I think that I shall never see a theology lovely as a tree

I think that I shall never see a theology lovely as a tree November 29, 2013

While I was busy the other day writing a convoluted post about the disproven theologies of Al Mohler and Ken Ham, getting distracted along the way by the fascinating natural history of what is now Kentucky, James McGrath was posting a Facebook image that made the same point more simply and elegantly.

The wit who added the text to this photograph by Norwegian scientist Leif Kullman overstates one claim. This 9,550-year-old spruce is older than any extant form of religion, but it’s not older than “every religion.” We have archaeological and anthropological evidence of religious rituals that are older than that. Those ancient religions matter because they, like this ancient spruce tree, are part of the massive body of evidence disproving the claims of young-Earth creationists that the universe is only 6,000 years old and disproving the claim that the story in Genesis of a global flood should be read as a historical account of an actual event that actually occurred some 4,200 or so years ago.

I do like the first-person text added to Kullman’s photo, because this tree does testify — it speaks, bearing witness to its existence during a history that young-Earth creationists like Mohler and Ham deny ever existed.

The tree doesn’t lie. It’s telling its truth and, at the same time, proving its truth. “Here I am,” it says, and that is undeniably true. The witness of this spruce tree disproves the false claims of young-Earth creationism.

This tree, then, ought to save us a lot of time and energy that might otherwise be wasted on endless theological and exegetical debate.

“The book of Genesis should be read literally as a historical acc–”

Nope! Spruce tree.

“If we deny the historicity of Genesis 1, then …”

Sorry, spruce tree.

“Belief in a literal six-day …”

Spruuuuuuce treeeeee.

The fact that the fact of this tree, or the fact of the bones of Big Bone Lick, or, say, the fact of this dazzling photograph of the 10-billion-year-old light reaching us from the M15 globular cluster, doesn’t settle this non-debate underscores that facts aren’t the main factor in this conversation.

This isn’t a dispute about the meaning of facts, but rather a dispute about whether or not there can be any such thing as facts. The sort of Christian fundamentalist most likely to embrace young-Earth creationism is also likely to be the sort of person who rails against “post-modernism” and who insists on the essential importance of “absolute truth.” Yet scratch the surface of any young-Earth creationist and you’ll find an epistemology more radically skeptical than anything Hume or any of the French deconstructionists ever imagined. Far from the defenders of “absolute truth” they claim to be, young-Earth creationists actually embrace a philosophy that says nothing can be known about the world around us.

Appearances and measurements lie. Trees lie. Carbon lies. Bones lie. The stars in the heavens lie. And nothing at all can be trusted from what we deceive ourselves into imagining we’re learning from observation, study, experiment and measurement.

Their claim is even more audacious than that. It has to be. They want to say that they’re only disputing the honesty of “science,” but if that were the case, then we could easily test their claim by, say, switching on the light or looking at this page on the Internet. Science seems to work. And thus the epistemological anarchists of young-Earth creationism cannot simply be asserting the unreliability of science, they must also assert the unreliability of seeming. If a universe that seems ancient is not ancient, then both the universe and our seeming must be lying. Nothing we think we see, hear, touch or measure can be trusted. Nothing can be known.

Let me be clear here: This is not something they say they believe, yet this is what they must believe. While they would never explicitly make such sweeping dismissals of all possibility of knowledge, such dismissal is implicitly inevitable in everything they claim.

It’s important to remember here that young-Earth creationists are making two separate sets of claims. On the one hand, they’re making claims about the Bible — about how they insist it must be read for it to be true and meaningful. And on the other hand, they’re making claims about the universe — and thus about whether or not science can be true and meaningful.

These folks are demonstrably untrustworthy when it comes to their claims about the universe. It seems unwise, then, to regard them as wholly trustworthy when it comes to their claims about the Bible. It seems far likelier that their approach to the Bible is as reliable, thoughtful and defensible as their approach to the universe is — which is to say not at all.

People who are unable to read the universe are probably not the best guides to reading the Bible.


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  • What implied assumptions are those? Also, I don’t think “incredulous” means what you think it does.

  • Original Lee

    There you go, using math again. Faith is not logical!

  • Panda Rosa

    Actually that’s a good way to remember how to spell the word! very useful for crosswords.

  • ben

    You’ve made the equally mind-numbing association of thinking physical facts denying creationism carries over to denying absolute truth. The Spruce Tree, and all of its factual weight actually supports the idea of absolute truth. Creationism is dumb, but so is relativism.

  • Well, that’s their effective rejoinder. They just retreat to “Goddidit”. We might as well just go back to saying Zeus threw down bolts of lightning.

  • walden

    That sounds like a great plan for a blog!
    Oh, wait….

  • walden

    I thought the 6000 years was arrived at by taking Archbishop Ussher’s calculation of the genealogies of the Old Testament to arrive at a date for creation somewhere in the 4000 BC-era, which when combined with the 2000 years since the birth of Jesus give a grand total of 6000 years for all of history, prehistory, geology, etc. — which is awfully short given that we have human artifacts that go back further than that, not to mention fossils, geological strata, and now — apparently, the ancient spruce tree of the druids (oops, not the druids, they came later).

  • AnonaMiss

    I feel compelled to introduce you to http://fallenlondon.storynexus.com , a browser game in which souls are, in fact, a type of currency.

  • AnonaMiss

    Let me introduce you to some of those purple mountains majesty.


  • AnonaMiss

    Hell, we’d go out of our way! Those heretic trees with their heretic ideas.

  • AnonaMiss

    The author is a Christian, as is clearly stated on his bio.

  • AnonaMiss

    lol butts

  • Daniel

    How well financed? And do they have any money left for… let’s say not quite a fanfic?

  • Soulcoins! Cryptocurrency guaranteed by GOD.

  • dpolicar
  • Alex Harman

    The Word of God

    Lyrics and melody © 1994 by Catherine Faber

    From desert cliff and mountaintop we trace the wide design,
    Strike-slip fault and overthrust and syn- and anticline…
    We gaze upon creation where erosion makes it known,
    And count the countless aeons in the banding of the stone.
    Odd, long-vanished creatures and their tracks and shells are found
    Where truth has left its sketches on the slate below the ground.
    The patient stone can speak, if we but listen when it talks.
    Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the rocks.

    There are those who name the stars, who watch the sky by night,
    Seeking out the darkest place to better see the light.
    Long ago, when torture broke the remnant of his will,
    Galileo recanted, but the Earth is moving still.
    High above the mountaintops, where only distance bars,
    The truth has left its footprints in the dust between the stars.
    We may watch and study or may shudder and deny,
    Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the sky.

    By stem and root and branch we trace, by feather, fang and fur,
    How the living things that are descend from things that were.
    The moss, the kelp, the zebrafish, the very mice and flies:
    These tiny, humble, wordless things — how shall they tell us lies?
    We are kin to beasts; no other answer can we bring.
    The truth has left its fingerprints on every living thing.
    Remember, should you have to choose between them in the strife,
    Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote life.

    And we who listen to the stars, or walk the dusty grade,
    Or break the very atoms down to see how they are made,
    Or study cells, or living things, seek truth with open hand —
    The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand.
    Deep in flower and in flesh, in star and soil and seed,
    The truth has left its living word for anyone to read.
    So turn and look where best you think the story is unfurled:
    Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the world.

    (Streaming MP3 available here.)