Fact vs. Faith?

Yesterday, I came across the following article: Evangelicals Question the Existence of Adam and Eve, written by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.  The basic issue, as the article portrays it, is that science is presenting intellectuals who posit themselves as Christians with a blunt choice: to ignore scientific fact and believe in a literal Adam and Eve or to realize that their scriptures have been proven to be flawed regarding the origin of life. Quite a few are choosing the latter option. The article quotes a professor formerly at Calvin College: ‘”Evolution makes it pretty clear that in nature, and in the moral experience of human beings, there never was any such paradise to be lost,” [John] Schneider says. “So Christians, I think, have a challenge, have a job on their hands to reformulate some of their tradition about human beginnings.”’

This article slants in the direction of those who argue that Christians must change their understanding of the Bible to fit with current scientific trends. In fact, those “Christian scholars” who, like Schneider, are turning away from literal reading of the Adam and Eve narrative found in Genesis are held up as modern day Galileos. Hagerty reports that “well known theologians at Christian universities have been forced out; some see a parallel to a previous time when science conflicted with religious doctrine.” (Never mind that this is truly an exercise in comparing apples to oranges, since Galileo challenged extra-Biblical scientific thought—rooted in Greek philosophy—as opposed to challenging a foundational tenet of the Christian faith which is contained within the canonical text of the Bible.) And so the great conflict is set up: science (fact) vs. Bible (faith).

Or is it really? Reading this article in the light of the ideas and clear thinking of G.K. Chesteron’s The Everlasting Man (which I’m currently reading through) makes me wonder if this is really a case of fact encroaching upon and discrediting faith. There is much in the science of human beginnings that has more of faith than fact.  Granted, much has changed in the way of technologies since Chesterton’s day, but even so, I think that his views on such science should offer pause, if not perspective:

Science is weak about these prehistoric things in a way that has hardly been noticed.  The science whose modern marvels we all admire succeeds by incessantly adding to its data. In all practical inventions, in most natural discoveries, it can always increase evidence by experiment. But it cannot experiment in making men; or even in watching to see what the first men make. An inventor can advance step by step in the construction of an aeroplane, even if he is only experimenting with sticks and scraps of metal in his own backyard. But he cannot watch the Missing Link evolving in his own backyard.  If he has made an error in his calculations, the aeroplane will correct it by crashing to the ground. But if he has made a mistake about the arboreal habitat of his ancestor, he cannot see his arboreal ancestor falling off the tree. […] In dealing with a past that has almost entirely perished, he can only go by  evidence and not by experiment.  And there is hardly enough evidence to be even evidential. Thus while most science moves in a sort of curve, being constantly corrected by new evidence, this science flies off into space in a straight line uncorrected by anything. (p. 40)

To this statement, made in response to evolutionary statements about the factual progression of man from apes, based on skeletal fragments, it could now be answered that science has advanced, that now they are looking at genetic strains.  However, it seems that the same constraints apply: until scientists are able to watch several monkeys genetically modify into humans, testing that transformation all along, what they have are theories, not facts.  And to dogmatically state that these theories are true does not lead to the formation of a fact with which to tell Christians to “face the facts.”  It is the positing of a “modern” religion whose challenge is that of syncretism.

In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton describes the likely evidence that polytheism is the religion of “advanced” cultures rather than that of primitive peoples. Much of the polytheism of the ancient world, such as that of Rome or Greece, he argues came from the combining of individual local gods into a pantheon of gods.  Thus in the intellectual society of Greece, we see the apostle Paul encountering their collection of gods, including the unnamed god, in case they had left someone out.  These were the advanced cultures.  It was the backward, close-minded Jews who did not share their God, though they frequently were tempted to adopt others beside Him.  It is difficult not to ask rhetorically: whose beliefs stood the test of time?

The appeal to advancement, to “open minded-ness,” to liberal intellectualism went out in the ancient world, as it goes out today–and the challenge must be understood as such, though now it comes dressed as Science rather than as Baal or Zeus or the deified Roman Emperor.  The conflict is clearest at the end of the NPR article:

But others say Christians can no longer afford to ignore the evidence from the human genome and fossils just to maintain a literal view of Genesis.

“This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler. “The moment you say ‘We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,’ you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the world.”

Ultimately, as Harlow so clearly states, the decision is not between facts and a faith tradition, but of “intellectual currency or respectability,” that is, popularity. And popularity is not a fact–it’s a transient social phenomenon.

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