Friday, 8 May 2009

Alister McGrath in Aberystwyth . . . and some thoughts on science and creation too!!

Apologies for the inactivity on the blogging front over the last week or so - I'm practically done with all the marking now, so I should have slightly more time to devote to the blogspot! Well the Alister McGrath lecture I advertised here a couple of weeks ago took place on Thursday. He spoke to a packed lecture theatre for about fifty minutes, and fielded some questions for about twenty minutes or half an hour or so. Characteristically, he spoke without notes for the whole lecture which was one of the most impressive features of the whole event for me; throughout his tone and manner was both generous, engaging and entirely non-confrontational, something that contrasted markedly with the often aggresive style of Richard Dawkins, with whom he engaged at some length in the lecture. Its difficult to give a full account of the lecture; if anything his title 'Darwin and the Divine' was slightly misleading since the lecture ended up being about Dawkins and the Divine - much of what he said was doubtless taken from his excellent, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (2007). Unlike most university lectures too, this one was unashamedly popular in tone, clearly intended to engage a public well beyond the ivory tower of academia!

There's much that I could comment on, but not being a scientist I'll resist the temptation to venture into those areas of the lecture that dealt primarily with biology, although I think some of McGrath's comments on the limitations of science, or the limits of the questions that science can answer was very appropriate given the hegemony that scientific thought still seems to occupy in our culture!

For me the most intriguing part of the lecture was the last ten or fifteen minutes when he began to talk about how we should interpret the early chapters of the book of Genesis. McGrath's basic assumption was that evolution can be used to support an atheistic, but it is also possible to make evolution thoroughly theistic. Here he drew, in particular, on Augustine's theology of creation which, McGrath argued, stressed five points: God created the world in an instant: creation included embedded causalities that evolved at a later stage; evolution takes place within God's providential guidance; the original created order was not static and species don't change - he wondered whether Augustine would have modified his views on the last in the light of more recent scietific advances. I would have liked to have heard much more on this, for him to have developed these points, since Augustine, writing as early as the fourth century, clearly didn't interpret Genesis 1 in a literal sense. But this wans't the place for a theological lecture.

Of course modern creationism is a pretty recently development, Ronald Numbers', The Creationists (1993), shows this superbly, but I'm always slightly concerned at the line of reasoning that assumes that the early chapters of Genesis are myth, even if the story that they tell, that underlies them, might be true. It seems the standard 'respectable' evangelical position to argue that we can accept evolution if we do some fancy hermeneutical work with the early chapters of Genesis first! I'm not so sure. Of course there'll be no conflict between science and religion if our religion has been shorn of key biblical concepts first. But if we take this line are we being faithful to Scripture and God's self-revelation. Is there a danger that we as evangelicals are so keen to get academic respectability, or not to appear as anti-diluvian, that we trim away what we think are the rough edges of our faith?

Now of course, I'm not advocating that we all become rabid Fundamentalist six-day creationists, but maybe we need to start with our exesigesis of Genesis, develop a coherent biblical theology of creation that does justice to what all of the Bible says about creation, and then turn to science. The oft-quoted aphorism that God has two books, Scripture and nature, is potentially misleading here, surely the specific revelation in Scripture takes precedence over the general revelation in nature and creation? They are not equal in usefulness.

Well, that enough thinking aloud for one night, I've gone far enough beyond what McGrath said in his lecture . . .!


Leith said...

I was there with my coleague who is an atheist and fan of Dawkins. He was was very impressed by McGrath's balanced appraisal of Darwin and Dawkins.

About creation and myth, is something less true if it's metaphorical?

Augustinian Successor said...

Yes, it is. Myth is not exactly history. History are stories which have *happened*. Myths are timeless, abstract, stories. The difference lies in whether the hearer is "incorporated" into the story or the story is "incorporated" into the hearer. Is it an *encounter* in which *we* are rendered completely passive or the wholer story is a wax nose"?

Do we find the meaning of our existence in the story, or does the story finds its meaning in our existence?

Sounds pretty much like creationism versus evolutionism. (Hint: evolutionism is the *latter*) ...