Sunday, May 11, 2008

Why is the Trunk Hollow?

I just finished listening to a live symposium at Wheaton College on how the evangelical church has changed since 1968. The consensus seemed to be a mixed report card, perhaps summarized by the statement, as best I can recall it, of "the tree trunk is more hollow now, but the branches and leaves are flourishing", which somewhat reminds me of Rev 3:1-6. The discussion talked about how the focus on truth, doctrine and missions has declined and for many has been replaced by a focus on a combination of things such as entertainment and individual achievement.

The Physics Connection
In reflecting on what was said, it seems to me that the issue may be that many Christians are not convinced that they have the ultimate truth about the cosmos and that other beliefs do not. In fact, that concept seems to be thought of in the broader society as the core problem with Christianity, as seen for example in Oprah's discussions that truth is not exclusive to only one set of beliefs.

And in fact, science, especially physics, seems to have proved something different for the origins of man than what Jesus seemed to believe was the origins of man. And if that is the case, maybe Jesus was a very good example and moral teacher with an excellent understanding of a supreme purpose/law, but a fallible one whose teachings we should apply or not apply based on the situation and our understanding of a higher moral law.

Are Creationists the Problem?
I think the most telling part of the symposium is when one of the questioners, an alumni of Wheaton, talked about how she learned about evolution in her classes. She then discussed how young earth creationism can be seen as the biggest barrier to intellectuals giving respect to the evangelical church. She went on to say that was especially a problem in the home school movement, since the large majority of home school families believe young earth creationism (many home school families, such as my own, do not want evolution taught uncritically to their kids in a public school for fear their kids might put two and two together and reject the Bible as a myth and possibly reject any ultimate value to life in general). To their credit, the panel did not say anything positive or negative on the issue, but did say something like this is a debated area with many issues. Note that this is not an isolated view from one questioner. I have read a report that at least one CCCU college president (The CCCU is the coalition of protestant Christian colleges where all faculty/staff must be Christians) has expressed the same frustration that young earth creationist beliefs might be the biggest impediment to the acceptance of Christianity by society.

As a home school father working (as staff, not faculty) at Wheaton, with an Electrical Engineering undergraduate degree (I've studied applied physics) and who has spent a significant amount of time studying the problems in the young earth - old earth debate, I felt compelled to comment. Basically, there is no way around it. I am the kind of person the questioner feels is anti-intellectual and is hurting the church.

I agree that Young Earth creationism has two main beliefs that don't seem, at least to my satisfaction, to have sufficient rigorous theoretical support yet. Those questions are: How do we see distant stars and why is there more than expected products of radioactive decay, neither of which should be the case in a young earth scenario given the current scientific consensus. Note that both of these are physics questions and both are actively being worked on by scientists who hold to young earth creationism.

Physics Has Blind Faith Too
But on the other side of the equation are the things that people have to believe if they accept the current scientific consensus, such as the twin paradox and Schrodinger's cat, both of which seem to be based somewhat on a Logical Positivist view of the world (the totality of what we see/measure is to us reality rather than being an imperfect view of an underlying reality that we may not be able to fully access). Look up those two paradoxes and see if you have enough faith to believe that our perspectives actually affect reality. What would you think if a preacher taught the Schrodinger's cat concept from a pulpit? And what does that say about where you are grounding your belief system? If that isn't eye opening, other physics theories such as imaginary time and multiverse come to mind when discussing how young earth creationist theories may be junk science, but science with a naturalistic assumption is truth that should be taught and believed uncritically.

Physicists: The New Priesthood
Note that competing religious beliefs are grounding their core theologies on physics. That is why the Theosophical Society has physicists from Fermilab come speak and the beliefs of the Temple of Set can be described by their local Chicago spokesperson as relating to multiverse theory, a theory of origins and the cosmos derived from physics. So, in my mind, the key debate and discussion in the marketplace of ideas is currently focused on the outcome of highly theoretical debates in physics and the philosophy of science. The intellectual debate of origins/values has shifted from theology to physics.

So, I think the questioner was right on point that the Young Earth/Old Earth debate is the intellectual center of the recent past and likely future changes in evangelicalism and Christianity at large. Intelligent Design, which I think most people in both the old earth and young earth camps agree with (and which is explicitly supported as a concept in the Bible), has been making some excellent strides but it supports almost any belief system, including a pantheist/polytheist world view.

In defense of Wheaton College science classes on the issue creation/evolution, when coming to work for Wheaton two years ago I checked out from the library the textbooks that were used to teach the subject in the science classes (you can do the same for most college by looking at their online bookstore and ordering the relevant books through inter-library loan). As a young earth creationist myself, I found that they fairly covered the creation/evolution issues, including the problems with both positions. And from a theological perspective, I appreciate that the college recognizes that at least a belief in a literal Adam is a requirement to keeping Christian theology from collapsing like a house of cards (here is the reasoning: if a real Adam is actually a myth, then Jesus taught about at least some myths rather than being 100% true and there would be no "fall of man" for Jesus to "save" us from).

The Burden of Proof

So, on one hand, I disagree with the questioner's implication that the church should shun young earth creationism, more than it already does, in order to not be ridiculed by intellectuals. But I do agree that the responsibility is on young earth creationist physicists to find a theory that satisfactorily answers the two physics questions listed above.

There are some interesting possibilities but we are not quite yet at a place where young earth physics theories of origins can go head to head with the scientific consensus in physics. Of course it took around a thousand years for instruments to be developed to allow Ptolemy's accurate formulas to be reinterpreted and replaced by a new cosmology that was not based on measurements from a human, earth centered perspective. But judging by the strides in Intelligent Design and flood geology (Mt. Saint Helens) as well as knowing some of the philosophical assumptions that go into current interpretations of physics formulas, I am hopeful that young earth creationism will not have to wait that long to answer those last two key questions. And if that happens, the trunk of the tree will begin to fill in.