Flood geology

I’ve been getting back to my roots in recent posts, with something of an emphasis on geology (I first trained as a geologist before I was distracted by the bright lights of physics during my PhD). And in the last week I’ve been reading David Montgomery’s recent book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, which offers a rather non-confrontational, but powerful, case against creationism. I must admit to particularly liking the front cover, since it shows an excellent photo of Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point, which is not only just a few miles from where I am sitting now (East Lothian), but is also perhaps the most legendary of all legendary geological sites. Montgomery demonstrates how much the development of modern geology owes to the controversies surrounding Noah’s Flood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We are so accustomed to hearing of the supposed conflict between science and religion in terms of Big Bang cosmology or Darwinism that it is interesting to come across a discussion from a completely different scientific viewpoint. And Montgomery makes the point that the flood debate shows how complex science and religion are in their relationship to each other. ‘Conflict’ doesn’t do it justice. Montgomery describes his surprise at discovering that the flood controversy wasn’t played out along the conventional science vs. religion lines we’re so used to: ‘[S]cientists were as apt to be blinded by faith in conventional wisdom as Christians proved adept at reinterpreting biblical stories to account for scientific findings. The historical relationship between science and religion was far more fluid, far more cross-pollinating than I ever thought – or was taught at Sunday school or in college’ (p.xii).

As Montgomery ably demonstrates, young earth creationism is one of the most recently-evolved branches of Christianity. Claiming to represent age-old attitudes towards the Bible and the flood, creationism in fact adopts some of the geological theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, relying heavily on Noah’s Flood as the main explanation for the reason the earth looks as it does today, including the entire sedimentary record and its fossils – all laid down in a matter of months by the flood waters.

This point is very familiar, of course, but Montgomery provides a novel explanation. He suggests that the reason young earth creationism was so successful in the early 1960s, and currently claims something like 50% of the American population, was that mainstream geology had reached something of an impasse, and was unable to make sense of outstanding but very basic problems, such as the shapes of the continents, or the mechanisms behind mountain formation. The development of plate tectonics over the next decade provided a unified theoretical framework capable of explaining many of these problems, but in the meantime creationism – in the guise of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris – was able to make significant headway by providing its own theoretical framework, based on Noah’s flood.

This is an attractive hypothesis, but I am not convinced that it altogether holds water. The arguments that Whitcomb and Morris considered clinchers against mainstream geology have not, by and large, been overturned by the discovery of plate tectonics; they were already wrong-headed arguments. So their criticisms of radiometric dating, or the conventional interpretation of thrust faults, for instance, were as myopic of the evidence in the 1960s, as they are now. What is perhaps different now is that the development of plate tectonics, together with a whole lot more data and evidence right across the board, means that the mainstream geological edifice is even more confident in its views that the earth is very old than it was in the 1960s. The fact that many creationist arguments continue to fly in its face is, I think, a testimony to the power of theological persuasion over geological. In particular, in the early 1960s Whitcomb and Morris’s book provided a theological focus around which diverse but conservative Christian groups could unite, in a climate of political unrest (e.g. the Cold War). It continues to provide a common focus for diverse religious believers, even to the extent that it has become an important force in global Islam today. I suspect that plate tectonics has rather little to do with it.

Exodus again

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been invited to take part in a conference on the Exodus and its relation with ancient Egypt, entitled Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination, and held at the University of California San Diego. Well I’ve just returned, and am still reflecting on a lot of what was said. It was an excellent opportunity to take stock corporately on a very active field of research which is still split by fundamental disagreements. Partly, the disagreements arose because of the wide range of disciplines represented, each with very different aims and objectives (Egyptologists, archaeologists, biblical scholars, and earth scientists. I fell into the latter category, but was also slightly unusual in being a theologian). This was a major strength though, and I wonder if there has ever been a gathering of such breadth to consider the many questions involved in this pre-eminent story in Jewish and Christian religious history.

The main question, which came up again and again, was – did it really happen? And if so, how? While there were many who wanted to affirm the Exodus as an historical event to some degree (even if it only meant the minimal affirmation of acknowledging a handful of slaves escaping over the Sinai), there were many who felt that even this was going way beyond what it is possible to claim from the text. The latter felt it more appropriate to speak of the Exodus as a mythic tradition in the consciousness of Israel as a young nation.

I spoke in the ‘Science’ session, where various earth scientists presented their ideas on the possibility that the events described in the book of Exodus (especially the sea crossing) were influenced or caused by geological phenomena such as volcanoes and tsunamis. I spoke about the legendary Bronze Age volcano Thera, and the many explanations that have been constructed from it for the Exodus, the destruction of Atlantis, and many other cataclysms of the ancient world. As one of the few theologians present, I was less interested in trying to say ‘what really happened’ than in drawing out the sub texts of some of the protagonists, and trying to point out that the way we approach the historicity of the Exodus is driven by methodological and theological presuppositions.

The many lectures will be available on the internet, and the proceedings will be published online before long, and I will post details when they become available.

It was an excellent conference, and thanks are due to Tom Levy, Brad Sparks, and everyone else involved in organising and supporting it.


Apocalypse and Exodus

I am endlessly fascinated by the ingenious naturalistic explanations that have been provided by scientists for the big miracle stories of the Bible. Even more fascinating is the fact that biblical scholars, by and large, do not give these explanations the time of day, usually preferring to look at the stories in terms of human history and the human imagination. One of the biggest points of disagreement here is the role played by the legendary volcano Thera (modern-day Santorini), which erupted in the Bronze Age and, so it has been said endlessly, is the source for the myths of Atlantis, the story of the Exodus, and any number of other ancient cataclysms and apocalypses.

While this disagreement illustrates nicely the very different ways that different kinds of professional can approach this normative text, it also gets to the heart of the endlessly-difficult question of ‘what really happened?’ If the professionals can’t agree, then is there any hope in answering it? My answer is something of a no and a yes at the same time.

I am at a conference in San Diego at the moment – Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination – soon to give a paper on my thoughts on Thera. It’s called ‘The Thera Theories: Science and the modern reception history of the Exodus’, and here’s the abstract:

While scholars continue to debate the tortuous historical and critical questions behind the narrative of the Exodus, a steady stream of publications has been appearing at the popular level that take much of the text at face value, and insist that it is to be understood in terms of natural catastrophes. Biblical scholars and archaeologists may highlight the complex human factors behind the genesis and evolution of the Exodus traditions, but the popular interpretations focus on the natural world, painting more-or-less apocalyptic scenarios informed by scientific research into volcanoes, earthquakes, and other spectacular natural phenomena. The eruption of Thera in the seventeenth century BCE has featured heavily, not least because it can also be invoked as an explanation for the myth of Atlantis, and the demise of Minoan civilisation.

Crucial questions arise here: what does the public fascination for such explanations (in the face of scholarly caution) tell us about the modern reception of the Exodus? And to what extent is this fascination (and attendant scepticism) mirrored in the interpretations of previous ages? How important is the motif of the remarkable marvel in the cultural handling of iconic traditions?

These are far-ranging questions, and this paper will begin to answer them by focussing on the case of Thera in particular. I will present an overview of the Theran models of the Exodus, and will examine some critical and receptive responses to them, in order to assess the significance of spectacle in the memory and reception history of the Exodus.



Luke’s ascension

In celebration of Ascension Day, one of my personal favourites in the Christian calendar, here is an excerpt from a wider piece I’ve been working on, exploring the challenges from science (“Science, Scripture, and the hermeneutics of Ascension”).

In the hermeneutical exercise that we are proposing, the imagery employed is of central importance. The scriptural witnesses to the ascension of Jesus invariably couch it in spatial terms, most obviously in Luke-Acts (Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:6-11), where Jesus is ‘carried up’ into heaven on a cloud. The other synoptic Gospels do not describe the ascension (except in one of the alternative endings to Mark – 16:19), and it is a moot point whether they even know of the idea as such; on the other hand, their talk of the Son of Man coming again on the clouds (e.g. Mark 13:26) is compatible with the idea that this is how he went in the first place. The idea of ascension is represented in various other places in the New Testament through talk of the final ‘leaving’, or ‘going up’ of the earthly Jesus after the resurrection (e.g. John 20:17; 1 Tim.3:16), or of his heavenly exaltation, where Jesus sits at God’s right hand (e.g. Rom.8:35; Eph.1:20; Heb.1:3; cf. Ps.110:1). Continue reading

Dark energy and the meaning of creation from ‘nothing’

400-creation-135157891I was mulling over whether to post a piece on dark energy and the idea of ‘creation from nothing’, when our colleague Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) did just that, with this insightful piece. For comparison, here is my take on the issue, as it appeared in the Diocese of Edinburgh magazine.

The idea that the universe was created ‘from nothing’ by God has long been a Christian response to sceptics. Even though science has won much of the territory over which theology once reigned supreme, theologians have been able to rest secure knowing they have the exclusive rights to ‘nothing’. Quite simply, the laws of physics can’t explain ‘nothing’ because they’re a ‘something’ in themselves: they must be created ‘from nothing’. Hence, God comes into the picture, the ultimate ‘no-thing’, and the ultimate no-fail explanation for why there’s something rather than ‘nothing’. Continue reading

Arthur Peacocke and ‘God’s Interaction in the World’

Recently in our course on Key Thinkers in Science and Religion we worked through a chapter from Arthur Peacocke’s Theology for a Scientific Age, examining how the author confronts ‘God’s Interaction with the World’: the problematic terrain classically known as divine providence. In his chapter, Peacocke begins by laying out the terms and positions that have shed the most light on the matter, moving quickly past metaphors of the guide of a hiking party and an absentee landlord in order to arrive at the more crucial sticking points of how God actually manifests in a world increasingly demystified by scientific, psychological, and sociological advancement. There is no question, he says, that providence is a central feature of scripture-based faiths (Judaism and Christianity), which have been shaped by narratival patterns of a God that continually appears and acts within the lives of faith communities. What is more questionable, however, is how reliably we are to take the testimonies of such providential workings, since it is that faith community itself—hardly an unbiased jury—that attests to God’s working. The criteria for ‘unbiasing’ instances of divine interaction must be available to even those without faith for certifying—or at least opening the possibility for—such activity. Most attempts in the past, Peacocke avers, have upheld at least one of two key presuppositions: either an understanding of the world in purely mechanistic terms, bound to the physical laws that describe and normalize it, or the dualist assumption à la Descartes that splits the world between mind and body, material and spiritual, whose integration, as in the human agent, borders on the mysterious.   Continue reading

The annual MSc dissertation workshop

Yesterday (Friday 5th April), five of our MSc students presented their dissertation proposals, describing their intended research over the coming months as they work towards the 15,000 word dissertation which is the keystone to our MSc.

Students are encouraged to explore any topic which falls broadly within the ‘Science-Religion’ field. The ‘classical’ field of Science and Religion, defined by the work of scholars such as Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke,John Polkinghorne from the 1960s to the early 2000s, is groaning at the seams these days, as we discover more and more crucial areas of engagement between the two disciplines. Our students have uncovered a number of new areas themselves, and we were all impressed by the degree of novelty and ingenuity on display. Topics included: Teilhard de Chardin and the emergence debate; Augustine and ecology; Thomas Hardy, R S Thomas and the absence of God; modernist architecture as an exemplification of the science-religion dialogue; and finally, herbology and creation theology in ascetic and monastic spirituality.

We look forward to seeing how these very fertile and imaginative projects emerge in the coming months.



The Holy Spirit – fields, physics and other metaphors

Today was the Pannenberg day for our MSc class on Key Thinkers in Science and Religion. After an introduction to his thought, including significant moments like Jesus – God and Man (1968), we turned to the set text for the session – Pannenberg’s discussion of the creative work of the Holy Spirit from Vol.2 of his Systematic Theology. This sets out one of his best-known ideas (at least from the perspective of the Science and Religion field), that the Holy Spirit in creative mode can be likened to a physical field, like an electromagnetic field, or a gravitational field.

All of us agreed that this is not an easy text. Pannenberg grapples with ideas from physics – in the context of Christian eschatology and Western philosophy – in such a way that he is clearly alluding to more than he can say. And we agreed that the main scholarly reactions to Pannenberg’s idea – while containing some pertinent criticisms – haven’t addressed the force of his main point. Continue reading

The Entropy of Theology – part 1

Some 15 years ago, as a young researcher trying to push a new idea, I was accused publicly by a much more eminent fellow physicist of not understanding entropy. Ever since then, I’ve been fixated with trying to really understand entropy. Personal pride, and the emerging scholarly consensus, require me to point out that I have since been proved right in what I was trying to say back then, but the intervening 15 years have taught me that neither I nor my eminent colleague had a full grasp of the mysteries of entropy, still less its mystical (what I might now refer to as ‘theological’) overtones.

Entropy is what makes life worth living. Arguably the most important of all the laws of physics (at least where biological life is concerned), the Second Law of Thermodynamics declares that the entropy (disorder) of a closed system (one that is thermally insulated from its surroundings) can never decrease, but must always increase (or at the very least stay the same). This turns out to provide a reasonably straightforward way into an otherwise notoriously-difficult problem – how to define life. Continue reading

A new blog

Welcome to our new blog. We are a group of academic staff and students at the University of Edinburgh who are dedicated to exploring the interaction between science and religion in all its various forms. To this end, we are in the first year of a new postgraduate course – the MSc in Science and Religion – one of the world’s very few advanced courses in the subject. All of us hope to inform, to engage, and to challenge in this totally new venture. I can honestly say that I am discovering, as we go along, that there is much more to Science and Religion than first met my eye.

Continue reading