Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why I Don't Believe in a Young Earth

Commenter Jeff asks on an otherwise unrelated post:

Suppose--just for the sake of argument--you were convinced that an honest reading of the Tradition of the Church required you to believe that the initial chapters of Genesis were historical. Would you be able to do it, or do you think that Darwinism is so irrefutable that you would have to abandon or radically redetermine your faith?
I think this is the question that worries a lot of Catholics without a strong scientific background as they watch the evolution/creationist/ID debate on Catholic blogs. Here are these otherwise solid Christians taking common cause with the likes of the Richard Dawkins against their brother Christians. What gives? Are these folks really Christian? Do they care more about science than about faith? Do they only accept Catholicism so long as it agrees with science?

To the extent that one is confident that one's scientific understanding of the physical world is accurate, a religion's agreement or rejection of science can certainly affect one's judgment of the religion. Augustine, in the Confessions, writes of how he was initially leary of Christianity because some of the apologists he heard endorsed cosmological models he knew to be false. Once again, one of the factors that caused him to reject Manichaeanism was that his questions about physics and cosmology were put off with cheap rhetorical tactics rather than knowledge and substantive explanation.

The reason I would be troubled if I "were convinced that an honest reading of the Tradition of the Church required you to believe that the initial chapters of Genesis were historical" is not because I think that "Darwinism is so irrefutable that you would have to abandon or radically redetermine your faith" but rather that a whole host of fields from evolutionary biology and paleontology to geology, astronomy, physics and more all point to a very old universe. It is certainly true that I find the scientific evidence for the descent with modification of biological organisms to be quite convincing, but a truly literal/historical reading of Genesis such as Anglican Bishop Usher proposed in the 19th century (and which, I would argue, represented very much a 19th century approach to the Bible, at odds with the tradition of the Early Fathers and Medieval scholars) requires much more than the rejection of the details of the current evolutionary synthesis.

For instance, we know that light travels at a set speed of approximately 186,282 miles per second. For various reasons subject to fairly rigorous mathematical proof, we believe that various astronomical objects that we can observer are hundreds of thousands or millions of light years (the distance that light can travel in one year) away from us. Were the universe only 6-10 thousand years old, we should not be able to see those objects. (This is but one example among literally thousands that point to an ancient universe.)

If someone asked me to believe that the universe was created ten thousand years ago, he would be asking me to believe that the physical world, as examined with our God-given senses and faculty of reason, is intensely misleading. Not just difficult to understand, but directly misleading.

Some suggested that these apparent inconsistencies are a mystery, to which faith must be applied. The Eucharist, after all, does not look like the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. You could perform no scientific test that would allow you to determine that a consecrated host is different from an unconsecrated one. Yet Christ, the Bible and the Church all tell us that while retaining the physical accidents of bread and wine, the consecrated bread and wine are in substance the body and blood of Our Lord. And this I believe, and believe without question. Should the necessity come, I pray that I would die in and for that believe in union with all the holy martyrs throughout history.

However, I would maintain that the Eucharist is fundamentally different from the question of the creation of the universe. Christ told his disciples that unless they ate his flesh and drank his blood there would be no life in him. His disciples said "this is a hard saying" and some left him over it. Christ specifically presented the mystery of the Eucharist as something which runs contrary to our perceptions yet is necessary for our salvation. If Christ has put forward the doctrine that the earth was created within the last 10,000 years (contrary to all appearances) as a mystery of our salvation, then as in the case of the Eucharist we would be called to set aside the evidence of reason and our sense and believe Him. However, he did not. Nor, honestly, can I imagine why a young earth would be a necessary mystery of salvation -- unless one adheres to what are traditionally Protestant standards of biblical interpretation in which the "plain meaning" of every passage of the Bible is necessarily true.

Circling back to Jeff's original question, I hope this at least provides some understanding of how I (as an orthodox Catholic who also is very attached to the findings of modern science) look at the issue. Honestly, the question of what I would think if the Tradition of the Church required a literal/historical interpretation of Genesis barely makes sense to me, since it seems to me that one of the great signs of wisdom in the Church (as opposed to the many sects that have broken off from her) is that she melds faith and reason so well in this regard -- and has throughout her history. It's not so much that I find the Fathers and Doctors of the Church silent in regard to whether it is possible that the history and cosmology of the universe are not literally as described in Genesis, but rather that it seems to me that they are nearly universally in agreement (when they address the matter) that Genesis is not primarily a historical or scientific narrative. Aquinas and Augustine both seem to agree that it is not only possible but indeed likely that the history and cosmology of Genesis are not literally true.

I am certainly willing to believe mysteries of the faith which are beyond any scientific proof -- and contrary to any scientific data -- (such as the Eucharist) but I simply cannot see how the creation of the universe is a mystery of this sort.

15 comments:

Jeff said...

A beautifully written and very kind answer. Thanks for taking so much of your time.

It's true that I am not scientifically astute, but I have no particular difficulty myself with the theory of evolution or the age of the universe or the other general understandings of modern science. I don't think that "historical" and "literal" are QUITE the same as you present them--I think for instance that the word "day" may be susceptible to varying interpretations--but I'll leave that for another day.

What provoked my question was a reading of Fr. Brian Harrison's paper on the question of Tradition and the historicity of Genesis. I won't--I CAN'T--swear that his analysis is right, but it's certainly a thought provoking piece. He's certainly got the chops that you have in science in theology and patristics.

He says, Let's SEE if modern attempts to understand the first chapters of Genesis as a sort of "parable" or "illustrative story" in order to "harmonize" Catholic doctrine with modern science are IN FACT consistent with Catholic Tradition. Let's analyze this question in the way, say, that the Paul VI looked at contraception or John Paul II looked at female ordination--with a principled and non-tendentious analysis of Tradition that doesn't start with the idea that START with modern scientific understanding. What answer do we come out with? Is there a Tradition here? Is it ambiguous? Or not?

His answer is that Catholic Tradition on the matter is clear and unambiguous that the first three chapters of Genesis are historical and not some other kind of literary genre. They recount events that are meant to be taken as history. He points out, for example, that the Fathers knew the difference between the Book of Job (NOT history, they said) and the Gospels (history); they fully understood the question of literary genres. He also points out that no one is very clear about what sort of genre the first three chapters or Genesis are supposed to be and have difficulty finding other examples of it, other than myth or (false) history.

I don't endorse everything he says; I have plenty of questions I would ask him if he were sitting in the room with me. But I think the essential approach is a good corrective to solutions that may not be as easy as we would like to believe. The worst it does is help to keep us honest.

Thus, my question to you.

If you remain interested, Fr. Harrison's article can be found here:

http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt52.html

Darwin said...

Jeff,

I'll have to take a look at the article. I'm curious to see what he does with it.

I do certainly agree that "literal" and "historical" are not necessarily the same thing in regards to the Bible. I originally had the feeling you were talking about a literally historical understanding of the Usher variety. But clearly, Genesis is historical in the sense that it relates an understanding of events that did in fact happen. However, I would say that it is not literally historical, in that while it describes events that happened they did not physically happen in exactly the way indicated by the literal meaning of the words used.

At first pass, my instinct would be to say that the early parts of Genesis do indeed fall within the literary genre of myth. By this I mean them no disservice. Mythology remains one of the great human literary genres. However, Genesis stands head and shoulders above other mythologies in that while most mythologies capture some truths, Genesis is wholly and fully true, inspired by God.

But I'll have to read Fr. Harrison's piece.

Father Martin Fox said...

I haven't looked at Fr. Harrison's article, but I'd like to comment on the question Jeff raised, based on my own reading and understanding of Genesis.

However you understand Genesis' account of God creating the heavens and the earth and all things on earth, I see nothing that would then compel a "young earth" theory, for the simple reason that there is no way to determine, from the text, how much time elapsed from the six days of creation, and the begetting. And this without even considering whether "time" is simply anachronistic (pardon the pun) in this context! But perhaps I will remember to come back to that.

Let us assume the episode of the garden takes place after God has "rested." How long were they in the garden? How long did Adam name the animals? And so on and so forth. The text does not say.

Back to the anachronism of time in this context: it seems to me very reasonable to understand these events as outside time as we know it. For one, the first few acts of creation are outside time; the means of marking time, as the first recipients of Genesis would know them, do not appear in Creation until the fourth day. How much "time" elapsed until then?

In the seminary, one of our instructors argued for reading Genesis as a unified (rather than redacted) text, and he contends the story of the garden is not a "second creation account" but rather, an episode occurring between the third and fourth day.

His argument is that the garden, and what happens there, effectively happens outside time; and only after the sin, do Adam and Eve leave Paradise and enter the world of time -- that comes as a consequence of their sin.

I can't do justice to his presentation here, but he does a very good job of it, and it is fascinating to apply his method to the text.

My bottom line? Nothing in Scripture calls for a "young earth" theory (or would contradict it, for that matter); you have to read into the text to say it demands such a conclusion.

Fred said...

Darwin, I agree with jeff in commending you for the irenic nature of your response to him.

I have read Fr. Harrison's article. I am certainly interested in your take on it as well. Thanks.

Darwin said...

I got a chance to read Fr. Harrison's article, however the next couple days are looking like being pretty insane at work -- I fear I shan't be able to get a good article up on it till mid to late week. However, since Fred has caused me to go look up the meaning of the word "irenic" I shall try to produce a response that fits that description. :-)

jenny said...

I like the idea posited in the first comment to this post on Jimmy Akin's site. That the Fall represented a choice that collapsed a wavefunction that rippled through space and time both forward and backward. The New Jerusalem would then be a return to this prior state of timelessness/eternity with God.

The Genesis story contains Truth deeper than truth. Rabbi David Fohrman has a great discussion of the depths of meaning in the Adam and Eve story here on Jewish World Review.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

"For various reasons subject to fairly rigorous mathematical proof, we believe that various astronomical objects that we can observer are hundreds of thousands or millions of light years (the distance that light can travel in one year) away from us."

I see your light years and parallax, and raise you Robert Sungenis.

You may go from my post (unless it is blocked where you are) either to comments with product details for his book) or to labels astronomy, trigonometry, either of which will bring you to my diagrams, which make parallax and light years as questionable as heliocentrism.

Darwin said...

I'm afraid that I don't find Sungenis' forrays into science remotely convincing. There might be a certain Quixote-esque charm to opposing heliocentrism at this point were it not so obtusely opposed to truth.

Given that over the last forty years we've repeatedly sent spacecraft through the solar system based on the predictions of a non-fixed earth and modern laws of physics, with great success, I'm not sure how one can even pretent to believe that the earth does not orbit around the sun. It's like arguing that blood doesn't circulate.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Would be. Unless Tychonic system (which he supports) were equivalent.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Oh, by the way:

a whole host of fields from evolutionary biology and paleontology to geology, astronomy, physics and more all point to a very old universe

1) remember Fr Brown - "a stick pointing straight in one direction is always pointing the opposite way too";
2) heliocentrism unless theisticly guaranteed actually does not point to a very old universe: according to it, earth is wobbling around by the uneasy not-quite-equilibrium of two forces, gravitation and momentum, and the less there is (excepting any third blind force like friction) beside this to the matter, the less likely it is that this would just go on orbit circle after orbit circle some billions of times.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

a whole host of fields from evolutionary biology and paleontology to geology, astronomy, physics and more all point to a very old universe.

Those two fields more or less answered offhand - with some help from Edgar Andrews, but he and Tas Walker do not go far enough - here:

Creation vs. Evolution : Three Meanings of Chronological Labels
http://creavsevolu.blogspot.fr/2013/12/three-meanings-of-chronological-labels.html

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Missed this:

a truly literal/historical reading of Genesis such as Anglican Bishop Usher proposed in the 19th century (and which, I would argue, represented very much a 19th century approach to the Bible, at odds with the tradition of the Early Fathers and Medieval scholars) requires much more than the rejection of the details of the current evolutionary synthesis.

Ussher was 17th Century. Not 19th.

And he was at odds with Church Fathers on exactly one point: chosing Masoretic text rather than Septuagint for his dating. St Jerome used the exact same method except for Septuagint, to arrive to the conlusion Our Lord was born Anno Mundi 5199.

As has been proclaimed every Christmas among Catholic USAmericans (and before USAmericans) up to 1994
http://creavsevolu.blogspot.fr/2013/12/newspeak-in-nineteen-eighty-er-sorry.html

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

conclusion, not conlusion

Either someone is abusing excommunication about me or someone is abusing admin technical privileges on the computer I am using.

Andrew said...

Hello,

I see that this is an older post, but some of the comments are recent, so hopefully the OP will see this comment.

Can you provide any sources to document this claim:

"Aquinas and Augustine both seem to agree that it is not only possible but indeed likely that the history and cosmology of Genesis are not literally true."

Thank you and God bless.

Darwin said...

Andrew,

I'd responded to this with a post, but then forgotten to post a link. Here it is:

http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com/2014/02/did-augustine-and-aquinas-believe-in.html