A new book – The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science

Having spent much of the last two weeks trying to put the finishing touches to an obstinate book manuscript, I’ve found myself longing wistfully for my scientific days when a simple article (a thousand words and lots of pictures) would do the job of advancing research more than adequately. After all, you could be confident that, if it was a good article, it would be obsolete within a few years. A truly great article will be superseded before the year is out.
But now that I am in the humanities, I find that publishing is a very different kind of activity. One aims more for permanence than obsolescence. Or at least something that will stand the lifetime of the current scholarly paradigm. And I need more words too – a thousand words and some pictures hardly gets me anywhere.  Even 90,000 words of tightly-argued prose is barely enough. As the impossibility of expressing what I really mean gets to exasperation level I must remind myself of the truth of those ancient words of Qoheleth – no, not those that go ‘Of making many books there is no end’, nor ‘much study wearies the flesh’, but ‘The end of the matter; all has been heard’. So, for the sake of getting something out there, and since I’ve thought about little else these last two weeks, I offer the first few paragraphs of the manuscript by way of an early contribution to this blog. The book is called The Nature of Creation, by the way, from Acumen Publishing, and should be available summer 2013.

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Jacket image for The Nature of Creation
THE NATURE OF CREATION: Examining the Bible and Science, by Mark Harris

The relationship between modern science and religious belief has become one of the most debated matters of our time. It is impossible not to hold an opinion on it. While there are many who claim that science has made religious belief redundant, there are at least as many who insist that faith is alive and well.

At the same time, a flourishing academic discipline has grown up which has attempted to find a way forward by building bridges. This field – ‘science and religion’, or ‘theology and science’ – has tended to concentrate on historical discussions of how the two areas have interacted in the past, and on philosophical investigations which seek understanding of how they might mutually benefit each other now.  In this, history and philosophy have taken mediatorial roles between science and theology. But this has meant that the dialogue between science and religion has operated at a ‘meta’ level, at least one remove from the basic data and core observations which underlie them. Discussion has therefore largely been about how to relate higher-level scientific and religious interpretations to each other, not about the core data and their interpretation. Much of the science-religion dialogue has taken place in the Western world, where the ‘religion’ half of the pairing has most often meant Christianity. In this case, the core data are defined to a large extent by a set of scriptures, the Bible. It is this foundational book above all which has suffered from a general lack of engagement in the science-religion dialogue.

Ironically, part of the reason for this relative neglect of the Bible stems from Creationism, which has tended to insist that the Bible’s creation texts – those most relevant to much of the science-religion dialogue – should be read in the light of a literalist hermeneutic. For those who adhere to its most rigid form – ‘young earth’ Creationism – this has meant the rejection (or revision) of large swathes of modern science in order to maintain belief that the earth was created over six literal days some scant thousands of years ago. As a result, the debate has tended to take place on scientific grounds, focussing on the interpretation of scientific data and theories rather than the interpretation of Scripture. In this, the real agenda has been missed: namely the fundamentalist conviction that the Bible is ‘inerrant’, and transcends all considerations of science and history (McCalla 2006: 199). And such has been the ferocity of the debate, especially in North America, that the science-religion dialogue has tended largely to avoid the key scriptural areas of contention, and to engage with creation at a more philosophical level instead, where, it is believed by many mainstream scholars, the real issues of interest lie in any case. This has meant that the many subtle and complex depths in the texts unearthed by critical biblical scholarship have gone largely un-noticed, or been obscured by endless debates over questions such as whether Adam and Eve really existed (ch. 7).

It is the aim of this book to address the apparent conflict between science and religion, and the very real neglect of the Bible by the science-religion field. Some recent studies by biblical scholars have paved the way. There has been a considerable broadening in our understanding of Old Testament theologies of creation (Fretheim 2005), and in the ways in which Old Testament creation texts may be appropriated imaginatively in the modern scientific worldview (Brown 2010). This present book brings two new perspectives. First, it considers the impact of science on critical interpretation of the whole Christian Bible, so that important discussions in the science-religion field are brought into view, such as the role of Christ in creation. Second, it takes an overarching theological perspective: God as Trinity is seen ultimately to provide the bridge between critical biblical scholarship and science. This does, of course, mean covering a lot of ground in terms of both biblical scholarship and Christian theology, not to mention science. The scope of this project therefore means that we will at times need to pass all-too quickly over some tortuous issues, especially in biblical interpretation. This is not so much because we are attempting to provide an overview of an already-existing field of scholarship, but are instead seeking to set up the parameters for a new one.

It is not to be expected that this approach will single-handedly change the popular perception that science and religion are at war with each other. And neither will it resolve the creationist debate. What is to be hoped rather is that it will reveal something of the deeper levels underlying the debates, demonstrating at a more fundamental level what it is that science and religion can share through their views of creation, and how they differ and ought to differ.