Catastrophists and Uniformitarians

I am just beginning my first sabbatical since launching our MSc in Science and Religion, and am enjoying getting into some research that I’ve had on hold for a long time. Those of you who have skimmed over this blog in the past will have realised that one of my abiding interests is in the fraught relationship between natural scientists and biblical scholars over how the Bible should be interpreted. A couple of years ago it occurred to me that the debate between them is exactly parallel to the old argument between ‘catastrophists and uniformitarians’ in nineteenth century geology. This argument is little-known today beyond geology, but it was truly foundational, in that much of what we know as modern science today stems from what was being argued about back then, not least Darwin’s theory of evolution.

If you read the old geology textbooks, you would see an account rather like this. The Catastrophists of the early nineteenth century (leading scientists like Cuvier, Buckland and Sedgwick) believed that the rocks we see today on the earth’s surface were formed mostly by sudden and climactic events – catastrophes in short – of which Noah’s Flood was probably the most recent. Clearly there was ample scope for divine action in this view. The Uniformitarians, on the other hand (principally Hutton, Lyell and Darwin), maintained that the rocks were the product of the (mostly) more gentle forces (such as wind, river and tide) that we see today. The point is that if you have a long enough history, then even gentle and minute effects can add up. ‘The present is the key to the past’, was the memorable phrase which summed-up their view. And in this telling of the story, it was the brave Lyell who won the battle for truth against the misguided Catastrophists, so that modern geology could rid itself of religion by becoming uniformitarian. Thus was one of the most important battles for naturalistic science won. Or so the story used to go.

This historical debate has been completely re-assessed by historians such as Hooykaas and Rudwick. We now know that the Catastrophists weren’t the bad guys, and in fact modern geology is probably somewhere in between the two positions. This has implications for the wider science and religion debate, but for my purposes it also has implications for how the Bible might be interpreted. My thinking goes like this.

Many studies of the Bible’s stories of miracle and catastrophe have been published in the past few decades (both in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and in more popular media) which apply the perspective of the natural sciences in order to propose ‘explanations’ in naturalistic terms. These scientific studies take as their starting point the assumptions that: (1) the biblical narratives reflect genuine historical memories of spectacular events in the natural world, and that (2) these events can be fully explained by the natural sciences. The studies therefore seek to determine ‘what really happened’ in naturalistic (and often spectacular) terms. Biblical scholarship, on the other hand, has shown little interest in this scientific work. When biblical scholars do comment on the scientific work it is often to denounce it as overly speculative and literalistic. For their part, biblical scholars have tended to insist upon a more circumspect approach to the texts, which foregrounds the complex literary, theological, mythological and historical contexts of the stories over their natural context.

I hope to write a book on this in the coming months. My aim is not to take a ‘sciences versus humanities’ line, nor to suggest that one approach is right and the other wrong. Instead, I hope to demonstrate that this divergence between scientists and biblical scholars over how the texts are best interpreted is parallel to a foundational debate in the natural sciences over how history should be reconstructed. This so-called ‘catastrophism versus uniformitarianism’ debate has been crucial to the development of geology and evolutionary biology as modern sciences rooted in study of the earth’s past. And although this debate reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, many of the central questions have resurfaced in contemporary geological debate. In very general terms, the key questions ask how we should reconstruct history given limited (and often ambiguous) evidence. Should we interpret the evidence in terms of one-off dramatic events (catastrophism)? Or will it succumb to a more complex, mundane and gradualist view (uniformitarianism)? All things being equal, which should be the preferred approach, or is there a middle way?

These questions turn out to be exactly the same as those raised in the disagreement between natural scientists and biblical scholars over naturalistic interpretations of the biblical stories. To take a widely-discussed example in scientific and popular writings on Exodus: (1) are the Plagues of Egypt best explained by a naturalistic model that makes use of a colossal volcanic eruption in the Aegean Sea (the Minoan eruption of Thera)? Or, (2) should the narrative be seen in terms of a complex literary evolution where theological and mythological themes come to the fore? While (1) corresponds to the ‘catastrophist’ approach favoured by many scientists writing on this problem, (2) is the ‘uniformitarian’ view, and is taken by the majority of biblical scholars. Since the catastrophist-uniformitarian debate has received detailed philosophical and historical study over the past two centuries, there is a wealth of wisdom to draw from in addressing these key questions. In particular, I hope to suggest that this wisdom can be applied to the ways that the biblical texts are interpreted, exposing hidden theological anxieties and worldview presuppositions that have influenced the various biblical interpretations.




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