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BLUE TWILIGHT: NATURE, CREATIONISM AND AMERICAN RELIGION

BLUE TWILIGHT: NATURE, CREATIONISM AND AMERICAN RELIGION.  By Langdon Gilkey.  Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress Press, 2001.  Pp. xii + 180.  Paper.   Revised and expanded, originally published in Pneuma: Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 25/1 (2003), pp. 134-38.

 

Forces of light and dark battle within American religion and culture in this exposé of “Young Earthism” by liberal theologian and public courtroom veteran Landon Gilkey.  Aside from perverting problem solving skills among the nation’s youth, this alarming sectarian movement is, according to Gilkey, much more than a bizarre irritation; rather, it is a veritable national threat with the potential to weaken scientific education and tremendously wound industrial and military America. 

Gilkey does not directly employ Paul’s connected ideas on nature in Rom 1:20; 8:18-23, and Paul’s concept of death and sin (at Rom 5:12) is taken too lightly in the potential context of the observable  pre-Adamic creational timeline, but, to his credit, Gilkey recognizes blatant pseudoscience when he sees it.  When “Young Earthism” devotees (detailed by Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), under their confrontational mantra of “True Science and Education,” attack naturalistic science as supposedly atheistic and ungodly and seek to establish a theocracy instead of a democracy wherein freedom of religion can flourish, Gilkey is unabashed to describe this sectarian dogma for what it really is: a perversion of the Gospel and a recipe for national self-destruction.  Gilkey calls attention to the paradox of how a “Young Earthism” understanding of nature (wherein the entire cosmos of one hundred billion galaxies develops in only a few thousand human years, wherein humankind fraternize with dinosaurs, and where unobserved short-term macroevolution supposedly occurs after a worldwide flood) can flourish within a culture which is based throughout on scientific technology. 

If we are to be spared this fanatical expression of Christianity from the Evangelical Right with its denial of the experimental findings of modern science in the name of supposedly religious truths, then we must be courageous for the good of the country.  We are a nation in peril, given that absolutist biblical “interpretation” fanatically wedded to absolutist politics and the replacement of experimentally based scientific methodology by philosophical speculation and by religious doctrine in the teaching of the natural sciences, social science, and history is the declared theocratic intention of “Young Earthism.”  

Gilkey calls upon some reflections by Niebuhr on patriotism and Tillich on concern for truth to bolster his argument, countering Barth’s view of natural theology that nature provided little of theological interest with the point that our experience with nature (experimental scientific findings) reveals the immense and unlimited power of God, as well as His wisdom and glory.  With Schleiermacher, Gilkey believes that theology has limitations set by experience with God’s spiritual presence and activity and should not go too far beyond its area of expertise, particularly in a dogmatic manner. 

In the area of evaluating Christian experience in this current ‘Era of the Glimpse of God’ ushered in by the discovery of a cosmic beginning in 1963, all Christian people should be able to recognize an argument from the reasoned contemplation of experience as evidential (cf. my “The Globalization of Pentecostalism: A Review Article,” Trinity Journal 23 [2002], pp. 81-101 [95-97]).  Unfortunately, Christian youth who are put under the yoke of the pseudoscientific claims of “Young Earthism” may not be able to properly evaluate, appreciate, and experience for themselves the new major scientific discoveries that are supportive of the biblical testimony.   Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that all freethinking Christian people will now, unless pedagogically crippled by such an indoctrinating yoke, be able to comprehend something of the eternal power and divinity of God from their experiential contemplation of nature.  Since in the new ‘Era of the Glimpse of God’ this opportunity is being afforded to humankind more than ever before by striking new discoveries that are harmonious with reasonable interpretation of Scripture, it is of some urgency that responsible Christian leadership critically assess the hermeneutical credibility of “Young Earthism” interpretive claims, which appear to many as deeply unbiblical.

Also, it is certainly not uninteresting that the dogmatic excision and erasure of selected observable events from physical reality in the supposedly ‘biblical’ version of Christianity espoused by “Young Earthism” has parallel roots in the same closed-minded dispensational mindset that, as a matter of ‘fundamentals,’ historically disconnected the ongoing ministry of the heavenly Jesus and the Holy Spirit from the teaching of the earthly Jesus in New Testament texts via the imposition of cessationism.  The dogmatic excision and selected erasure of unwanted spiritual enablements, supposedly confined to an “apostolic age,” stemmed from the same paleoreformed mindset (detailed by Jon Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles [JPTSup 3; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993]).  This mindset adopted rationalistic claims of the Reformers that were made for contemporary political reasons, claims that were never defended by the Reformers as being “biblical,” thus forging a cessationistic method of interpretation.  Philosophical speculation trumped exegesis when necessary, texts so twisted were incorporated into a rational rock, and Christian experience became relegated to suspicion.  Also, the subsequent quick and dogmatic defense of the ensuing positions in Protestant cessationism and again now in the physical cessationism of “Young Earthism,” shallow interpretive positions highly touted as being ‘fundamental’ and ‘biblical,’ is indeed remarkably similar in both instances. 

Historically too, evangelistic Christians in the Pentecostal Reformation and in the Charismatic Renewal, who now constitute the largest sector of world Christendom aside from Roman Catholicism and who disagreed with the aforementioned paleocalvinistic cessationism, may now recall how they were formerly dubbed as “the last vomit of Satan.”  So there is no doubt great hope for those embattled pioneers, who currently challenge the physical cessationism propagated by the same paleoreformed mindset, although these pioneers are also subjected to, for now, the equally uncharitable sobriquet of “compromiser.”  

Surely attention should be dutifully paid to attempting to correct “Young Earthism” interpretations and embellishments that are unleashed upon an unsuspecting public and supposedly support physical erasures both from cosmic and from earth history.  Such improbable interpretations and/or reinterpretations need to be questioned.  In this battle for the minds of Christian young people it may be wise to keep uppermost in mind that this militant version of physical cessationism we face today was never really ‘biblical’ in origin in the first place.  However, like the narratively disconnected and rhetorically incoherent cesssationisms imposed upon New Testament texts that preceded it within Protestantism, “Young Earthism” too resulted from initial position-protecting political motivation, indeed “To understand twentieth-century creationism, little knowledge of formal science and philosophy is necessary; familiarity with the Byzantine world of popular religion is essential” (Numbers, Creationists, p. 337).

Although Gilkey seems unable to distinguish between a contextually insensitive literal and a contextual literary reading of the Genesis creation narrative where the Genesis ‘day’ would be best appreciated by contemporary Sabbath-keeping readers to be a deliberately ambiguous temporal period, his strong suit is his ability to penetrate the subterfuge and dissembling of “Young Earthism” tactics wherein the methods of science are deliberately misrepresented to the public by a radically oppressive theology.  Gilkey thoughtfully reflects upon the ‘physical cessationism’ that is dangerous to the public  -  evidence for the beginning of the universe is denied, evidence for the Big Bang of Biology or the Cambrian explosion of life forms is denied, evidence for a creational timeline and the abrupt appearance of the hominids is denied.  In addition, the hiddenness (Isa 45:15 in its creative context), and the invisibility that God has chosen for Himself in the present creation, features of the power and divinity of God which are compatible with these discoveries in creation, is misunderstood and overlooked.  Reminiscent of similar paleoreformed performances, things that are unwelcome are simply hand-waved away and the research necessary to substantiate quick and dogmatic public claims is superficially performed while opponents are pilloried.

It is a pity that Gilkey is unaware of the helpful attempt, probably helpful to him personally, by orthodox Jewish physicist Nathan Aviezer to illustrate the harmonious and consistent connections between modern science and the Genesis ‘days’ (cf. my “Biblical Creation and Science: A Review Article,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39/2 [1996], pp. 289-291; an effort now much advanced by the work of Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life [Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004]).  However, Gilkey does cite work by physicist John Polkinghorne who appears to accept theistic macroevolution, but perhaps without sufficient critical investigation on his part since this is not a theory that physicists generally regard as an assured experimental finding (and may think it even less so, given the recent input of Aviezer, Rana and Ross).  Nevertheless, Gilkey is more attuned to the active threat posed to American culture and to both scientific and theological education by an authoritarian rationalistic mindset incapable of admitting its own ignorance and guile, a sect whose beliefs are well characterized by the Iowa Academy of Science’s 1986 resolution on pseudoscience for the public good: “Pseudoscience is a catch-all term for any mistaken or unsupported beliefs that are cloaked in the disguise of scientific credibility.  Examples include assertions of ‘scientific creationism,’ the control of actions at a distance through meditation, and the belief in levitation, astrology, or UFO visitors.” 

Gilkey’s liberal reflection illustrates that there is no long-term value in continuing to coddle this anti-scientific sectarian movement within Evangelical and Pentecostal institutions of higher education.  The version of Christianity represented by “Young Earthism” prevents scientists from becoming Christians and Christians from becoming scientists.  It may be fairly characterized, with all due respect, as an unthoughtful and insular brand of Christianity, and it cannot really be denied, in spite of the passive stance by some senior Christian administrators, that many of its confusing untruths may well be very personally harmful to young Christians so exposed, impairing their credible witness as well.  The recent snafu involving Wheaton College and the Public Broadcasting System embarrassingly illustrated this unedifying tension in full public view when the televised program of September 27, 2001, registered its shock in understanding a faculty representative to mean that Wheaton had chosen to advance “Young Earthism” as a “possible option” or a “worthwhile consideration” at a science symposium! 

Estimates are that 50% of Wheaton’s students are exposed to or indoctrinated with “Young Earthism” before matriculation.  At Toccoa Falls College in Georgia the estimate is 80%.  However, good intentions cannot mask charlatanical results.  Beliefs in a flat earth or in a stationary earth were not biblical nor were they work products supported by an “inerrant Bible.”  Since well-verified experimental scientific findings (not scientific theories that may guide experiment) can be a useful hermeneutical tool, it is not necessary to wait several centuries to dismiss the main tenants of “Young Earthism.”  It is questionable wisdom that continues to sit on the passive stool of do-nothing, and the ethical and moral stand of the missionary minded organization, The Navigators, is certainly commendable, cf. their supportive publication of the biblically and scientifically competent effort by astronomer/pastor Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving A Creation Controversy (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004) with its three jacket recommendations by Pentecostal/Charismatics. 

Fear of political retaliation by “Young Earthism” must be met with the courage of a Copernicus or a Galileo.  Such resistance is what Gilkey is wisely advocating.  Russian Nobel Laureate in physics Andre Sakarhov’s fearless stand against communist oppression would be a very good model for resistance as well.  We cannot claim excellence in science (or in comprehensive theological education) and deny the experimental findings of modern science, which is hypocrisy; neither can we pretend that our natural theology does not affect the interaction of Christianity with the thinking public. 

Churches, colleges, universities and seminaries had better heed the wakeup call, especially the emerging educational enterprise of Pentecostalism which, with their libraries perhaps already overstocked with cessationistic Evangelical (and even Fundamentalist!) materials, are ripe for infection.  Pentecostalism has been forewarned about the debilitating affects on education by the philosophical, self-willed, and speculative methods of “Young Earthism” in papers given to the Society for Pentecostal Studies; one by the former chairperson of the science department at Lee University, Myrtle Fleming, is cited by Numbers (Creationists, p. 307).  Presidents of Christian academic institutions especially need not be timid in stepping up to the intellectual plate, taking a responsible stand.  Presidents of Pentecostal institutions which are gradually emerging as centers of Christian excellence in scientific and theological matters need to band together and take the lead, setting an example to bolster the resolve of their Evangelical counterparts whose institutions (like the two mentioned above) are already widely infected.  The short-term consideration of losing a few tuition dollars now and alienating some Evangelical clientele must be weighed against having to disgorge a poisonous pill later with even further loss of academic credibility. 

It could be helpful in this regard to recall the recent resolution of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, who issued their statement to the nation, concluding that “As a historic representative of the scientific profession and the designated advisor to the Federal Government in matters of science, the Academy states unequivocally that the tenets of ‘creation science’ are not supported by scientific teachers, and that its teaching would be contrary to the nations need for a scientifically literate citizenry and for a large, well informed pool of scientific and technical personnel… No body of beliefs that has its origin in doctrinal materials rather than scientific observation should be admissible as science… (because it) stifles the development of critical thinking patterns in the developing mind.”

Gilkey is recently joined in his battle between light and dark and his concern for national welfare by Nobel Laureate in physics Steven Weinberg, Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).  Weinberg, undoubtedly fed up with attacks upon the nation’s science by people who, despite their acquisition of some academic history, do not appear to understand science as natural inquiry, but make it up as they go along.  The “Young Earthism” of the Evangelical right has so poisoned and riled the waters that many scientists, who might normally and calmly consider a credible Christian testimony, are under the impression that Christians are gullible and mindless and bent on turning America into a scientifically ignorant theocracy based upon lies and deceit.  Even sensible arguments for intelligent design are confused with “Young Earthism” antics.  Weinberg, like science historian Numbers (Creationism, p. 337), sees “Young Earthism” as an anachronism and is quoted publicly as saying that it is easier to believe that the earth is flat than to accept many of its preposterous claims. 

Due to the urgency of the situation regarding the anti-scientific indoctrination currently victimizing the nation’s youth, and especially given the gross prejudice being wrought against Christianity and its ostensibly ignorant hermeneutical methods as illustrated by the Gospel-perverting dogma of what is really an aggressive and embarrassing sect, no theological educator or administrator, conservative, orthodox, neo-orthodox, liberal, or other, can afford to be unaware of the issues of national concern raised in Blue Twilight.

                                                                                                Paul Elbert

                                                                                                Church of God Theological Seminary

                                                                                                Cleveland, TN 37311, USA

                                                                               

                                                                           

 

 

 

 

 

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