, too, helps to illuminate our life, here and now. But just as we miss the point of “salvation history” if we merely believe in the historical narrative (instead of trusting in the Way, the Truth and the Life), so (IMO) we miss the point of science if we think it should offer any ultimate explanation of the origin of life, the universe, and everything– much less its meaning and purpose –which is only accessible here and now!

    • rmwilliamsjr

      buried with Him in baptism
      crucified with Christ

      these are complex metaphors, they do not literally or historical happen to people. they are trying to catch a spiritual truth that is hard to understand.

      the problem with so much conservative theology is it’s inability to wax poetical, to see literary mechanisms and yes-see metaphors. it’s over whelming desire to see history and science as true(logos) means it denies literature as a significant bearer of wisdom(mythos).

  • Becky

    The question was good enough for God, though, when he posed it to Job!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      If Ken Ham got it from the Book of Job then it is even more ironic. That book is a piece of wisdom literature challenging the attempts of human beings to wrap up the world in a nice tidy theology, and to force the evidence of Job’s experience to fit their preconceived theology.

      The divine speech at the end also mentions a variety of things, like storehouses for snow, which ancient people assumed literally existed but which we now comprehend in a manner not achieved in Job’s time. And so that is another reason to think that the Book of Job ought not to be invoked as a science-stopper.

      • Becky

        Hey James – when I commented here earlier, I hadn’t realised you had written the article! I’ll just mention on here what I also said on Theogeeks – I haven’t actually heard Ken Ham speak or read any of his stuff so I can’t really comment as to his motivations or intentions. Please take my original comment as just a light-hearted dig from somebody who doesn’t really know all that much about it!

    • rmwilliamsjr

      when KH teaches masses of eager children to disrupt their teachers with this question, it is his intention to overwhelm the massive forensic evidence for the age of the earth with a nonsense appeal to eyewitness accounts.

      this is nothing like God’s intention in asking the same question of Job.

  • gamgokt

    You must have an infatuation with Ken ham as you talk about him all the time yet deny any feelings for him. Just like a girl talking about a boy she hates but secretly loves. You still haven’t answered the question : Where in the Bible do both God and Jesus give permission to use science over their word?

    Your absurd argument wins you nothing but it does expose you for what you are– someone desperate to justify their unbelief and supposed christian label. You forget that Ken Ham did not ask that question first–God did. So are you going to use the same argument against Him?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      You must have missed the passages about the creation testifying accurately to the Creator, when you were busy looking for texts to justify pretending to be someone you are not. :-)

  • Nick Gotts

    The question “Were you there?” that Ken Ham poses is not the question of a Christian.

    And no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

  • arcseconds

    That’s interesting.

    It seems that teaching people to say ‘were you there?’ can backfire and end up with scepticism where the teacher wants acceptance.

    I think there’s a more general category here: reasoning strategies that backfire.

    (is there a better term than ‘reasoning’? I don’t like the implication that they’re necessarily reasonable, or being used for anything we’d normally be happy to call ‘reasoning’! ‘logical’ does have a use that’s wide enough, but many people assume that it doesn’t and think it means ‘deductive logic’ or even ‘formal deductive logic’. Rhetorical suggests debate, which would be true in some cases but not if you’re thinking about this yourself, etc… )

    There are all sorts of things you can deploy against your foes, but then one day turn it against your own and find it fares no better. This would seem to be particularly problematic if the techniques are crude, like this one is — you get the scepticism, but no ability to built up any positive knowledge.