Opinions on faith and life

Escher Theology

2010-10-08

The artist M. C Escher was best known for his optical illusions involving images of ordinary things that can’t be possible in the real world. The images themselves make sense in their own self-contained way, but simply cannot exist physically. They delight the eye because of that very quality of impossibility and the great gift it took to imagine them, let alone draw them.

This is a good illustration of what can happen theologically; people can invent intriguing, mind-bending systems that seem to be complete in themselves, but when held up to the light of scripture and logic we see them for the illusions they are. At this blog a series of comments was made on the topic of Genesis and evolutionary theory which serves as a prime example:

I don’t see how any meaningful type of fall makes sense in light of the evolutionary origin of our species. A fall implies some better state, either in actuality or in potential, from which one “fell” from. The problem is, the evolutionary picture of our emergence as a species gives us every reason to doubt that a better state ever existed. And as far as some potential better state (the idea of God holding our a path for us which we rejected), our evolutionary beginnings would incline one to think that, as a species, we would have been ill-equipped indeed to pursue such a path.

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My own view is that the authors’ views in Genesis reflects bronze-age thinking on questions of why there appears to be a gulf between the creation and the creator, and it attempts to explain this gulf through a story depicting a rebellion and resulting corruption of a perfect state of harmony. I don’t know that the story was meant to be taken literally, but the idea that there was some such event(s) I think is implied in the text. Of course, Paul just comes out and says it – so that part is much firmer.

So, is the “fall” a view expressed in the Bible? I think so. Is it wrong? I think so. Is it wrong because God’s revelation accommodates human erroneous viewpoints and perspectives? That’s up for each interpreter of the Bible to decide.

Later, another commenter asks this very critical question:

How is it different to say “Science doesn’t support the creation account of Genesis 2-3, so we have to re-evaluate what it really means” and “Science doesn’t support that 5 loaves and 2 fish can feed 5,000 people so we have to re-evaluate what that text means” or worse, “Science doesn’t support that people can come back to life after they’re dead, so all Biblical instances of resurrection have to be re-evaluated?”

The first commenter attempts a response, and this is where the Escher theology comes to light, especially the emphasized paragraphs:

(1) The reason to question a literal-historical reading of Genesis 1-3 does not start with science but with the text itself. It starts with the nature of the text, its relationship to other ANE literature, and the inherent contradictions in a literal-historical reading.

(2) The text is of a time and a genre that the only way it could be literal-historical is if God dictated it to the writer. This is not the normal form of inspiration and the text gives no indication of such. Prophets had a word from God, but nothing directly within scripture suggests Genesis 1-3 as dictation.

(3) The evidence from science in geology, paleontology, cosmology, and biology – which is evidence from God’s creation – is consistent with the idea that text isn’t literal-historical.

Genesis 1-3 is inspired and from God – but truth in scripture comes in many forms, and it is not always literal-historical.

None of this impacts the resurrection or the feeding of the 5000 as related in the NT. These are historical reports by contemporaries written down within a relatively short period of time after the events occurred. The evidence for them is historical, not scientific. The evidence is also seen in the rise of the church after the resurrection – the power of the Spirit.

Science cannot address these directly – there is no physical evidence to investigate – except to say that these are not normal or natural. But none of us actually think that they were normal or natural.

I see no problem holding to the NT as trustworthy reports, and Genesis 1-3 as inspired, but other than literal history.

We follow the first commenter’s argument around (I’ll dissect it in detail at the end) until we realize we’re back where we started, yet we couldn’t possibly have arrived there! Somewhere along the line the “laws of physics” were broken, and when we understand why Escher’s drawings can’t exist in reality we can solve this theological “Escher” as well. When we see that the key to solving Escher’s riddles is how our brain manufactures a 3D world from a 2-D image, we can then know to look for the kind of “twist” required to make people believe a self-contradicting hermeneutic. And the emphasized section is the spot where that twist occurred.

The twisted theology is actually just a non-sequitur (“it doesn’t follow”), much the way that a rising staircase cannot end up at the same level where it started. If the beginning arguments of the attempted response are true then the conclusion is not; it’s like saying “We know that the moon is made of rock, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t made of green cheese.” And the reason it doesn’t follow is because of the fallacy of equivocation; the response started out on the basis of evolutionary theory and dismissing God’s inspiration of scripture, but ended with an appeal to historical evidence and “the power of the Spirit”.

So in fact the response did not answer or refute the critical question by the other commenter. The hermeneutic being used was indeed that whatever “science” doesn’t support has to be allegorized or written off as uninspired mythology. But when shown where that path leads, the responder tried to engage in “special pleading” by using different criteria, a different hermeneutic. This is exactly the reason evolutionary theory cannot be falsified, and it is no more useful or legitimate for theology than for science.

Now let me try and quickly summarize problems with the failed argument on a scriptural/logical basis:

  1. The Fall is not to be judged by the theory of evolution (ToE). If one invalidates the other, then Genesis has as much right to constitute disproof of ToE as the reverse.
  2. A fall does NOT imply “some better state” unless one first presumes that evolution is going “up”. So here again we have hopeless conflict between Genesis and ToE.
  3. If upward evolution is true, then saying “some potential better state” is something “we would have been ill-equipped indeed to pursue” contradicts it directly. Which way is evo trying to go, and what is directing it?
  4. As a result of presuming the ToE one is forced to conclude that Moses was just spinning “bronze-age” tales to try and make sense of the world and God.
  5. To say that it might be true after all (in some capacity) after all the preceding claims, is an admission that such claims are contradicted by no less than the apostle Paul. Yet then it is claimed that Paul is probably wrong!
  6. Since the ToE angle failed so obviously, the tactic switches to “the text itself.” But once again scripture is judged by secular literature, mythical though it is admitted to be. The alleged superiority of such literature is never explained or supported. Neither is “the nature of the text” shown to require a non-historical interpretation, in spite of the earlier admission that Paul took it as literal history (as also Jesus and the other NT writers did). The “inherent contradictions” are not in the text itself but with the ToE, so the only contradiction is in the argument itself. I love irony.
  7. Ignoring all scriptural data supporting a literal, historical view of Genesis, it is claimed that only direct dictation from God could make it so. But because this straw man is not “normal” and there is no “thus saith the Lord” stated, then Moses is dismissed as uninspired. Yet somehow all the NT writers, not to mention all the Jews of Jesus’ day, all held Moses in a little higher esteem than that.
  8. Back to the comfort zone of scientific terms (all the while equating them with ToE): it is claimed that ToE is the evidence of creation, when it fact ToE is only an interpretation of the evidence; creationists have the same evidence as evolutionists. So it is not science vs. Genesis but ToE vs. Genesis. This is simply a repeat of the initial presumption of ToE as the highest judge of scripture.
  9. Incredibly, this is followed by the statment “Genesis 1-3 is inspired and from God”. Somehow the argument made two points ago has quickly been forgotten. It is actually now being argued (hopefully in ignorance) that God inspires either fiction or deception. Now the door is wide open to treating “the inspired words of God” as bedtime stories that teach whatever lesson a person wishes to see in them.
  10. By this time it should be obvious that “the resurrection or the feeding of the 5000” have not only been “impacted” but rendered completely false. Yet in direct contradiction of all the arguments made before, we can magically pull a rabbit out of a hat; we can appeal to standard legal and historical evidence because, apparently, 2000 years ago the people were much more reliable and intellectual than back in Moses’ day. Yet Jesus and the NT writers, as well as Jesus’ enemies, appealed often to Moses as an authority. And of what, children’s stories?
  11. Then “science” is set aside in order to justify some sentimental attachment to at least a smidgen of the supernatural: the evidence of “the rise of the church after the resurrection- the power of the Spirit.” Isn’t this the same Spirit that told Moses to copy and paste bronze-age stories from the heathen? How can this statement be justified in the slightest after all the preceding arguments made against Genesis? If heathen myths judge Genesis, then why can’t heathen myths judge the NT, as many do today? They say the “savior myth” is quite common and probably borrowed from other cultures. Why doesn’t that sort of “evidence” apply here?
  12. If it is admitted that science cannot address that which is not “normal or natural”, then why can’t a six-day creation be as much about the power of the Spirit as Jesus’ resurrection, especially when science says people can’t rise from the dead?
  13. It seems evident that “holding to the NT as trustworthy reports, and Genesis 1-3 as inspired, but other than literal history” is hoplessly self-contradictory and nonsensical.

I don’t know about you, but the phrase “methinks he protesteth too loudly” seems to sum it up as well as anything.

11 Comments

Lydia

What happens to faith if we interpret using science?

Paula Fether

That’s the crux of the matter, Lydia. Miracles are, by definition, violations of scientific laws. While it’s true that science can only observe the physical, it cannot always explain it. So we have two choices: either arbitrarily exclude supernatural causes and rest in the faith that the answer will be discovered in the future, or accept that there is a supernatural force outside the realm of science.

The issue in this particular case is the inconsistency of how and when the supernatural is accepted. Both sides agree that the moon is not made of green cheese at all, but this does not require us to say that Jesus was ignorant or joking when He said He could turn stones into bread. But for this person to argue that the resurrection is an acceptable miracle while a six-day creation is not, in spite of what Jesus and the NT writers affirmed (as well as the 10 Commandments concerning the reason for the Sabbath), is inconsistent. Either a particular scientific-sounding interpretation rules over scripture (but only when it’s convenient), or Jesus’ and the NT writers’ testimony rules over the scientific-sounding interpretation.

If science actually had observed macroevolution (molecules to man), then we would be forced to either accept Jesus’ testimony in spite of it or throw out the Bible completely as merely a book of moral lessons. This person wants to have his cake and eat it too. And that’s why I say that the real debate is between ToE and science.

Lydia

This may sound pedantic but scripture leads us to believe that God created Adam and Eve as adults not new born babies. Why then could’nt He create the world as "old"?

Paula Fether

Problem here is in defining "old" when it comes to things like rocks. Rocks don’t age as living things do, so we have to try and GUESS the initial composition, PRESUME that certain processes in the far distant past are identical to those today, and then CALIBRATE our measuring instruments to whatever range of ages we think it should be.

The pre-flood world was very different from what we observe today. Would trees have had rings? Would animals have had attack/defense features? Would there have been high mountains and more than one land mass? Check out this online book for details, including the hydroplate theory (as opposed to continental drift) for how the Flood radically changed the earth’s geology, zoology, and weather.

Cindy K

Ah, makes me think of "without faith it is impossible to please God." Who/what gets more faith: God or science.

I often think of the ramifications of what it says of God’s character if He started lying to us on page 1. It is a true statement that it takes just as much faith to believe in ToE as it does in special creation. It’s just a matter of where you assign your faith. There are just some things that remain a mystery, no matter what. They all require faith.

Paula Fether

Good points, Cindy. Everybody has faith at some point in some thing or being. As I mentioned in the "fiddling" posts recently, not even atheists can claim to be faithless. I suppose the only exceptions would be those who don’t care about anything but what’s right in front of them. And if indeed God couldn’t plainly tell us how everything came into being, then the Bible is just another book of myths and moralistic opinions.

Lydia

"he pre-flood world was very different from what we observe today. Would trees have had rings? Would animals have had attack/defense features? Would there have been high mountains and more than one land mass? Check out this online book for details, including the hydroplate theory (as opposed to continental drift) for how the Flood radically changed the earth’s geology, zoology, and weather."

I just sort of assumed all dating took place after the fall. But God could have added the time before the fall to the aging. I think of how long man lived after the fall even though told he would die...a long time compared to today and even longer compared to 1000 years ago.

And I agree totally about the flood.

Another small thing to consider about creation/time/literal, etc, is that in Gen 1, we have God creating "Human" in His own image. In Gen 2, we have God "forming" Human out of dirt. And then forming woman out of side of Human.

So, we have "creating" then "forming". We simply do not know enough to know what the creation was like (Image of God) before the "forming" took place. Do you see how we could parallel this with thoughts on age of the earth.

Paula Fether

I take "In the day you eat of it you shall die" as referring to mortality, the ability to die, or at least the beginning of the aging process. So then we have to ask how long Adam lived before he began to age, and that’s just impossible to say. So when we speak of the appearance of age, we can only speak from the perspective of aging ("entropy"). And here again, when it comes to inanimate things, we have no clue what the starting conditions/compositions were.

As for create/form, we’re relying on a Hebrew text that doesn’t even go back to the time of Christ. But what Jesus and the NT writers did in referring to creation is tell us that there was only one such event, one such week, and that Adam and Eve were the first humans. But since they and the Psalmist(s) give the impression that the whole universe was created by God for puny mankind, then one must ask why God would leave the universe alone for billions of years.

Scientifically, the stars and galaxies etc. keep confusing and surprising astronomers who operate from an evolutionary bias. YEC scientists such as Russell Humphries have made predictions that were confirmed by discoveries, because they didn’t presume long ages. We can also ask how any galaxy, esp. the spiral ones, still have a shape to them, since after billions of years these galaxies should have dissipated into formless masses long ago. There are also many issues with things such as background radiation, comets, etc. that defy the Big Bang and ignore the time dilation aspect (what the Bible may refer to in saying God "stretched out the heavens").

Just some thoughts. :-)

Cindy K

Lydia,

I once said something very similar on a blog and was accused of advocating the "magisterium." They said that by stating that we cannot anthropomorphize God and that many things are hidden from us as we look through the glass darkly, to them, that meant that I was saying that God was completely unknowable and "holy other." (Jesus, Emmanuel, is holy other????) I guess when all else fails when arguing with fellow Protestants and you can’t win the day, call people Roman Catholic as an insult.

Recently, I pulled out an old RC Sproul book wherein he says, "In this life, we only begin to understand the depth and the riches of His being. We only skate on the surface of understanding Him." Yet I suppose in consideration of who he is as opposed to who I am, he is magically not professing faith in terms of the magesterium. (From "The Character of God," pg 171)

God must weep.

Greg Anderson

I’ve heard that there’s a growing body of evangelicals who also happen to work in the science professions and who are coming out of the closet in favor of OEC and theistic evolution. Sooner or later there had to be push back from believers who adhere to OEC, and I’ve learned that they even have their own sites on which they publish refutations of claims made by proponents of YEC.

Even though I lean toward the YEC model, I will not be drawn into what amounts to little more than a parochial playground fight. I will not marginalize other Christians for what they believe apart from the essentials, nor will I ever make YEC a litmus test for orthodoxy. One YEC hardliner has even suggested that YECs & OECs don’t worship the same God (sennts presorrrv us! as father Doyle the Jesuit useta’ say) I looked at the link you posted and the author makes the claim that if one doesn’t hold to YEC, then by implied necessity, the essential doctrines of the Christian faith are jeopardy too. Really? I have no say in what I choose to believe and not believe? I’ll leave it at that.

Paula Fether
the author makes the claim that if one doesn’t hold to YEC, then by implied necessity, the essential doctrines of the Christian faith are jeopardy too.

Hence my Disclaimer (under ReadMe). ;-)

The issue of whether denial of YEC amounts to a denial of the faith is that issue of consistency I mention now and then. I personally believe it’s inconsistent to deny YEC, as I argued in the post, but I would balance that with my earlier post on the "three laws". People don’t always (nay, hardly ever) think through their beliefs thoroughly, but that’s as true of some of the staunchest YECs I know as anyone else. Many of them are into Vision Form (Pox Be Upon Them) and hard Calvinism, which IMHO take a fair amount of blindness and a whole lot of inconsistency to believe.