Today I want to go where angels fear to tread. This is prompted mainly by Jerry Coyne’s recent foray in the strange world of the Biologos Forum, which has, as its mission statement: “The BioLogos Foundation explores, promotes and celebrates the integration of science and Christian faith.” Not relate, notice, but integrate, which means, I take it, to combine into a whole. So Biologos intends to take science and religion — and specifically the Christian religion — and to relate them as parts of a single whole.
What reasonable expectation is there that they can do that? The answer to that question is, fairly self-evidently, none. It may be possible to play around with biblical stories and the religious doctrines derived from them, and interpret them in ways that make them less conflicting with science, but not only are science and religion completely different cultural undertakings, religion cannot, except by way of courtesy, be considered a discipline of knowledge at all, and to integrate science and religion requires that they be, in some sense, about the same things, and have, at least, analogous types of confirmation.
But there is simply no error theory for theological propositions, except by way of authoritative pronouncements. Authority, however, cannot establish truth. It can only define what will be regarded, for whatever purpose, as truth. This is clear from the Roman Catholic description of what it calls the Magisterium, or teaching authority of the church. The theologian’s task, from this point of view, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, puts it, is
… to give a correct interpretation to the texts of the Magisterium and to this end he employs various hermeneutical rules. Among these is the principle which affirms that Magisterial teaching, by virtue of divine assistance, has a validity beyond its argumentation. [section 34, my emphasis]
Dennis Alexander — the proximate object of Jerry Coyne’s withering criticism — must do essentially the same thing regarding what he calls the issues that are central to the Gospel. But this is clearly not an error theory. It merely prescribes, beforehand, what will be considered an error.
Take the example of the biblical story of creation, and in particular the Adam and Eve story, which is the immediate object of Jerry Coyne’s criticism in the post linked above. He points out how Biologos seems to be obsessed with Adam and Eve, when it need not be. Why should Biologos be so devoted to something which must be a continuing source of frustration? As he says:
The obvious thing to do, if you were a smart but committed Christian, would be to regard this story as some kind of metaphor, as many liberal Christians do, and find some metaphorical reason why our species is cursed with sin.
But Biologos can’t do that. Why? Well, for the simple reason that in the kind of simplistic understanding of Christianity that Biologos takes as normative, Adam and Eve are of central importance. Besides, a fairly conservative form of Protestant Christianity — even Calvinism, if Alexander’s “white paper” (see below) is anything to go by — seems to inform Biologos’ theological paradigm. Adam and Eve’s historical existence (in some sense) is central to the whole drama of salvation that consists in God’s election of a people, his promise of a redeemer, it’s fulfilment in Jesus’ ministry, which culminates in his sacrificial crucifixion, and subsequent triumph over sin and death in his resurrection. Without Adam and Eve and their disobedience Jesus would be just another Jew killed by the Romans, regrettable, as all such senseless deaths no doubt are, but of no cosmic significance.
Biologos might, as Jerry Coyne points out, merely treat the story of Adam and Eve as metaphor, as many liberal Christians have done for many years. Why is this not a good solution? Well, for the simple reason that, if it is “only” a metaphor, how is it to be integrated with science?
Now, behold how it is done. We even have a “white paper” on the subject by the molecular biologist Denis Alexander! The terminology of “white papers”, like the use of the terms “data-sets” and “models”, which Alexander salts throughout his “white paper”, is all a part of an elaborate charade. When we come to consider the “data-sets” and “models” that are supposed to help us mesh biblical theology with genetics and anthropology, it turns out that the only work these terms are doing is to mislead us. Instead of grand unifying theory, we have grand unifying pretence.
For example, Alexander ends his “white paper” with the claim that
In relating anthropology to Biblical teaching we are in a much stronger position than that [than science itself, which sometimes must acknowledge that there is no coherent theory for apparently conflicting data-sets], since the models proffered go at least some way towards rendering the two data-sets mutually coherent. (9)
The reference to the two data-sets is entirely delusional. There is one data-set, the scientific findings of genetics and anthropology about the evolution of Homo sapiens, and its subsequent migration from Africa to populate the world, and then one story, sifted out historically from a great many origin stories, the one that has come down to us in the biblical text which is deemed sacred by Christians and Jews. In what sense can this story be considered a data-set? That it has been privileged by religious believers whose religion survived while others did not, scarcely gives it, in any reasonable sense, probative value regarding the nature of the world or the significance of human beings.
So when Alexander begins his “white paper” — it’s hard not to laugh derisively when typing those words — by saying that
Theological truths revealed in Scripture are eternal infallible truths, valid for the whole of humanity for all time, although human interpretations of Scripture are not infallible and may change with time over issues that are not central to the Gospel, (1)
he is merely making marks on paper, not saying anything. He wants there to be a “data-set” of theological truths, so he simply dragoons the Bible into providing one. But there are so many unsettled questions here, at the very beginning, that make it simply impossible for him to go on, if his aim is to say something coherent.
This is a foundational claim. Alexander holds that:
(i) one book, the Bible — which, it is important to add, has come down to us as a redaction of many texts, by whom, in what context, and for what original purpose it is now impossible to discern – is the source of eternal infallible truths revealed by a god, such that they are
(ii) valid for humanity for all time regarding issues central to the Gospel, and yet, at the same time,
(iii) hermeneutically labile in respect of issues which are not central to the Gospel.
All of which makes it evident that this is not a foundation at all, for the simple reason that “issues central to the Gospel” can only be distinguished from those not central by privileging and fixing some interpretations while letting others float in the free market of hermeneutic. But this is a hermeneutic fiction, for, as hermeneutic, it must be as fallible as other hermeneutic moves in the religious game. Therefore, the Bible cannot provide us with any truths which are eternal and infallible, “valid for the whole of humanity for all time.”
There is simply no reason, as Jerry Coyne points out, why the Adam and Eve story must be understood in a quasi-literal way, and then to wonder what “model” will best integrate that story with the findings of genetics and anthropology. Nor is there any reason to take the so-called Fall, or what Alexander calls, in a footnote (fn 10), “How sin began,” as in any sense descriptive of an historical event. It is true that, if it is not an historical event, then the whole premise of incarnational theology rests on a mistake, as the Anglican theologian Maurice Wiles thought it did.
But this just shows how open to interpretation and reinterpretation the biblical stories are — even those that are central to what Alexander thinks of as the Gospel. So there is no way that we can provide a “data-set” on the religious side of the proposed integration of science with religion that is in any way coordinate with the data-sets that are the very stuff of science. Nor is there any way to settle the question of which interpretation is the right one regarding the biblical stories, though, in the case of science, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, that is, in how things actually turn out. So a “model” for a theological “truth” is no more than a proposed interpretation of biblical texts considered as revealed by a god. And this is simply not enough to be going forward with, and even Denis Alexander must — at least one hopes that there is this much rationality left, despite its manifold deformations through the alembic of the Bible — know this even as he tries to fit the many shapes of religion into a mould that remains steadfastly obdurate.
I have not considered the “arguments” of Alexander’s “white paper”. The reason is simply that they are strictly irrelevant. Alexander’s model cannot work in theological terms. He takes the “Homo divinus model” as the best interpretation. Adam and Eve were paleolithic farmers specially chosen by God, who then, having known God, turn deliberately away, and bring down, by a process of social contamination, a pall of sin over the whole of humankind. It’s embarrassing even to write the words!
There are hosts of problems here, but, from the biblical standpoint alone it is untenable. For it supposes that Adam and Eve (however understood) are the founding pair of the chosen people. But, biblically, this is simply wrong. In the Bible “man” sins in Adam, and then, later, God chooses Abraham to found the chosen people in order to redeem sinful humankind from sin and death.
And this is only the Christian understanding of the story, for Jewish interpretation of the story of the so-called Fall (as Christians understand it) is something completely different, and it is not obvious why Alexander does not give Jewish interpretation some weight in his “model”. Well, of course, because Biologos is about integrating Christianity with science. That, however, is not an answer. It’s a prejudice. It just shows how unscientific the whole procedure really is. Alexander contrives to make Adam and Eve play a role in the drama of salvation that the Bible does not give them. Hermeneutics cannot simply rewrite the story. This much of an error theory biblical theology does provide. So the “white paper” is simply obfuscating confabulation to satisfy already held beliefs. It provides no knowledge at all, and the purported relation to science is even sillier than it need have been.