Creationism: Snapshot No. 2

Creationism: Snapshot No. 2 July 11, 2005

Stardust and the Glory of God

I attended a small liberal arts college in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, where the night-skies are so polluted by light that not even a hint of the Milky Way can be seen. It's an odd place to find a world-class astronomy program, but that's what Eastern University has, thanks to Dr. David Bradstreet. Dr. Bradstreet knows more about binary stars than just about anyone and I'm sure he could easily land a job somewhere more prestigious, somewhere with better facilities, better pay and a darker sky. But he graduated from Eastern and he seems to love the place almost as much as he loves to teach.

It's that love of teaching that made his "Astronomy Without Math" class so popular. That's what he called his introductory class for nonmajors. I was an English major, and I had already fulfilled all my core requirements for the sciences, but I didn't let that stop me from taking the class. It was one of the highlights of my college experience.

Eastern is a Christian university, and Dr. Bradstreet is a devout Christian. One of the highlights of his nonmajors class is an annual lecture that takes as its theme Psalm 19:1, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." This meditative lecture was, in part, an attempt to make us try to grasp the ungraspable vastness of the subject — the incomprehensible distances referred to by the terms "lightyear" or "parsec" that we'd been so glibly tossing around all semester as though we could really understand what we'd been talking about. (I don't remember exactly what he said during that part of the lecture, but I remember the whiteness of my knuckles as a gripped the sides of my chair.) My favorite part of this lecture reviewed what we had learned during the semester about the life-cycle of the stars. Here the original lessons about the formation of the heavier elements were infused with an infectious sense of wonder. We are born out of the ashes of dead stars.

I'm not doing justice to the actual lecture here, but the point is that for Dr. Bradstreet, there was no conflict between his study of evolution and his reverential love for God. This is true for most scientists who are also Christians, or Christians who are also scientists.

Next door to our astronomy class was a biology class taught by Doc Sheldon. Joe Sheldon is an entomologist, now at Messiah College, who shares the Creator's inordinate fondness for beetles.

The entomologist and the astronomer were good friends. They both recognized that every freshman class included some students who had been raised to believe that science and faith were incompatible. They both had to contend occasionally with students who believed, as an inviolable article of faith, that if evolution is true then their faith was false. Occasionally, we'd get a glimpse of the professors' frustration with the complaints of such students. When the biology class got a little too loud one afternoon, Dr. Bradstreet leaned out into the hall and, pretending to be angry, yelled something like, "Hey Sheldon, you want to get control of your class?" "We're fine, you just go back to teaching the Big Bang, you evolutionist!" Doc Sheldon hollered back in the same fake-angry voice. "Bug lover!" "Star gazer!"

For both men, both scientists, the study of creation — including the amazing reality of evolution, whether biological or cosmological — reinforced their appreciation for the power and majesty of the Creator. Avedon Carol made a similar point the other day:

Look, the theory of evolution is not the theory that there's no god. It's perfectly consistent to believe that whatever design the universe may have, including the Big Bang and evolution, God set it up. The idea that evolutionary theory is necessarily atheistic is a straw man. If God is not big enough to contain evolution, well, it's a pretty small god. But you can't prove God had anything to do with it — that's why they call it "faith."

The publication of The Origin of Species deepened and enlarged our understanding of the natural world. The scientist who also believes in Christianity and the Christian who also believes in science can only be grateful for this deeper, larger understanding.


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  • Dave Lartigue

    It’s interesting to me that evolution and science are so often set up as enemies of faith, when all they’re really enemies of is a literal reading of the Bible. And a literal reading of the Bible is about as far away from faith as you can get. In insisting that the Bible is factually accurate, period, you completely remove actual faith from the equation. It’s not faith that science is opposed to, it’s ignorance masquerading as faith.

  • Andew Smith

    Excellent point, above.
    Last year, I was involved in the Marilyn Bianchi Kids’ Playwriting Festival at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, OH. This is an annual event, in which this community theatre puts on a collection of winners’ plays, gleaned from a competition among school children from 1st through 12th grades in Cleveland-area schools.
    One of the plays, in which I played the “father”, was titled “KC”. “Father” and “Mother” are confronted by Casey, their “daughter”, who wants to know why there are no baby pictures of her. They can’t answer; she investigates, and finds that she is “KC-7”, Kid Computer Number 7. At which point she is so traumatized that she — or rather, her software — crashes.
    Now I know where the playwright got the idea. Thinking about it, I conclude that the 9th grader who wrote the play was closer to the truth than the screenwriters for Buffy.

  • Kari

    I had a similar experience in my astronomy class at Calvin, taught by the wonderful (infamous?) Dr. Howard Van Till. I remember coming out of that class with such such a sense of awe at how huge and amazing God is. One of the current biology professors at Calvin teaches a class called “Biology as a Springboard for Worship”. How great is that? (And you can bet she’s not teaching students how amazing God is that God could create an earth that seems really, really old but isn’t…)

  • Devon

    The timing of these last two posts is incredible. Will there be more?
    I know of no good label for my faith, sprituality and reason. I’m not Christian, Buddhist, or Taoist, but I am also all three. And perhaps I’m a little of some other traditions I don’t know about.
    I recently met a woman who is a fundamentalist Christian, i.e., whole universe is 10,000 years old, evolution is false, faith first, works if they’re convenient, etc. She’s surprisingly tolerant of me, and we’ve had several good conversations relating to all of the above. Last week she invited me to her Bible study group. I’m a little curious, intellectually, about the fundamentalist thing, so I’m going to attend. For me, it’ll be like sitting with the Greeks while studying Greek mythology. They’re about to start a new topic, and the reading for the first week is Gen 1-3.
    These posts will give me something more to add than, “Sorry, I disagree.” I may print out a few copies and take them with me. Thanks!

  • Kirala

    Good luck, Devon. Why the “fundamentalists” spend so much time on something so peripheral as the means by which God created the universe, I don’t know. But I’ve had friends express sincere concern about my faith because I diverge on this one point from fundies, thinking science is more qualified to speak on “how” than poetry.

  • Kirala

    Good luck, Devon. Why the “fundamentalists” spend so much time on something so peripheral as the means by which God created the universe, I don’t know. But I’ve had friends express sincere concern about my faith because I diverge on this one point from fundies, thinking science is more qualified to speak on “how” than poetry.

  • none

    Be careful not to whitewash history. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection came as a profound shock to many 19th century Christians.
    Today we mainly interpret this conflict in terms of a literal reading of the Old Testament of the Bible. But at the time this was less significant than the fact that the world implied by geology and evolution contradicted the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God who cared about the fall of every sparrow. Evolution protrays a world red in tooth and claw — an eternal unrelenting struggle for survival.
    John Stuart Mill wrote, “If there are any marks of all special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals.”
    Darwin himself lost his faith in a beneficient God. The death of his daughter Anne in 1851 dealt the final blow, but he had been losing his faith for some time before that.
    Modern Christianity has been able to reconstruct its faith, but it would be wrong to pretend that this hasn’t come at a cost. People like Dr Bradstreet have reconciled science with God but their God is not the personal deity of, say, William Paley, for whom “God Almighty wills and wishes the happiness of His creatures”. Creationists, on the other hand, have preserved their personal and beneficient God by rejecting science.

  • Dave Lartigue

    “Creationists, on the other hand, have preserved their personal and beneficient God by rejecting science.”
    Except that, for many of them, their God is even more violent and arbitrary than nature’s evolution could ever dream of being.

  • paddymick

    I am always entertained by those who make the claim that science and religion are not mutually exclusive. A quote from your post explains part of this misconception:
    “…The idea that evolutionary theory is necessarily atheistic is a straw man. If God is not big enough to contain evolution, well, it’s a pretty small god. But you can’t prove God had anything to do with it — that’s why they call it “faith…”
    So what are you saying? God used evolution and/or the big bang to create the earth? The fact that you can’t prove God had anything to do with it can be stated another way–the facts dictate that such occurances can occur without the help of any deity. As such, “faith” appears to be the crutch for those who “want” to believe there is a god in the face of evidence showing that God’s role, at most, is one of initiating a chain of events that could have just as easily been initiated without his intervention. So what? You worship God because he knocked over a can of rocks?
    As an agnostic, I don’t discount the possibility that god exists. In fact, I would argue that those who claim science explains everything are no less “fanatical” than those of extreme religious views. What I will say, however, is that there has been no credible evidence brought forward to support the theory of a creator.
    I think a more apt division of our society (rather than the one you propose of scientists, creationists and other) would be amongst those who want to believe there is a creator, those who don’t want to believe and those who realize it just doesn’t matter.

  • JChance

    I think the previous comment is a first for me–the first time I’ve seen deism used as a straw man. That God “kicked over a can of rocks” and did nothing more is by far not the only form of theism that is compatible with science. Events are probabilistic rather than deterministic; nothing rules out conscious action upon or within apparent randomness.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    I think a more apt division of our society (rather than the one you propose of scientists, creationists and other) would be amongst those who want to believe there is a creator, those who don’t want to believe and those who realize it just doesn’t matter….which doesn’t bother to differentiate between “those who want to believe there is a creator who made the world in exactly six 24-hour days” and “those who want to believ in a creator who made the world in a way that can be partly revealed by scientific observation (and partly can’t because, y’know, it’s God)…
    …in other words, the distinction this entire blog entry was about.
    Obviously your suggested three-way distinction matters to you, but it ignores the point of Fred’s post entirely. Perhaps you feel Fred’s post is pointless?

  • Reuben Inc

    That comment about using the idea of the vastness of space as an opening to worship and appreciation of how utterly *big* god is reminds me of the story Fred posted a while back, about another Christian college. It was in the NYT, though I can’t remember when. The standout part for me was the professer who played Bjork’s All is Full of Love, louder and louder, calling at his students to understand what the words meant. ALL. IS. FULL. OF. LOVE. He wanted them to get some conception of transcendence, if I recall, but the only response he got was some girl saying ‘isn’t that just some kind of hippy-dippy relativistic thing?’
    Fred, was everyone in your classes appreciative of the lessons you were getting, or did you have people like that then too? Or is this a more modern phenomenon?

  • Insight into the literalist mind

    Fred Clark, self-avowed liberal evangelical Christian and one of my all-around favorite bloggers, has posted about a series of ‘snapshots’ of experiences with creationists that he has had over the years (read posts one, two and three). In the latest…

  • Garnet

    As such, “faith” appears to be the crutch for those who “want” to believe there is a god in the face of evidence showing that God’s role, at most, is one of initiating a chain of events that could have just as easily been initiated without his intervention. So what? You worship God because he knocked over a can of rocks?
    Presumably, they worship their god because they feel something inside that calls out to some power greater than their own, or because they have been witness to some transcendant moment of beauty or scientifically inexplicable wonder. I hate to break it to you, Horatio, but there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your
    philosophy. There are plenty of questions left that science can’t even begin to answer, and a belief in a god who stands in the spaces in between is no more or less ridiculous then the absolute conviction that science can explain everything, everywhere, forever.

  • Kagehi

    To be clear, much of modern Christian belief (or rather what passed as such prior to Darwin and some of the other ‘shocks’ that upset it) had zero, zip, and zilch to do with the OT or NT, but instead was imposed by Popes for purely political or philosophical reasons. This is what you get when people tell you, “All you ignorant peasants are too stupid to properly interpret the Bible, after all most of you can’t even read. I, the current reigning lunitic and blasphemer am the true chosen of God and will interpret it for you! Now, here are some additions I think God would approve of…” Going to get my rear end kicked if any Catholics are on here, but this is the simple historical truth.
    It was after all a pope that declaired nudity a bain, leading to the decision by some to paint over the Cistene Chapels scenes with clothing *and* another one that all of the sudden concluded, “Gee, I guess the nude body isn’t ‘actually’ bad itself.” Never mind the modern fire and brimstone version of hell having been admitted to been invented to strike fear, not as any sort of true vision of it. Not that we would know, since they burn any notes made by various popes as a tradition and even the Vatican library you have to have documents showing a) the name of the book, b) the reason for wanting to see it and practically which page numbers you are going to look at, just to get in. There might, for all anyone, including the people that run it, which are not allowed to read any of them, something entitled, “How I had ordered the creation of the Gospels – by Caesar Titus” (this refers to the new book “Caeser’s Messiah – by Atwill” BTW, which will no doubt get me in ever ‘bigger’ trouble than poking a stick at Catholics. lol), someplace in there. No one knows what it contains, and unless you already do, you can’t request to see any of them. Its like the internet before search engines.

  • Ben Allen

    I hate to break it to you, Horatio, but there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your
    philosophy.
    Whenever I read this quote used this way, I’m reminded of the time Bertrand Russell sent a UK magazine a formal proof of the existence of an infinite set of objects provably impossible in either heaven, earth, or anywhere else, but dreamable of in philosophy (or at least the subset of it called formal logic).

  • Mark

    Kagehi: It was after all a pope that declaired nudity a bain, leading to the decision by some to paint over the Cistene Chapels scenes with clothing *and* another one that all of the sudden concluded, “Gee, I guess the nude body isn’t ‘actually’ bad itself.”
    Please cite sources. Which Pope, in what document, who painted over it, and when?
    (I’m going to assume you meant “bane”, “lunatic”, and “Sistine”, and have some kind of typographical form of Tourette’s Syndrome, rather than that you didn’t learn to spell as part of your Ph.D. in Everything Studies.)

  • Creationism

    Part the Second
    [quoting from Avedon Carol]
    Look, the theory of evolution is not the theory that there’s no god. It’s perfectly consistent to believe that whatever design the universe may have, including the Big Bang and evolution, God set it up. T…