Posts Tagged ‘creation’

Making Stuff Up

May 13, 2015

For the last six weeks I have been writing fiction Monday through Friday. It’s what I’ve wanted most to do since I was in the third grade. I love fiction, and I believe in the power of fiction. In my mostly-journalistic career I’ve managed to carve out time to write five novels; this will be my sixth. None of my novels has been anything like commercially successful, but what does that have to do with anything? I have the freedom to write fiction, and that’s what I’m doing.

I have to report, though, that fiction is much harder to write than non-fiction. I’ve written enough fiction that the techniques are not a mystery. I’m not floundering as I sometimes did in earlier novels. It’s just hard—hard every minute and every day. The reason can be expressed very simply: you have to make things up. You start with nothing. Every day you begin with a blank screen, and you try your best to breathe life into words so that people—real, three-dimensional people—walk and talk through your pages. So that real things of consequence go on. So that relationships develop and change. So that life is lived on the page.

It’s so much harder than non-fiction I can’t even put them under the same heading of “writing.” I know how to write. I’m a good writer. I am not sure I know how to create out of nothing. I’m trying, but I teeter on the edge hour by hour and often fall off.

All this to say: when you read the first words of Genesis, where it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” understand that this is a stupendous statement. A novel is a shadow of reality; God created reality. From nothing.

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Regarding polls on evolution and creation

June 13, 2014

Deborah Haarmsma of Biologos has an elegant post on recent Gallup polling of people’s views on evolution and creation. While the poll suggests that factions supporting young earth creationism and atheistic evolution are stable and unyielding, when you break the questions down with more detail you find a far more nuanced situation. Worth reading if you are interested in these questions, regardless of your point of view.

The Adam Quest

December 16, 2013

Two weeks ago one of the scientists I profile in The Adam Quest, Mary Schweitzer, was featured in The Economist Magazine. Here’s the article. Do you know how rare it is for any scientist to get this kind of recognition? She’s certainly on top of the world in paleontology. And her research is really full of surprises! Very interesting stuff.

So is her life’s story, which I tell in The Adam Quest. She was a housewife raising three kids when she decided to take some courses at Montana State for personal enrichment. She took a class on dinosaurs because she remembered being interested in them as a child. (She was also a Young Earth Creationist who believed that the earth, and thus dinosaurs, were only a few thousand years old. And she had never taken science classes, because they were too hard.)

Mary’s story may be the most interesting and surprising of the scientists whom I profile, but they really are all quite fascinating people.  The theory behind the book is that it’s much harder to demonize people whom you get to know. It certainly worked that way for me.

The book comes out in two weeks. It features profiles of eleven scientists who are Christians and involved in creation-evolution discussions. They are all (or have been) working scientists, defined as science PhDs who have published papers in peer-reviewed journals. They come from different points of view regarding the age of the earth and whether God used evolutionary means to create. I think you’ll find it a very interesting read. Some of my pre-pub readers told me they couldn’t put it down.

Creation or Evolution?

September 13, 2011

I’ve just finished a book I’d highly recommend: Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? by Denis Alexander. Alexander is a biochemist heading the Faraday Institute at Cambridge. I interviewed him back in July, somewhat embarrassed that I had only read bits of his writing. (But not embarrassed enough to skip the interview.)

He writes as an unapologetic evangelical with a robust view of the sovereignty of God, and as a convinced (and practicing) evolutionist. He begins with a strong statement of God the creator, a view from Scripture. Then he gives a careful and thorough layman’s explanation of genetics and how an evolutionary biologist sees the genome evolving over millions of years. It’s a serious treatment, which stretched me considerably. (I’m sure a biologist would find it mundane.) It helped me understand to some degree the complex knowledge that binds together evolutionary theory with a thousand strands; and it also helped me comprehend to some degree the plausibility of the theory. The creativity is in the details, and what seems impossible in the large (the self-assembling 747) begins to look quite realistic in the small.

I can’t begin to convey what he says. You have to read it for yourself.

I was struck by the level of detail that scientists have already drawn from genomic studies, only a few decades after we first grasped what DNA is. One small example: approximately 1,000 genes have been detected enabling a mammal’s sense of smell. All or nearly all of these can be found in human DNA (which is largely identical to any other mammal’s) but 60% have been “switched off” by mutations. They are there as genetic fossils. By contrast, mice have “switched off” only 20%. Eighty percent of their smelling genes remain functional, which is why mice smell so much better than we do. One presumes that humans are not nearly so dependent on smell for survival, so our mutations have piled up. For mice, poor senses of smell get weeded out.

One might possibly explain these facts by other theories, but evolution surely is an excellent fit. And there are many, many, many such particular examples.

Alexander goes on to cover everything that somebody worried about evolution and creation could be interested in. He is a thoughtful and careful student of Scripture, and it shows in his thorough treatment of Genesis and other important texts. He takes up Adam and Eve, the Fall, questions about God’s responsibility for natural evil (the tooth and claw critique of creation), and the biblical understanding of death. He critiques Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Some of this is undoubtedly subject to counter-critique. Alexander obviously is extremely knowledgeable on multiple fronts, and he is generally charitable. (Not so much in his criticisms of ID.) But a detailed argument will always be answered, and for lay people like me it is hard to assess the quality of the arguments.

What I particularly like is the foundation of Alexander’s thinking: that God made the universe, and the task of science is to figure out how. He takes Christian delight in his conviction that his own and others’ scientific work has revealed a great deal of the magnificent “how” of God’s work. But in his chapter on the origins of life—i.e., the first cell—he is not bothered in the least by the admission of ignorance, that “at present we have very little idea as to where the DNA does come from.”

“I would like to suggest that theologically it doesn’t matter two hoots whether we ever manage to understand the origins of life scientifically or not. The simple reason is that God’s work in creation is not dependent upon whether we understand it or not.”

In that chapter he gives a great deal of information about the state of research into the origins of life. Alexander obviously does think that eventually, maybe in fifty years, scientists will be able to offer a credible story of how God brought life into being. But he doesn’t think for a moment the story will reveal “blind, materialistic, naturalistic forces” at work.

“These are God’s chemicals, God’s materials, that are being talked about here. A mystery bigger than the origin of life is why Christians should ascribe pagan-sounding characteristics to God’s world. Is this God’s world or isn’t it? … To confidently proclaim that the precious materials God has so carefully brought into being in the dying moments of exploding stars do not have the potentiality to bring about life, seems to me… insulting [to God]. Christianity, in a sense, is a very materialistic religion. We believe that all the materials of the universe without exception are God’s materials. ‘Who are you, oh man’, to tell God what potentialities are or are not built into his materials? All we’ll ever come up with anyway, if ever, is a detailed step-by-step description as to how God did it.”

That seems to be a very strong idea of God’s creation and of science’s role in exploring it.

Where Is God in the Evolutionary Story?

May 12, 2010

This is the second of a series on John Haught’s Deeper Than Darwin.

John Haught is not a biblical Christian. He reads nature and not the Bible to understand God, and so his conclusions will seem vague and sometimes wrong-headed to a Christian who trusts Scripture.

Nonetheless, as Scripture indicates, the created world does tell much about God. Haught is right to ask what our increased knowledge of that world tells about his nature. Centuries of human devotion to science must surely speak to theology. How could it be otherwise?

As I have mentioned, Haught fully accepts evolutionary biology. Evolution, he says, shows that reality is a story. The cosmos is not a steady state, but rather a changing and developing reality.  Adding to biology the discoveries of astrophysics beginning (literally) with the Big Bang, you gain a robust vision of the universe that is not what it once was, and will not be tomorrow what it is today. It is a tale in the making. Nothingness became particles and energy became stars and planets (and many other things), became life, became conscious life studying itself, creating art and worshiping God. And we are not done yet. We do not know what we will become.

This new knowledge should change our ideas about God, Haught says. Classical theology placed much emphasis on his unchangeable and timeless being (perhaps more a product of philosophy than Bible), and on his creativity making something out of nothing (light, darkness, land, sea, fish, plants, cattle, humans). These emphases seem to place us in a world that doesn’t change—because our God does not change, and his creativity is finished.

If we see reality as a story instead of a static world, we are led to think differently of God—as one whose creativity is ongoing. He is not the Deist God, setting everything into motion in perfect harmony, like an engineer creating a perfect world. He is a God of Promise, drawing us toward the future where he waits for us to arrive. “Biological evolution challenges theology to extend the sense of divine promise beyond the aspirations of Israel and the churches, beyond our human concern for the final outcome of human history out into the universe itself.” [Deeper than Darwin, 81]

Further, if evolution tells the story accurately, he is a God of freedom, for he has enabled the created order to find its own path to the future. “Isn’t it a tribute to God that the world is not just passive putty in the Creator’s hands, but instead an inherently active and self-creating process, one that can evolve and produce new life on its own?” [Deeper, 57] Haught says that God has allowed the world freedom to become itself. “Nature’s contingencies and evolution’s randomness are not indicative of a divine impotence, but of a God caring and self-effacing enough to wait for the genuine emergence of what is truly other than God, with all the risk, tragedy and adventure this patience entails.” [81] “Such a picture of God’s hiddenness and vulnerability may seem to be ‘foolishness’ in comparison with our conventional sense of divine power and wisdom.” [82]

At the same time, Haught recognizes that only a particular kind of universe produces such a story. Many people have written about the so-called cosmological principle—the observation that a great many physical constants have to be very precisely what they are in order for life to be possible. Haught adds what he calls a “narrative cosmological principle” [61].  A universe that produces the story of life—that evolves—must have three fundamental qualities: it must have stability, so that changes can be preserved; it must have novelty, so that innovations can enter the system, and it must have deep, deep time so that tiny random changes can be sifted into progress. “It is only because nature is already composed of the stuff of narrative that the evolution of life can occur at all.” [61] John Polkinghorne has made similar observations—that evolutionary theorists’ emphasis on purposeless and random change neglects to mention the very precise physical context within which those changes can amount to evolution.

Of course, this puts us back into a world that has God’s fingerprints on it.

One may complain that Haught’s vision of God is vague. A God of freedom, of unceasing creativity, of promise—that sounds good, but what exactly can we expect of such a God? Haught would accept that he is vague. He thinks religion must be vague, because it tries to express an infinite depth that is beyond our understanding.

To be fair, vagueness is probably all anyone can expect from the revelation of nature. Yet, Paul wrote, it is concrete enough for us to be held responsible for our response to it. (Romans 1:20,21)

I think the biggest reason Christians stumble over evolution is that they can’t see where God would fit. Evolutionary biology is a mechanical and statistical vision. Is it possible to imagine God’s presence in it?

Haught demonstrates that evolution does not obliterate the possibility of God, pace Dawkins and his allies. Rather, it stimulates fresh ideas about God’s nature as we observe how he goes about his work. These are certainly not anti-biblical ideas. There is plenty in the Bible that we might use to refine and extend them.

Next: the sociobiologists’ explanation of religion.

Evolution—Part 4 on John Polkinghorne

January 5, 2010

As a physicist, John Polkinghorne doesn’t pretend to know too much about evolution. From the vantage point of physics, however, he is able to offer some helpful perspectives.

Polkinghorne accepts evolution. As a scientist he finds no difficulty with a material explanation of God’s creation of life. After all, God holds the planets in place through gravity. He makes light through a nuclear explosion. Why should he not, if he likes, create life through “the shuffling explorations of possibility, which we choose to call ‘chance.’“ [Beyond Science, 77] On the contrary, if evolution is the way in which God created the diversity of life, then Polkinghorne looks for ways in which evolution illuminates God’s work and ultimately God himself.

Evolution suggests a God working less like an engineer, designing a blueprint of the giraffe’s neck from the beginning, than a creator using materials and processes that are naturally fruitful. He is more a gardener than an architect. He does sculpture with wind and water, rather than steel. God’s creation is dynamic. It tends, over vast stretches of time, to extend itself into ever-greater articulation, variety and beauty. Does this vision of God diminish his power and majesty? Not according to Polkinghorne.

On the other hand, Polkinghorne knows that scientists are apt to get carried away with the overarching significance of their discoveries—to overinflate their universality. Thus, physicists after Newton were convinced that they understood precisely how matter moved and interacted. In theory, if they had perfect information about every atom in the universe, they could perfectly predict everything that would happen.  In the broader culture Newton’s discoveries resulted in a materialistic chauvinism, likening the universe to a watch. Fate worked like clockwork, and human freedom was an illusion. This is the “modernism” that “postmodernism” put post to.

More than 200 years passed before physicists realized that Newton had not understood everything—that the clock of the universe was in fact a very odd timepiece. We cannot conceptualize how it works at all. We can only describe it using very advanced mathematical equations. Its gears operate by probability, not linear necessity. The rationalistic modernism of western civilization began to unravel at about the same time that Newton’s physics did.

Polkinghorne gently suggests that the great discoveries of biology in the past 150 years—and he agrees they are great—may be exaggerated in a similar way. Thus Richard Dawkins, an outstanding biologist, becomes convinced that his understanding of genetic destiny has triumphed over the shallow insights of non-biologists in philosophy and cosmology.

Polkinghorne thinks that evolution explains a lot, uncovering “an astonishing drive to fruitfulness” in the world God has made. Polkinghorne does not, however, think that evolution tells the whole story. For one thing, it struggles to explain phenomena like consciousness, beauty, ethics, literature, art, religion, and science. Survival does not seem enhanced by any of these. Evolutionists may attribute them to accidental impulses left over from some primitive survival tactic, but that hardly seems like an adequate explanation for Van Gogh. “Darwinian ideas provide partial insight into the developing history of a fruitful world but it is certainly not known that they tell the whole story.” [Beyond Science, 79] Just as quantum physics ultimately provided a much subtler account of matter and energy, so some future understanding may enhance what we have learned about biological life through evolution.

However, Polkinghorne does not make too much of that future possibility. He is more interested in understanding the meaning of what we already know. Taking evolution just as we presently understand it today, Polkinghorne makes the point that evolution is not simply the story of chance. It is the story of chance operating within the laws of physical necessity. That necessity is astonishingly finely tuned.

“You cannot, if you want to fulfill the role of Creator, simply bring into being more or less any old world and just wait a few billion years for something interesting to happen…. The interplay of chance and necessity requires the necessity to have a very special form if anything worthy (by our standards) to be called ‘life’ is to emerge. It is this surprising conclusion that has been called the Anthropic Principle.” [Beyond Science, 81]

You can let “chance” whack the balls on a billiard table for a very long time, and you will never get anything interesting. It requires some very special conditions for those billiard balls to start spelling out words.

In my next post, I’ll go into more detail.

Two Stories of Creation

September 15, 2009

Most evangelical Christians reject evolution because they believe in the Bible, and they don’t see how the story of evolution is compatible with the story the Bible tells. It’s not just six days versus six billion years. The stories are simply very, very different. One is the tale of how an orchestra built of random instruments finds itself playing Beethoven, without a conductor, without a score. The other story not only has a conductor, he’s the designer of the instruments, the composer of the music, and the maker of the players. In every way it’s his orchestra and his music.

In both stories, human worth lies in the privilege of playing great music. It’s nothing we did or deserve. We simply find ourselves in this amazing place. Whether we do it at the behest of the conductor, or whether we do it by the accident of random processes, it’s all grace. In that sense, the two stories do have something in common. They’re both “miraculous.” There’s a wonder to them—how could such a wonderful universe have come to exist? And how astonishing that we are aware of its wonder! But otherwise, the two stories are very different.

The question is whether two such different stories can both be true at the same time. I’m going to make the case that they can.

We see it in the most elementary forces. As a Christian I believe, as Colossians 1:17 says, that “in Christ all things hold together.” But, the scientist asks, don’t you know about gravity? Don’t you know about the electromagnetic force? Yes, I believe in those too. I believe they are the instruments through which God makes the universe cohere. I believe he has his hand on the gravitational instrument, so to speak. The two stories—one of impersonal forces, one of a personal and all-powerful God, are both true simultaneously.

What about the making of human beings? Is it true, as Psalm 139:13 puts it, that God “knit me together in my mother’s womb?” Yes, I believe that. But don’t you know about sperm and egg coming together? Are you not aware that your genetics encode most of what happens in that womb, and that genetic scientists are increasingly able to describe the process in detail—and even to interfere? Yes, I know that, and it does not trouble me in the least. I believe God, the maker of all, uses genetic processes, and even genetic medicine, to “knit together” me and every other human being.

What about disease? Is it true that God “heals all your diseases,” as Psalm 103:3 says? What about the body’s defense mechanisms—the white blood cells, for example, that rush to fight an infection? What about medical treatments that have made amazing progress with some kinds of cancer? Here too I believe God uses physical processes, and human skills, to do his work. He heals “all my diseases” through various processes that touch the body.

And now the great obstacle. Do you believe that God made the heavens and the earth, and all the creatures in the earth, as Genesis 1 announces? Yes, I believe that. But don’t you know about the evolutionary process by which creatures have evolved and new species have come into being? Yes, though it lies far outside of my competence, just like genetics and gravitation and medicine, I accept it. I believe God used an evolutionary process to make all the creatures, mainly because scientists who study these matters tell me it happened that way.

I don’t pretend to understand the details. I don’t know how an utterly free God can use apparently random and impersonal processes to create free people endowed with consciousness and creative power. There’s a great deal in evolution that remains mysterious, and it wouldn’t surprise me if were to remain forever mysterious. That doesn’t deter me from thinking that the two stories can both be true, since they’re apparently true in all those other examples.

I admit that I find it difficult to imagine God mixed up in physical processes. When I think of creation, my mind naturally goes to what one friend of mine calls “virgin birth creationism”—creation operating independent of natural processes. I think of God designing the universe in his mind, and then instantly making it so, out of nothing.

Of course, this has some problems. A tree created in God’s mind and “exploded” into being has tree rings, which tell the story of its life, and the weather that nurtured its life. Falsified history? And a human being has genetic codings that apparently tell the story of human populations, their migrations, their development. An imaginary tale, like the “back story” to a character in a novel?

I can’t and won’t deny the possibility of God creating instantaneously out of nothing. But it seems to me more in keeping with all I know about God that he works over time through natural processes. (In the spiritual realm, he certainly does.) If he created the whole universe and found it “very good,” then why shouldn’t part of that “goodness” be its natural fruitfulness, its tendency to continue the creation process?