Religion and Science Conference Focuses on “Reading Genesis Well”
“A quest for truth is not equivalent to a search for certainty,” said Provost Christon Arthur, introducing the 12th Annual Andrews Autumn Conference on Religion and Science, with the theme “Reading Genesis Well.” The presenters particularly focused on the creation story and the rest of the early parts of Genesis (chapters 1-11), before Abraham comes on the scene.
After a comprehensive praise service, Jack Collins, Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, and author of Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?, began his presentation. Both in his Friday evening lecture at PMC and his Sabbath morning keynote, professor Collins asked the question “What Is the Creation Story There to Do for Us?” Collins utilized a critical paradigm from C. S. Lewis’s preface to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Lewis argues that “the first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.”
Collins applied this concept to thinking about the creation story, looking at the intended audience, presumably the Israelites as they were about to cross the Jordan into Canaan. He noted that the audience were primarily subsistence farmers, utterly dependent on external factors: animals, weather, births of children. Collins noted that Palestine is very rain dependent, and that as farmers the Israelites would worry about pests and about marauding bandits. He noted that we ought to appreciate these people’s sense of vulnerability.
In examining the social setting, Collins asked how might the audience typically have received the text? It was read aloud, and the public reading helped to refresh the community’s sense of identity. He asserted that the narrative gave Israel a sense of their place in the world, Israel’s big story, and that Genesis contrasts with the big stories of other cultures.
Structurally, Collins considers Genesis 1-2 to form the front end to Genesis 1-11, which is the front end to the book of Genesis, which is the front end to the Pentateuch. So it’s really important, he said, as a foundational story to establish the community’s sense of identity.
This identity was enhanced, in Genesis 1-2, by the liturgical style of the recounting of the days of creation, a highly patterned presentation where “And God said” initiates the days and “there was evening and morning” finishes the days.
In his Sabbath morning talk, Collins, again borrowing conceptually from C. S. Lewis, distinguished between three kinds of language: ordinary, scientific, and poetic. He described the properties and uses of each kind, seeing them not as hierarchical but as each have specific contextual spheres where they are most appropriate. Collins argued that Genesis 1-2 uses mainly ordinary and poetic language, implying that it is not meant as a scientific description of what occurred. He noted that the passage uses exceedingly broad strokes in taxonomy—small plants, trees; three categories of animals: domestic, creeping things, wild animals. No single species except humans gets separate names. Collins said that it is somewhat arbitrary whether we refer to the passage/s as a poem or not, but noted its solemn tone, dignified prose, and said it could be called a “high” style of narrative or “exalted prose.”
In conclusion, Collins noted that this big story of Israel is also everybody’s story. It helps people to have confidence in God’s character and helps people admire the God who made the world. It shows us that God made all of us, and that his purpose is to restore us to what he originally intended.
In his Sabbath morning devotional, Seminary professor Ante Jerončić discussed the concept of “acedia,” something like the constant boredom of modern life, laziness, listlessness, lack of mindfulness, carelessness about the truth of God, truth of scripture, truth of one’s spiritual condition. His ideas were stimulated by Kathleen Norris’s book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life.
Jerončić quoted Thomas Aquinas on a similar concept: “We might say that all the sins which are due to ignorance can be reduced to sloth, which pertains to the negligence by which a man refuses to acquire spiritual goods because of the attendant labor.”
Jerončić also quoted a “19th Century Adventist,” who unsurprisingly turned out to be Ellen White: “But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word, and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative, and seek to avoid discussion.”
Jerončić closed by discussing 2nd Peter 1:5-11, which exhorts believers to virtues which are a sort of antidote to acedia.
In the last presentation of Sabbath morning, Gary Burdick, a Professor of Physics and Dean of Research & Creative Scholarship at Andrews University, discussed “What Does Genesis Have to Say to a Physicist?”
Burdick noted that certain assumptions were necessary for science to exist:
1. The universe exists
2. The existence of the universe matters
3. The universe is orderly and follows mathematical laws
4. We are capable of understanding the universe.
5. Scientific results must be repeatable
Burdick noted that conflict between Theology and Science is to be expected, but warfare is not inevitable. He said, rather, that we should accept these as legitimate disagreements between friends, where further discussion may lead to new insight.
Burdick, one of the chief organizers of the conference (officially part of The Midwest Religion and Science Society, a group of regional colleges and universities), says the conference’s purpose is to “have open dialogue between members of different denominations and between scientists and theologians.” According to Burdick, attendees have appreciated the opportunity to hear thoughtfully developed points of view from different perspectives, and the search for common ground between science and theology.