Slumming with the Creationists

FRIDAY, MAY 18, 2018

Slumming with the Creationists

A display at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky

This week I wrote two posts [see below] where I bashed what I called the modern synthesis between the theory of evolution – including its accompanying claims about the 4.5 billion year age of the earth – and orthodox Catholicism.

However, nowhere in the posts did I call myself a “creationist,” endorse “creationism” or, for that matter, even use the terms.

For the record, I wouldn’t currently call myself a creationist. I’d call myself a Catholic who is also a skeptic. And, yes, that means, among other things, that I’m quite skeptical of the creationist view that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, that dinosaurs probably lived alongside men and all the rest. To believe that, you would have to discard or at least radically reinterpret much of what the overwhelming majority of scientists believe about geology, astronomy and chemistry. Specifically, certain core assumptions underlying radiometric and radiocarbon dating as well as the consistency of the speed of light would have to be thrown out.

On the other hand, I think the standard theory of evolution is preposterous – from a scientific standpoint more than anything else – while the modified Catholic version of it – some type of theistic evolution or “intelligent design” ends up being very difficult to square with Catholic doctrine. Specifically, I do not see how animal suffering and ancient mass extinctions can be comfortably accommodated with a pre-Fall creation that was “very good” or how common descent from pre-human ancestors can be made consistent with a literal Adam and Eve. For the latter point, I stand by my claim that no Catholic or theistic proponent of intelligent design has ever even tried to outline precisely what it would mean for Adam to have been what I called a “near ape man.” Indeed, Catholic and Christian quasi-evolution or design proponents are very uncomfortable even talking about the subject. That tells you something in and of itself.

So we’re back to having a certain sympathy, albeit for mostly negative reasons, for creationism – a theory almost exclusively associated with 20th century American Protestant evangelicals, although its current chief proponent is an Australian transplant.

You might call my current position slumming with the creationists.

So what do I believe? If you could take a video camera back in time 7,500 years (the approximate point many creationists believe God created the world) or 4.5 billion years (if there was such a time) what would it record? I don’t know. I’d very much like to know, but I don’t. Quite honestly, I think all the alternatives are problematic for a believing Catholic.

That’s not a magisterial opinion, obviously. It’s my opinion.

And in this – the problematic nature of all the alternatives – I think intelligent and honest atheists such as Richard Dawkins have a sort of advantage.

How do you combat that? From a sociological point of view, you can’t, or at least you can’t very easily or quickly. Atheism or secularism are now the dominant intellectual and cultural paradigms, and there’s no reason to believe this will change in the near future, whatever brilliant empirical or logical considerations any particular Christian can come up with in any particular intellectual battleground.

But here’s what you don’t do: You don’t sweep the problems under the rug or ignore them because they might be difficult or embarrassing or whatever in favor of “I (as a Catholic) believe what I believe and that makes me feel very spiritual inside, etc., etc.” Cue violins.

Or at least that’s never been how I viewed my own Catholic faith.

Personally, I think much of the hostility to creationism among contemporary Catholics, even conservative or traditionalist Catholics, is because of its current association with evangelical Protestants. They’re Protestants, after all. Plus, they’re sort of lower class, have bad taste in clothes and often speak with a twang.

That the identification of creationism with Protestanism is almost entirely a 20th and 21st century phenomenon, that some version of “creationism,” though it didn’t go by that name, was the view of virtually all Catholics, including the Church Fathers and Doctors, and all the saints and popes up until the late 19th or early 20th centuries is something that many contemporary Catholics seem to be unaware of.

That doesn’t make it true, of course. But at the least it should give faithful contemporary Catholic pause. The intellectual and theological wreck of Modernism with its first culmination in Vatican II created a sort of vacuum that evangelical Protestants in some part filled. That they filled it with their energy at evangelization is a certainty. They also filled it with their intellectual drive, which is ironic since so many would sneer at their “anti-intellectualism.”

In some ways I feel more comfortable in a Moody Bible bookstore than in the basement annex of St. Peters in the Loop with its America magazine displays and row upon row of hippy-priest Paulist Press paperbacks.

If you have a problem with the fact that in recent times Christian evangelicals have done much of the work that Catholics should have been doing, don’t blame them.

Protestant evangelical or Vatican II Catholic? Of course it’s best to be neither.

But I’m not above slumming.

TUESDAY, MAY 15, 2018

Evolution, Creation and Catholic Faith

The Garden of Eden by Jacob Bouttats

The theory of evolution, that all species including man arose gradually through a process of natural selection based on random mutation, has for many years been largely accepted by most Catholics. Along with that, the modern view that the earth is many billions of years old has also been accepted.

Both of these obviously fly in the face of a literal interpretation of Genesis. But it has long been a claim of modern religious faith that they are perfectly consistent with a metaphorical or allegorical interpretation of Scripture. God may not have actually created the world in six twenty-four hour days, but the creation “myth” of Genesis is still true on a deeper theological level. While Genesis is obviously not a science textbook, it is still inerrant (as the Church teaches that it must be) if interpreted correctly on its own terms.

Thus, we can have evolution, at least in some form – perhaps including a divine nudge or two here or there to make sure the “random” mutations go in the right direction or whatever – and a 4.5 billion year-old earth with ages upon ages of survival of the fittest – from unicellular organisms to trilobites to dinosaurs to rats to apes to humans – without giving up anything essential in Catholic theology or doctrine.

It seems like almost a happy ending, doesn’t it? We can have both our modern scientific cake and our Catholic cake and also eat them.

So, I’m sorry to break it to you, but:

The above is utter hogwash.

If the theory of evolution is true and the earth really is billions of years old, then Genesis is not only literally false, it’s false in virtually any other way that it could be true or false. Nor does it have any other meaning that is even remotely helpful. At best, it’s a “myth” with no connection to anything. At worst, it’s directly misleading – a lie.

And thus the claim that the Bible is inerrant is a lie.

And thus the Catholic faith is a lie.

Of course, I’m a believing Catholic, so I don’t think the faith is a lie. (Note the “if” three paragraphs up.) But in terms of the truth of the if/then statement, I’m with the atheist Richard Dawkins on this one.

I’ll be writing more about this topic in the coming weeks, including references to the Catholic Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation.

For now, though, I want to leave you with this to think about. In Genesis 1:29-31, we read:

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

But if the general outlines of the theory of evolution are true, then the above is not only not good science, it’s not even good theology. What God should have added (or what Moses or whoever supposedly wrote the Pentateuch should have said God added) is this:

But I (God) am only going to provide a finite amount of food such that every beast of the earth will be locked in an unending struggle for survival that will result in the unnatural death by starvation or predation of the vast majority. Many creatures will eat each other, even though I earlier didn’t tell you that. And you will eat some of them, though I didn’t tell you that either. And once in a while you’ll get eaten yourselves. Such a state of affairs will continue for billions of years punctuated by the occasional meteor that will periodically wipe out almost everything. Did I say before that it was very good? What I meant was, it might be very good for modern people to think about in armchairs, but for the trillions upon trillions of creatures, including some of your ape grandparents, who led brief lives of meaningless suffering, not so much.

Intelligent atheists completely get the contradiction here. Modern faithful Christians don’t want to get it, for obvious reasons. But I think most of them actually do get it, at least, subconsciously. Or if they don’t get it, their kids will.
I think this is is the primary reason for the decline of Western religious faith in the 20th century.

THURSDAY, MAY 17, 2018

Was Adam an Ape Man?


Many modern orthodox Catholics believe they have made a sort of peace between the Creation account found in Genesis and at least a modified theory of evolution. Note that these orthodox Catholics believe in a real and literal Adam and Eve, as they are told they must by Catholic doctrine as reiterated as recently as Pope Pius XII, and restated in the current Catechism.

But if we accept evolutionary descent with modification, then Adam and Eve must have been cavemen or ape-men or what I will from here on in call “near-ape men.” On what we might call the Evolutionary-Catholic synthesis the difference was that these new near-ape men were now “ensouled.” Presumably, this initially involved no obvious physical changes – they all (both the ensouled and non-ensouled near-ape men) were hairy or not, beetlebrowed or not, and so on and so forth. One assumes that the details are not important.

Curiously, I have never read an account for what, on this theory, precisely and literally happened. And whether we take the creation account in Genesis as, say, 50% allegory, 80% allegory or 98% allegory, something must have literally happened. What?

Here then is my attempt at what we might call a historical reconstruction, using the text of Genesis 2-3 as an explanatory framework. Remember that for the orthodox Catholic, Genesis must be inerrant (the Church commands us to believe this) whether we interpret it literally, figuratively or, as seems most plausible, using some mix of the two.

The following may perhaps verge on the comic, but I really did try to be as fair as possible. If any reader feels like I’m being unfair to the orthodox Catholic who believes in both modified evolutionary theory and the theological claims made in Genesis and elsewhere, I’d be happy to know where I went wrong.

But (to those who may wish to try), please stay away from ad hominem attacks, irrelevant appeals to the fossil-record, accusations that even talking about such things makes one a stupid Protestant fundie, etc. This is your theory, after all.

Okay, here goes:

GENESIS, Chapters 2 and 3:

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground—This refers to the time of man’s near-ape ancestors who hadn’t yet invented agriculture. The rain passage is more problematic. Since we know that there had been rain for billions of years, what the author probably means is that up to now it was a different sort of rain, not as picturesque as you now see on farms. Or maybe it means absolutely nothing.

Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. Then the Lord God designated one of the near-ape men roaming the East African plains and ensouled him. His near-ape comrades were initially unaware of this, as to all outward appearances, he seemed identical with them.
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. This can be interpreted in at least two ways. Since the near-ape men led tough and dangerous lives, it would make sense that God would want to protect his newly ensouled creature by placing him in a specially designated area. On the other hand, we could interpret the passage allegorically by postulating that the newly ensouled near-ape man was given some sort of unique spiritual gifts that insured that the rest of his life would go much better than the lives of the other near-ape men (almost as if he were living in “paradise”). This is obviously the more scientific view.
The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is presumably allegorical. Claims of a magical garden or special spiritual protections are one thing, but postulating an actual “tree of knowledge” goes too far.
A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. Either the garden was in what we would now call Iraq. Or specifying the location using modern geographical terms is allegorical for “there was a garden somewhere” or “it was as if (spiritually) he were now in a garden located somewhere in Iraq.”

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” This is probably allegorical for “enjoy yourself, but be careful: with ensoulment goes great responsibility.”

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. Again, this is probably a way of saying that the near-ape men already had a rudimentary language, including names for animals and so on, but the newly ensouled near-ape man was a bit smarter (being ensouled) and thus was able to use language with a higher degree of sophistication.

But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. What does this mean? I think it’s clear that either: 1) It’s a fancy way of saying that the second paragraph above should be revised to really state that God originally selected two near-ape people – one male and one female – from that roving band on the plains. Or 2) God took a piece of the man’s soul and out of it created a female soul. That’s obviously more scientific than any reference to ribs.
Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Since the non-ensouled near-ape men also had bones and flesh, “bones” and “flesh” are obviously figurative here for “soul stuff.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. We know that near-ape men and women had been having sex and had been going without clothes for millions of years without embarrassment. Ensoulment didn’t change that.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LordGod had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. Again, this is probably allegory. Modern man understands certain things about the world that the author of Genesis did not. One of those things is that there are no talking snakes. So we may understand this passage as meaning that one or both of the newly ensouled near-ape people suddenly found themselves having evil thoughts. Among other things, this now made them embarrassed about sexual matters.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LordGod among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Translate this as: the man blamed his evil thoughts on the woman, who he claimed had them first. The woman blamed her evil thoughts on the talking snake.

The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”

Again, we know that snakes had been crawling on their bellies for millions of years. So this is simply an allegory for another allegory that will be found later in Scripture.

To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”

This is problematic. On the one hand, we can be sure that non-ensouled near-ape women also experienced pain in childbearing. So it’s probably a way of saying that either God foresaw the Fall from the beginning, which is why all near-ape women (ensouled and non-ensouled) experienced pain during childbirth (though the newly ensouled woman hadn’t experienced it yet) as a sort of backwards punishment for what the ensouled near-ape people would later do, or perhaps ensouled women would experience more pain. Or perhaps it just means that due to the Fall, pain and suffering came into the world, even though it was sort of there already.

Or perhaps it means nothing.

And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

Translate this as: your temporary special protections have now been lifted. You can both go back to toiling and eventually dying along with the other near-ape men.

The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Various interpretations of the above are possible. However, left unstated is an important additional point. God must have then created a special spiritual or quasi-physical field around the newly ensouled near-ape people such that they would not breed with the thousands or millions of other non-ensouled near-ape people already roaming the plains. The non-ensouled near-ape people then died out.
Well, you probably can guess by now what I think of the above.
Aren’t we all a bit old for these sorts of stories?
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