Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Beyond the Firmament, I -- Accomodating human limitations

I mentioned, several days ago, that I had been reading two books on origins while away on my trip. I've more or less summarized the key items that impressed me with the Haarsmas' book. It's time for me to talk about Beyond the Firmament by Gordon J. Glover.

Where the Haarsmas seek to summarize a wide range of evangelical Christian viewpoints on origins, Glover, I would say, "goes for jugular." No ifs, ands or buts: he believes God used evolution to create the world as we know it today. He believes this unapologetically. And he wants us to know why he believes as he does.

Happily, by and large, he is quite gracious in his presentation. At the same time, I'm glad I read the Haarsmas first. Being so much more "open" in their presentation, I found myself able to listen better. But then, having acquired from the Haarsmas a hunger to learn more, Glover offered a wonderful next step.
SIDEBAR--Presentational Difficulties

Glover could have used a copy editor. His book features a far larger number of typographical errors than I can recall seeing in any other published work: misspellings, phrase repetitions, missing words, punctuation errors and more.

After a while, I found them a bit annoying.

His use of the second person plural when speaking to his readers is also rather jarring. (As I have often explained to my fellow copywriters at Sonlight: Though you know you are writing to many people when you write an article, every person who reads what you have written will experience it on his or her own, as an individual. So you need to address your audience individually--as you [singular]. Thus, for example, instead of saying, "Some of you . . . " or, "Many of you . . . ", you should say, "Now, perhaps you. . . . ")

If you find yourself, like me, annoyed by such errors and infelicities, please be assured that the annoyance is more than offset by the quality content. Moreover, you'll have no trouble understanding what Glover is trying to say. He writes in a vigorous, folksy, down-to-earth manner with lots of pithy analogies that make his meaning easy to grasp.
In Chapter 1, Glover talks about the differences between modern scientific explanations of physical structures and how things work . . . and ancient mythological stories intended to explain transcendent meaning and purpose: why things are as they are. He also discusses the significance of self-validating (as opposed to externally provable) truths. Self-validating truths include such beliefs as the principle of the uniformity of nature (a scientific doctrine) or the truth of Scripture (a Christian doctrine).

Glover takes much the same view of Genesis 1 and 2 that I explained a few days ago when discussing the Haarsmas' Origins: that the Bible's cosmological model is not scientific (in any modern sense of the term) and we ought not to be looking to the Bible for scientific insights into the structure or operation of the physical universe. Instead, the Bible was written to speak to a culture that already accepted a particular cosmology. God's purpose for writing the Bible didn't include any need to correct or improve the cosmology of those who would read or hear the Bible's message.

Glover understands how this view will disturb many evangelical Christians. And so he writes:
[Many of us want to ask,] [W]hy would God intentionally recycle the erroneous cosmology of the ancient Near East? [But] the real question is [W]hat would have been the point for God to overturn the established view of the physical universe?

An incorrect view of the cosmos borne from ignorance is not a problem for God. I'm certain that even our best efforts today are lacking because of things that we just don't know. But an incorrect view of God borne from bad theology is a serious issue that must be addressed. [And t]hat was obviously God's focus in Genesis.

To put it simply, the intent of Genesis is theological, and any references of a "scientific" nature are culturally bound by the cosmology of the author and his audience.

--p. 75

In another place:
Basically, the creation narrative was God's theological rebuttal to the Egyptian creation mythology, not a scientific rebuttal of ancient Near-Easter cosmology. . . . Genesis is not giving us creation science. It is giving us something much more profound and practical than that. Genesis is giving us a biblical theology of creation.

--p. 70

Glover invests two chapters (3 and 4) and some 40 pages (51-92) pursuing this line of thinking in depth. And I think it was as I read his comments about these matters that I began to understand why, as the Haarsmas suggest, it would have been distracting to the Israelites (not to mention just about everyone else down through the centuries), if God had communicated the equivalent of, Look, earthlings. Your [Ancient Near Eastern] cosmology is completely wrong. The earth is not stationary. It is not flat. The sky is not a solid dome. The sun and moon and stars are not attached to the lower face of the dome. There are no windows in the dome through which the waters above fall down upon the earth. There are no pillars holding up the sky. . . . And so on and so forth.

God's use of the ANE cosmology, Glover suggests, is an example of what [some] theologians refer to as the "principle of accommodation"--God's making allowances for--accommodating--human limitations.

In Psalm 136:7, Glover notes, the psalmist refers to "the two great lights" (the sun and the moon). "Are we to infer from this that the moon is physically greater than the stars, planets, and galaxies?" Glover asks.
Clearly not. But that is exactly how some Christians once understood this passage.

While nothing in the text demands that we draw these astronomical conclusions, if we bring these kinds of nonsensical questions to the foothills of Mt. Sinai, we will get these kinds of nonsensical answers.

--p. 79

Glover quotes Calvin's commentary on the book of Psalms:
The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy [in Psalm 136:7]. . . . [Instead,] he made use by Moses and the other prophets of popular language, that none might shelter himself under the pretext of obscurity. . . . Accordingly, as Saturn, though bigger than the moon, is not so to the eye owing to his greater distance, the Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned.

--p. 791

Glover offers another example of this principle of accommodation at work in the recent past.
The situation involved Western doctors trying to prevent the spread of infection by midwives in a [prescientific/non-Westernized] culture. Rather than try to teach [the midwives] about bacteria and germs, concepts that had no familiar cultural context, the doctors decided to use the [midwives'] own unscientific traditions to communicate the knowledge necessary for [the task at hand]. This instruction took the form of "ritual" washing so that "demons" from the hands of [the] midwives [would] not be transferred to the baby or mother.

The desired effect was achieved, even if by means of factually incomplete or incorrect knowledge.

--p. 79

I have thought about this illustration, now, for several days. And I have thought, first: Wouldn’t it have been better, long-term, if the doctors had taught these midwives the full truth about bacteria?

But then I realized that, though, yes, in the long run, it would be better if and when the midwives learn about germs, for the time being, it may have been a very good thing, indeed, for the doctors to have used the midwives' familiar cosmology.

Our culture, of course, has had the privilege of centuries to become familiar with microscopes. We know how they are used. We understand their strengths and limitations. Most Western adults have either seen microorganisms directly through microscopes, or we have seen enough photographs and heard enough testimonies that we have no questions about the reality of microorganisms--living things too small to be seen with the naked eye. We--most of us, anyway--are familiar with the tory of Louis Pasteur and how he came up with and proved the germ theory. We understand how bacteria work. This is all "old hat" to us.

But what about these midwives?

I do not know the details of the circumstances under which the doctors had to teach the midwives about the need for hygiene. But I can imagine.

I imagine they lacked the laboratory equipment and/or multimedia capabilities that would have been necessary to demonstrate even a tenth of what the average American high school graduate knows. And so, in the midst of one-shot three- or four or five-hour classes designed to help these midwives become more effective in their work generally, how much time do you think the doctors should dedicate solely to teaching these women the germ theory and the need always, always, always to wash their hands?

Glover asks,
If these [midwives] are ever to advance their knowledge to the point of understanding the actual material mechanisms by which infections are transmitted by unclean hands, will they curse these Western doctors for not giving them the [full, scientifically accurate] truth? Or will they appreciate the wisdom of these doctors, accommodating their ignorance and meeting them in their time of need--so that, despite their lack of knowledge, they might still [serve their patients effectively]?

--p. 79

Glover doesn't answer the question. But I think you know the answer he would choose. And I agree.
We don't always deal with our children strictly in accordance with the cold, hard facts. Instead, we make allowances for their ignorance and immaturity because there are often greater issues that may be obscured by laying down the factual account. . . . [And so w]e might refer to the passing of a loved one as "sleeping," or we may withhold the fact of adoption, or refer to sexual intercourse as some form of "advanced snuggling" for mommies and daddies. . . . The bottom line is that we don't give them more than they can handle, even if it is the truth. And so our Heavenly Father often deals with us much in the same way.. . .

--p. 77

1 Quoted from John Calvin, Commentary of the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1949), 5:184.
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