I am an evangelical Christian. I believe God created the world, that all mankind needs a savior, that hell is real, that Jesus really rose from the dead, and that he’s coming back someday. I believe the Bible is all the word of God, and that it is truth from cover to cover. And I am tired of Ken Ham and others like him, defining what it means to believe the things I do.
Ham, of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis, was one side of a highly-publicized debate Tuesday night with Bill Nye (The Science Guy) over whether “creation is a viable model for human origins. Ham is a “young-earth creationist”—i.e, he believes that God created the universe 6,000 years ago in six literal days, thus rendering evolution a hoax. Nye argued for what he called “mainstream science,” mocking Ham’s view as unscientific and dangerous to American progress, particularly if it shows up in public school classrooms.
Ironically, Ken Ham is kind of a childhood hero of mine. I was raised in a conservative home where his books let my active imagination intermingle with my budding faith. A universe spoken into existence in six literal days? Dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark? Secret evidence all around us? I hungrily devoured this wild conspiratorial narrative, eager to be a young Jedi in the rebellion against the evolutionary Empire. When I encountered non-Christians in my adolescence, my aggressive conversion attempts usually devolved into long debates about the fossil record, or the age of the earth, or the obvious impossibility of macroevolution.
Somewhere around junior year of high school, my faith imploded. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in the whole Bible. I just got worn out trying to defend every last literal detail, as if the slightest bit of doubt would send me straight to the bad place. And I no longer wished to fight my friends over a view of science and faith that increasingly made no sense of either. After a brief flirtation with atheism, I hobbled back to my faith, praying desperately that God would show me a way to believe without giving up my intellect.
Thankfully, I found a small but growing band of devout Christians like John Walton and Francis Collins who are leading a quiet revolution in the way we look at the origins debate. They helped me realize what I had suspected for a long time: that Ken Ham and his friends and followers are peddling a contradiction.
Ham’s greatest strength is his skepticism; his refusal to accept that Christianity is obligated to fit neatly into the mainstream cultural narrative. As an evangelical, that sort of contrarianism is in my lifeblood. But it’s on this point that Ham defeats himself. He rails endlessly against the dogmatism of scientific naturalism, while peddling an ideology that reduces the Bible into a giant jigsaw puzzle of scientific numbers and formulas, all easily arranged and understood. The only way that Ham gets away with this massive act of oversimplification is with an elaborate sleight of hand known as selective literalism—in other words, interpreting the Bible literally only when convenient.
For instance, the first chapter of Genesis (where we find the Judeo-Christian creation account) is full of terms that only make sense in an ancient cosmological context. The second verse talks of darkness being over the face of the t’hom, a Hebrew word that refers to the giant watery nothingness that preceded creation and undergirds the created world. Several verses later, God is putting a raqia between the sky and the earth. This Hebrew word comes from the premodern idea that a solid dome separated the “waters above”—rain and snow—from the earth and sea. (That same dome was thought to have collapsed, causing Noah’s flood.) These two words obviously do not fit into a modern scientific framework, so they’re conveniently overlooked or explained away in young-earth creationist literature. Ham and friends try to treat the creation narrative as a modern scientific treatise, yet can only do so at the expense of the text itself.
Ham seems blithely unaware that his view of the Bible is only possible in the world of the Enlightenment, where objectivity and reason are still king. The text of the Bible is stripped from its context where it floats in heavenly neutrality, waiting for clear-minded and unbiased interpreters like Ham to seamlessly and easily apply it to modern science. Thus the Bible ceases to be an ancient text, and therefore ceases to really say anything other than what we want it to say.
On the other hand, Nye argues, unlike his subtler atheist comrades, that the only other option is to doom the Bible to the dustbin of history in favor of the modern religion of reason, science, and “discovery.” “Mainstream science,” Nye argued repeatedly in the debate, must eschew any contact between science and the sacred, lest we risk the collapse of American ingenuity and progress. This type of alarmist sectarianism is remarkably close in tone to Ham’s prophetic warnings, and just as founded in the religion of logic and reason.
The good news is that the Enlightenment is over, even if the news has not reached some corners of the West. Its claims of objectivity have been often been found to be little more than hubristic ideology, and its ideal of the clear-eyed, unbiased scientist has suffered a string of damaging blows. Like plenty of other Westerners, many young Christians are tired of being forced to choose between the rationalistic dogmatism of the Ken Hams of the world or the rationalistic dogmatism of the Bill Nyes. We are tired of forcing the Bible to give us neat, clean answers to things it was never meant to solve. We want a faith that allows God and life and creation and nature to be bigger, more mysterious, more complex, and more beautiful than we could ever imagine. We believe alongside our questions, not in spite of them.
The contemporary debate over evolution is going nowhere. Both sides are as polarized as ever, and yesterday’s encounter demonstrates just how asinine the debate can get. The better discussion is the larger one: the place of the sacred in modern secular life, and more specifically, the place of sacred texts like the Bible in the postmodern world. Yet until the middle voices in the public sphere, both secular and religious, can both have the humility and the courage to disown the dogmatism of Nye and Ham, we will be stuck with the polemics of last night’s debate.