Mapping the Origins Debate

I am grateful to IVP for sending me a gratis review copy of Gerald Rau’s book Mapping the Origins Debate. The book’s subtitle refers to the “Beginning of Everything,” but the book in fact looks at a number of quite distinct beginnings – the beginning of the universe, of life, of species, and of humans. Given all it tries to cover, the book is obviously not going to enter into great detail, and it is not intended to. Rather, Rau writes in the hope that he can set forth clearly and impartially the major views and what distinguishes them, for the benefit of high school students and other interested parties who are confused by the competing and conflicting claims made about science.

As with most efforts to achieve fairness by presenting “both sides,” even though Rau offers six rather than two perspectives, I felt that at times he granted too much credence to claims of YEC and ID proponents. While Rau may be correct that each of the views he describes has some truth to it, I am less persuaded that Rau has correctly identified what that truth is. However, I must acknowledge that this could possibly be because Rau has managed to be more charitable towards views other than his own than I have. And he certainly does not refrain from offering criticisms of those views.

In relation to the claims of young-earth creationists such as will be promoted through the Ark Encounter theme park, I think the most important points that Rau makes are the following. First, he notices clear pieces of evidence that are incompatible with young-earth creationist claims about flood geology, such as the absence of pollen from the most ancient geological strata. Second, Rau provides helpful charts which highlight the range of possible viewpoints, and in doing so, YEC claims that there is a strictly binary choice to be made are demonstrated clearly to be false. The only difference between YEC and OEC (old Earth creationism) is the denial of more science – geology and astronomy – by the former. And so one cannot help but wonder why anyone would adhere to the more problematic YEC stance when (1) the Bible does not explicitly address the age of the Earth, (2) science denial harms the reputation of the Christian faith, and (3) alternatives that affirm direct divine creation by God exist.

Although the truth is not always halfway between the extremes, it is rarely at the far extremes (despite what those occupying those extreme positions tend to claim). If Rau’s book moves anyone away from polarized options towards middle ground, and gets those who nonetheless disagree to interact in more respectful and positive ways, that will be an incredibly important contribution. I found Rau’s illustration of what it can mean to be “poles apart” on pp.170-171 especially helpful. If someone standing at the North Pole on our planet, and someone standing at the South Pole, were to describe the planet, they would disagree on important points in ways that would seem irreconcilable. They would also, even taken together, have missed a great deal that can only be seen when one explores the realms between those poles. I hope that many will accept Rau’s invitation to engage in such exploration.

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  • Paul D.

    The Bible may not address the age of the earth, but if you think all the genealogies and other time references are literally true, then you’re stuck with more-or-less 6,000 years — to Adam, at least.

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

      Perhaps – and that is part of Old-Earth Creationist reasoning. But it is not hard to show Biblically that the genealogies in the text skip generations, and so one could extend human history longer if one felt the need to without having to dilute one’s allegiance to the Bible.

  • davidt

    Ken ham is proof god exists. How does the dip$hit wake up in the morning and tie his shoes? Exactly the same way Elon musk does one dollar at a time. Any mention of ken ham isn’t a book written with any insight its a farce relying on ken ham to give it the appearance of depth. Ken ham really?

  • axelbeingcivil

    “The truth is rarely at the extremes” is a claim that might hold for opinions about things, including some very important opinions, but it’s not really one that holds true for facts about the physical universe. One group might be wildly and completely incorrect, another absolutely right. There is, for example, no real middle ground that food spoiling is caused by organisms that encourage decomposition and that it’s caused by demons. Claiming that demons are simply scared of refrigerators and canning factories might effectively hand-wave these things, and lead to a curious shift in future production of talismans, but demons that are in all ways identical to decomposers while also being completely unidentifiable are not a strong theory and one that should really be given no respect. Especially not when it makes no successful, testable predictions.

    The same is true for evolution and creationism. The former offers real, testable predictions and a wealth of evidence in its favour. The latter can be bent into pretzel shapes to try and fit this evidence, and wedge itself in the gaps, but is effectively the demon scared of refrigerators; it makes no testable predictions (the definite ones that have been made have been resolutely dismissed at this point) and is ultimately bent to get a conclusion to explain the evidence rather than to draw a conclusion from said evidence.

    I hope this isn’t dismissed as a dogmatic response from someone at one of “the poles”. It is a sincere statement given to these statements.

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

      The biggest issue I see with your comment is that it defines the poles in a very different way than Aczel does, and indeed tries to move back to the false dichotomy that those at the poles appeal to. Your comment seems to leave no room for those religious perspectives which have embraced evolution from the beginning, and which are held by people who have contributed significantly to our understanding of evolution – people like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, and Francisco Ayala, to name just a few.

      • axelbeingcivil

        I very well seem to have drifted back, didn’t I? I started writing the post to address the fact that the fallacy of the golden mean is just that, but seem to have gotten a little sidetracked.

        Just the same, I stand by the point that the fallacy of the golden mean is a fallacy. There may be a spectrum of beliefs between materialistic evolution and young earth creationism, but just because there is a spectrum doesn’t automatically mean that a compromise is the correct answer.

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

          On that particular point, I agree completely!

  • Fang

    Augustine and Calvin, neither of whom could ever be accused of accommodating to secular culture, did not believe the six days of Genesis 1 were to be taken literally.

    Calvin, with his usual knack for hitting the nail on the head, gave us this: “It is foolish to attempt to prove to infidels that the Scripture is the Word of God. This cannot be known except by faith” (Institutes, 1.8). Calvin also referred to “Moses, speaking in popular language” (Institutes 1.14), Moses the conveyor of divine truth, not Moses the scientist.