In the next post, I am going to talk about John Walton’s reading of Genesis, as expressed in his books The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve. I plan to also read his The Lost World of Scripture at some point. Walton’s work has been heralded as a truly innovative, groundbreaking entry in the history of Christians interpreting the Genesis story of creation. As a Christian, reading, learning, and thinking about the intersection between Christianity and the rest of knowledge (especially science and history) has been a favorite preoccupation of mine since I was a teenager. In fact, it is strongly responsible for my aspirations to become a physicist. But it is important to know where I am coming from, intellectually speaking. So before launching into the book review proper, I will go into a short account of my personal history in thinking and struggling about this issue.
Being the son of a pastor, I was raised in a devoutly religious family, with orthodox beliefs about God, religion, and morality. However, we rarely talked about the creation/evolution controversy, perhaps due to the lower prominence of scientists (especially biologists) in Indonesian society in general. This stark difference with how evolution is received in American society deserves an entire study in itself. That being said, I remember detecting tension between Genesis 1, which describes the cosmos as being created in seven days, and the various books about dinosaurs, fossils, and astrophysics that I also read voraciously. When I was 8 or 9, I remember asking my mom whether dinosaurs really existed. She simply answered, “They must have made a mistake about the dinosaur fossils, just like they made a mistake about the monkeys.” I left it at that for the time.
So, for some time I did believe in Genesis 1-3 as a strictly literal account of how the cosmos began. That was, after all, how I read it as a child – like listening to a trusted adult figure explain how things are made. Some people believe that manner of reading is the truest and most genuine manner there is. When I discovered the Internet, and started wrestling with questions about my personal faith and beliefs, evolution became a point of crisis. I remember trying desperately to maintain my literal understanding of Genesis, commonly termed as Young Earth Creationism (YEC). I searched for websites that supported my views, and found Answers in Genesis (AiG), which is probably the most famous organization defending YEC – they even managed to build a Creation Museum in Kentucky! I encountered that website a lot, turning to it every time I was troubled by yet another piece of evidence for evolution. I discovered the pro-evolution TalkOrigins Archive as well, and for a while I kept turning back and forth between these two websites. I also read some general Christian apologetics books that defended Intelligent Design, hearing stories of how terrible it was that many honest Christian scientists are being bullied by the scientific establishment into hiding their secret findings of the weaknesses of the theory of evolution. I vowed to myself to never become a theistic evolutionist (someone who believes both evolution and theism) as they were cowardly, hypocritical compromisers, similar to the most liberal sects of Christianity that eschewed the Bible as the inspired word of God.
But things changed. I discovered Alvin Plantinga. I discovered William Lane Craig. I discovered a host of other amazing Christian philosophers. More importantly, I read Francis Collins’ The Language of God. Collins was the director of the hugely successful Human Genome Project, and later also of the National Institutes of Health. Yet here he was, identifying as a Christian (an evangelical, no less), and proudly defending his theistic views of evolution. I became exposed to more complete accounts of cosmology and evolutionary biology. Eventually I started leaving young earth creationism. I was enthralled by the beauty of science as it has been investigated, discovered, and presented by the greatest minds of our time – and all these greatest minds believed in the Big Bang, evolution, and that the Earth was not 6,000 years old. And the Christian scientists and philosophers who powerfully defended their faith all believed in these things too.
One might say that I became a theistic evolutionist partially due to “peer pressure” and pragmatism. To be honest, there is truth in that. Everybody would like to imagine themselves as coming to their opinions on everything based on a careful process of reasoning and consideration of different views. But nobody is a rational creature. And these debates never end. I was not a biologist nor a cosmologist nor a Bible scholar, and I could always find someone on the Internet that contradicted the latest argument one side came up with. I did notice, however, that the accounts of the Universe presented by mainstream scientists were more complete, beautiful, and full of wonder. I suppose this is the sort of intellectual wonder that Joseph Schall exhorted students to seek for. In contrast, arguments by creationists and ID advocates tended to be very defensive and negative. A lot of time was devoted to pointing out flaws in the proffered evidence for evolution. They could not offer an equally compelling, satisfying account of how things came into being. They could offer Genesis 1. But Genesis 1, on its own, is simply not science as understood in the modern form of it. Saying that “God specially created humans and animals on Earth in two days” leaves us with the question of how? I have never found a detailed, purely biological proposed theory of how things would have gone if the YEC outlook was true. Was it simply a miraculous event, completely out of the reach of science forever? If that were true, that seemed like a depressingly limited outlook. Not to mention the immense amount of mental gymnastics required to reinterpret the entire corpus of evolutionary biology, cosmology, astrophysics, even history and archaeology. The creationists have a Sisyphean task ahead of them. And it seemed improbable to me that God would let all the brightest minds on Earth astray, including some of the brightest Christians.
Such is the beauty of science and knowledge. What scientists and scholars have managed to accomplished in the last few centuries is astonishing. I do not know if one can definitely say that one cannot be a creationist and a serious scientist. Belief is a much more complex question than that. But I do tend to believe that delving deeper and deeper into the intricacies of physics, math, and biology, the prospect that there are still so many things left for humans to do in science exerts a powerful, inexorable pull. So powerful, that it becomes hard to believe that God, by making the origin and development of life on Earth a purely miraculous, unexplainable event, enforced the impossibility of studying the history of His own beautiful creations.
What, then, did I do? For a while, I flirted with Old Earth Creationism, a view that accepts most mainstream cosmology, but rejects evolutionary views of the development of life on Earth. But I ultimately also found it contrived and wanting. At the end of the journey, I had fully converted to theistic evolutionism. I did not have a clear opinion about the details of various issues – such as the historicity of Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, I decided to accept virtually all of the mainstream conclusions about our historical knowledge of Earth and the cosmos. The Big Bang, followed by the billions of years of evolution of galaxies, stars, planets, and ultimately life on Earth, was not a source of doubt and crisis, but instead a fount of wonder at the power and complexity of God’s workings. If God really chose to create everything in billions of years, then no wonder that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8)! God’s concern for mankind becomes even more incredible and significant.
Now fast forward to the current day.
Today, as a physics graduate student at Harvard, if you quiz me on my views about Genesis, you might hear me say that I now tend to favor a literal interpretation of Genesis again.
Did I convert back to creationism?
The answer is no. Instead, I had read John Walton’s book, and learned something new about what a literal interpretation actually should be. That is, in a nutshell, the innovation of Walton’s views of Genesis. Stay tuned and read the next post to find out more about it!