Saturday, February 21, 2015

Creation doesn't have to be different

In discussing creationism, intelligent design theory, and related issues on blog threads and also in some of my scholarly reading (I think I caught a whiff of it in Paul Helm's otherwise very good book on God and time), I have come to the surprising conclusion that too many people think that anything that God does that goes by the name of "creation" has to be different from all other miracles. In particular, there seems to be a pervasive, though sometimes vague, idea that anything called "creation" is subject to some sort of special restrictions, that God always will do it in a certain way or a certain restricted set of ways. (This article, though I haven't read it all, looks like a pretty classic example of the problem.)

For example, sometimes creation is restricted to ex nihilo creation, with the implication being that God creates only ex nihilo and never uses pre-existing materials. Why? Call me naive, but I don't find anywhere in Scripture that this is asserted. To the contrary, Scripture expressly states that God formed Adam out of the dust of the ground and formed Eve from Adam's rib.

Maybe that isn't intended to be literal; maybe it is. But prima facie it would seem to argue against any hard and fast prohibition on God's making things in the physical world using pre-existing materials. Scripture, at least, is not at the slightest pains to guard against the alleged mistake of thinking that God would ever create something using pre-existing materials.

Sometimes "creation" is connected with Providence or the continual sustaining of the world plus ex nihilo creation. Nothing else. So, using this set, we can refer to God's making the cosmos out of nothing at the first moment as "creation," and we can refer to God's continual (but invisible), intimate providential connection with the world (whether we are concurrentists, occasionalists, preservationists, or what-not) as "creation."

But the one sort of thing we can't call "creation" is God's forming man out of the dust of the ground! In fact, we have to express a lot of puzzlement about what in the world Scripture could possibly mean by such expressions. Maybe they mean God's invisibly guiding evolution so it looks like man came into existence by natural processes from ape-like ancestors, and then God's silently "ensouling" a pair of ape-like ancestors. Maybe that's what the passage is referring to. But not a situation in which first there's no man there, and then suddenly a man there, sleeping on the ground. That would be so...crude. So the one thing, on this view, that we aren't supposed to think creation could ever look like is what all those Christians through all those centuries very likely thought creation looked like--creatures appearing suddenly on the earth that weren't there before, by miracle, by the word of the Lord.

The first Word is impressive, and we can write theological treatises about it. Light coming out of darkness has all sorts of symbolic meaning. Divine Providence is mysterious and theological. God's just making critters pop into existence is...something we don't want to be associated with anymore. Because reasons.

Funny. Jesus doesn't seem to have been bothered by that sort of worry. He made bread and fish pop into existence out of his hands to feed five thousand people. For real. He made wine (from pre-existing water, no less) where there was no wine before. Poof, voila! Bam! And God made manna appear all over the sands of the desert for His people, morning after morning. (But not on Saturdays.) How crude. Did God make the manna? Should we not even say that God created the manna in some important sense? Why not?

Do I know absolutely and for a fact that no species emerged on this earth by some kind of subtly God-guided semi-evolutionary process? No, I don't know that absolutely for a fact, though I have my layman's scientific doubts as to how widespread any such evolutionary origin of species was.

But there is a gigantic difference between saying that God could have brought species into existence by subtly guided processes and saying that God had to or definitely would have done so only by such subtle processes. Those pushing against Intelligent Design theory constantly conflate these two. One will get a little lecture on how theistic evolution is "compatible" with Christian doctrine, when the real question at issue is whether it is required by some theological considerations, as though all Christians should have believed in naturalistic-looking theistic evolution for almost two thousand years before Darwin was born!

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever, theologically speaking, to think that God wouldn't create creatures on this earth in a sudden way, at different times, miraculously, just like any other miracle, sometimes using some pre-existing matter, sometimes not. There is precisely zero theological restriction that militates against the "crudest" sort of creationism. God could have had this beautiful world all put together as a habitat, with fish in the sea, birds in the air, and other critters wandering about, and then a bunch of dust could have started agitating and bubbling and, when it settled, Adam could have been lying there, miraculously brought into being. And some of the very same atoms that were previously part of the dust could have been incorporated into Adam's physical body by this sudden miracle. And that might have been how God made man. Why not? Theologically speaking, no reason whatsoever. None.

Let me add that this has absolutely nothing to do with a belief in Divine timelessness. That doesn't constrain our options here. A Boethian (one who believes that God is timeless) nonetheless believes that. in terms of human history, there are miracles that happen at particular times. The parting of the Red Sea occurred long after the near-sacrifice of Isaac but long before David's reign, etc. Any view of Divine timelessness that can accommodate all the jillion miracles at different times in the Bible has no extra problem accommodating biological special creation!

The same is true of the doctrine of divine simplicity. If you believe in divine simplicity, this cannot exclude the performance of particular miracles at particular points in time, or you cannot be an orthodox Christian. But if the doctrine of divine simplicity can accommodate manna in the wilderness, water from the rock, and the burning bush (and it'd better be able to), then there is no reason in the world why it cannot accommodate God's making Adam, or hippos, or any other new species, suddenly and miraculously. It is also fairly ridiculous to refuse to call such making "creation," but if you have some sort of weird terminological scruples about calling anything "creation" after the Big Bang, then call it "making." So maybe God made hippos, Adam, and many other things subsequent to the Big Bang. If your doctrine of divine simplicity can't handle that possibility, then you have much bigger problems than intelligent design theory! Much, much bigger. In fact, you've locked yourself into a kind of deism.

I cannot help thinking that everything I have said here would have been perfectly obvious to any educated priest, orthodox clergyman, or layman in the year 1799. I think such Christians would have been completely puzzled at the suggestion that the appearance of the species had to be or had to appear non-miraculous. They would have been astonished at restrictions on divine methods of creation and by confusion over what it could or might mean for God to create man and animals.

So I submit that such confusion is self-evidently the product of a post-Darwinian sensibility. Because people think that Science has told us that all the creatures, including man, appeared to come into existence by natural processes, theology has tagged along and muddied the waters by setting "creation" aside from all the other special, powerful acts of God with which we are familiar from our Bible stories.

Now that neo-Darwinism is coming unraveled at the seams, scientifically speaking, it is sad to see Christians stranded on a theological island and unable to find their way back, finding it incredibly hard even to consider that the creation of creatures and man might just have looked like lots of other miracles look.

I submit that, ironically, we are going to close ourselves to scientific evidence if we take such a pointlessly restrictive theological approach. Christians should not be greeting evidence for God's direct working in creation in the past to bring new types of creatures into being with theological suspicion on the grounds that we wouldn't want to think of God as "a magician with a magic wand" (translation--a God who intervenes). You never know; maybe intervention is pretty much what it looked like. It's what a lot of other miracles looked like. So I suggest that we should eliminate any a priori theological dichotomy between creation and miracles more generally considered and then see, with an unbiased eye, what the evidence points to.

Update: I almost forgot to include this. V.J. Torley has an extensive take-down of Tkacz (whose article I have linked in the first paragraph of this post). If you like take-downs so extensive that there is nothing left but dust at the end (out of which God could create a man), you will love this material by Torley. I couldn't possibly have read it all, but what I have read is devastating. Here is a link to part of it. My favorite part, though, so beautiful that it almost brought tears to my eyes (yes, I have written a fan note to Torley telling him this) was this section, where Torley shows fifteen (!!) places where Tkacz contradicts St. Thomas Aquinas while claiming to speak for Aquinas.

Friday, February 13, 2015

How can I fail when I am nothing?

She was indeed troubled just now. The blessing she had always wanted was to be herself a blessing, but [her patient] Joe Diggar had died. It was true he had died peacefully, with no distress,...but still he had died, and she was disturbed by her own failure to heal him. Was her power to bless leaving her? Parson Hawthyn, when she had sympathized with the failure of his [prayer] vigil in the church [for Joe], had replied tartly, "Failure? How can I fail when I am nothing? There is but one power that is our own, Froniga, the power to offer the emptiness that we are, and we make idols of ourselves if we think we are the only instruments of salvation ready to God's hand."
Elizabeth Goudge, The White Witch, pp. 160-161.

Occasionally Goudge makes, through her characters, the most astonishing pronouncements, all the more shocking because she means them literally. Here she is saying that the only way we can be used by God is if we offer ourselves to God as empty, to be filled and then used by God, This is very difficult to understand, because at the same time, if we are honest, we usually believe that we have at least some natural gifts. Given to us by God, to be sure, but still there, still real, part of ourselves. Are we not offering God those powers? Are not those powers, those talents, those gifts, our own to use in God's service? How then can it be true that the only power that is our own is to offer our emptiness?

I think both are true. It is true that God has given most of us some visible gifts and abilities that can be used for Him. To some He seems to have given more than to others. But the Bible repeatedly warns us of the danger of taking pride in these: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass and tinkling symbol." "My speech...was not with enticing words of man's wisdom...that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." "God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Christ."

So we must constantly be making a double movement. On the one hand, we are bound to hone our skills, whatever they might be, and thus to offer them as the best possible instruments to be used for God's glory. But on the other hand, we are bound constantly to turn away from selfish pride and to recognize that God can and often does use ministries that appear unworthy to accomplish His ends.

Is there someone for whose salvation you are praying? It may be that God will bring that person to Himself through someone else, someone whose arguments seem less than ideal, someone who has not striven in prayer for that soul's salvation as you have. But in the end, what matters is the soul's salvation.

"There is but one power that is our own,...the power to offer the emptiness that we are, and we make idols of ourselves if we think we are the only instruments of salvation ready to God's hand."

Monday, February 02, 2015

Remarkable comments from Christian-Jewish Holocaust survivor

Anita Dittman was born to a Jewish mother and a Gentile father in pre-Hitler Germany. It appears that her parents divorced when she was young. Her mother, sister, and she converted to Christianity when she was a child under the influence of a local (I surmise Lutheran) pastor. Her sister escaped Germany before the Holocaust, but when Anita was a teenager she and her mother were rounded up for their Jewish ethnicity and sent to the camps separately. Anita has a story which sounds quite remarkable (as Holocaust survivor stories tend to be) about how she and her mother survived and were eventually reunited.

For many years Anita Dittman has told her story in U.S. public schools, but recently the schools are refusing to let her speak because she insists on discussing her Christianity, which helped her through the horrors of what she experienced and helped her to forgive her captors.

One school administrator at a high school in northern Minnesota contacted her with an invitation to speak, saying she came highly recommended by some students who had heard her speak previously.
"I called him back and left a message and said I would be honored. Just let me know the date and time, and I will be there,” Dittman said.
"I said, I have to tell you, though, that Christ is in my message.”
“Well can’t you leave Christ out of it?” the man asked.
“He is the one who kept me safe. I can’t keep Him out,” Dittman responded.
“Well, I’m sorry then. You can’t come,” he said.
Many other doors have closed at the mention of the “C” word.
Says Dittman, “It’s getting worse, I tell you....It’s so dictating to the parents now. This is how it started in Russia and Germany.”

Dittman is concerned about the direction things are going in the West. She was asked

what, if anything, Christians should be doing to prepare for the day when the “soft” persecution becomes hard, like it did in Germany.
"The importance of faith in God would be the one thing, and the courage to speak up,” she said. “I tell some of my students I speak to, even in secular schools, keep the faith. You can lose your homes, your schools, everything, but if you have your faith, you have everything.”
“Pray to God that when the times come, He will be with you and will see you through. Also memorize scripture because you may not always have a Bible,” she said. “I lost my Bible during the Russian occupation, but God will remind you of the verses you need when you are in a situation where you are totally dependent on Him and your life is in danger.”
This is important to think about. It may seem unlikely that Christians will literally be herded into camps, but think about a child like Domenic Johannson, who was seized from his parents in Sweden and may well remain separated from them until he is an adult. (Will Sweden allow him to be reunited with his parents then?) Children in the West can be taken from their parents for ideological reasons and placed into the care of foster parents and other state social agents who are deliberately trying to counteract the worldview with which they were raised. In this context, having Scripture memorized could be extremely important.

I would like to read Dittman's whole story. For now, I am just digesting the sobering fact that America has changed so drastically that she cannot tell it in many schools because of the aggressive anti-Christianity of those schools. And people wonder why parents wouldn't want to send their children to public schools. Sometimes, it's hard to know where to start to answer the question.