Thursday, December 6, 2012

News Flash: Both Science and Faith Require Nuance, Reason, and Logic

A week ago Nicholas Wade, New York Times science writer, published an op-ed on science and religion, and a week ago the blogosphere lit up. There's a lot to write about in just that, because the atheist reaction to Wade's "accommodationism" surprised me. I merely found Wade's op-ed boring, occasionally wrong, and historically inaccurate, but ultimately inoffensive: on some fronts at least he was trying. Kind of like E.O. Wilson at times. I just didn't see it as something for people to get worked up about. But worked up people did get, leading to a long letters to the editor section in yesterday's Times, reproduced on the Why Evolution is True blog as "A bunch of us go after Nicholas Wade" (what do you call a witch hunt for people who don't believe in witches?).

Jerry Coyne was the first to "go after Nicholas Wade" by pointing out BioLogos:

"Organizations like BioLogos, founded by National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, have spent many years and much money trying to turn Christian creationists toward evolution by “respecting their faith”. It hasn’t worked."

Never mind that BioLogos has only existed for half a decade or so now. People haven't changed their minds on a complex issue that rarely directly impacts them after five years of an organization's existence (BioLogos is just running their first big RFE now, in fact!). Time to throw in the towel on dialogue, then.

But it was really this sentence of Coyne's that caught my eye, pithily put but problematic:

"Teaching that the book of Genesis is a metaphor, as Wade suggests, is anathema to fundamentalists since it implies that Jesus died for a metaphor—the original sin of a nonexistent Adam and Eve."

Coyne is certainly right in that some unreflective fundamentalists say this. But repeating it (unreflectively) as applicable to all Christians, even all fundamentalists, is the strawiest of straw men. It's the "Lowest Common Denominator" argument: scrub away all nuance from the argument and then attack the others for believing something without nuance. It's the mirror image of the fundamentalist attacking the evolutionist because single nucleotide changes can't add up to make a flagellum. The evolutionist might even agree with that way of putting it, but it's the other ways of changing DNA that might be true. (In this case, changes larger than single nucleotide changes, for example.)

If Coyne wants fundamentalists to adopt nuance beyond the arguments of intelligent design then he himself needs to adopt nuance toward theology. But I don't blame him for this lack of nuance, because the church itself has slipped into a materialist interpretation of original sin, a medieval-style thought in which something must physically soil the atoms passed down from father to son. Then Jesus' redemption would be some kind of physical actions that scrubbed the soul-atom clean, some kind of cleansing enzyme (in his blood?). If you think about it enough it doesn't totally make sense, whether you're fundamentalist or atheist.

There's also the matter of history. There's no evidence that Jesus would have thought of original sin this way. Paul has some verses that were interpreted by Augustine a certain too-material way, perhaps, which blossomed into the medieval-substance way of looking at sin. The church needs to do a lot of thinking about what this means, and has done too much "coasting" on what Augustine thought, with subtle tweaks that have degenerated the doctrine of original sin through the years into the medieval-substance way of looking at it that Coyne thinks is our only option.

It comes down to what Jesus died for. If we reduce it to some sort of heavenly transaction that reverses Adam and Eve's bad choice, only, then maybe Coyne has a point. But nothing in Christianity is heavenly only. Jesus died to show us how to make choices now that will affect the future, not just to reverse some event in the distant past. If Jesus' death means anything, it means that change and redemption can come now. If Jesus can change people now and put together a community that is different from the world in a qualitative way, we must start from that, and then we can worry about exactly what Adam and Eve were and what the nature of Original Sin is.

Of course, that paragraph itself is without nuance. We're never going to perfect the present, and it's fine to think about the past. But this one-track-mind-focus on Adam and Eve is clearly missing the point of what Jesus did and continues to do. I'm just frustrated with the lack of nuance. The intricacies of theology are just as fascinating (and as dependent on logic) as the intricacies of science, and I'm tired of people selling one or the other short. I'm as fascinated by the question of "What is original sin?" as I am by the question of "How was life formed?". We need nuance all around. (Isn't that what the Beatles sang -- "all you need is nuance"? No?)

Coyne closes with "Reconciliation doesn’t change minds; reason and logic do." For the record, I disagree that reconciliation is useless -- in fact, reconciliation is one of those Things That Jesus Died For, possible more than original sin, if you read all of Paul. But beyond that, I'm agreeing with the second half of the statement and am asking for reason and logic. I'm just asking that the reason and logic be applied theologically to the doctrine of original sin as well, by the church first and then by its critics.

Whatever the answers are, I can tell you that they'll be complex enough that it will take more than five years for an originization like BioLogos to even raise them, much less answer them. Let's leave Nicholas Wade alone for daring to propose something, even wrong-headed as it may be, because talking this out is the only way we're going to get anywhere.

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