My good friend William Dembski, the leading proponent of Intelligent Design Theory, is in hot water–a particularly appropriate metaphor, as you will learn in a moment. Bill is a faculty member at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Last year he published a book, The End of Christianity, in which he suggested that Noah’s Flood was not worldwide but possibly limited to just a patch of the Middle East. This brought down the wrath of the authorities at SBTS and the threat of firing. Dembski has smartly stepped back into line.
“In a brief section on Genesis 4–11, I weigh in on the Flood, raising questions about its universality, without adequate study or reflection on my part. Before I write on this topic again, I have much exegetical, historical, and theological work to do. In any case, not only Genesis 6–9 but also Jesus in Matthew 24 and Peter in Second Peter seem clearly to teach that the Flood was universal. As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality.”
Now at the risk of sounding like someone condoning a belief in the scientifically absurd and the theologically nutty, I have a certain sympathy for Bill. He is a very good mathematician who wrote a book which may have been wrong but in its discussion of probability as such (not the theology in which he embedded it) was pretty stimulating. If he had been prepared to play safely, he could have gotten a job at a regular, good university, got tenure, and then started to reveal his hand. After all, Alvin Plantinga believes in Intelligent Design Theory and it certainly never stopped his career. But Bill went public, hard-line, early, and his career has been fraught, to say the least. And now here he is with a wife and kids to support and the threat of the sack.
Sympathy is not agreeing or condoning. I draw a strong distinction between Dembski’s problems at SBTS and the problems I wrote about in an earlier blog, those of John Schneider at Calvin College. You will remember that the latter is in trouble with his president for suggesting that the earliest humans were not a single pair, Adam and Eve, but a group of evolved apes. Schneider has argued that perhaps rather than taking an Augustinian line on original sin, seeing one mistake by the original pair as the reason for death and destruction in the world, we should follow Irenaeus of Lyon in seeing sin as part of the original human condition along with our inclinations for good.
My distinction is based simply on the fact that Schneider is letting himself be guided by evidence and reason, otherwise known as science, and recognizing his theology must work with that. Dembski is letting himself be guided by theology and let the science pick up the bits and pieces, wherever they fall. Apart from anything else, Dembski (not to mention the President of Calvin College) is flying in the face of almost two millennia of Christian theology, dating at least back to Augustine. Using reason supported by empirical evidence is not heretical, but using those very gifts that make us in the image of God. If science is definitive, and if it isn’t definitive on the non-universality of the Flood I don’t know what it is, then we must read the Bible metaphorically or allegorically.
One final point. I am sitting in a hotel room in Chicago waiting to go to a memorial meeting in memory of my friend David Hull. As usual, when I travel I don’t sleep very well. Without a wife under the covers and a couple of Cairn Terriers on top, I feel very lonely and unloved. So, as often, I find myself in the middle of the night reading the only reading matter available, the Gideon Bible. Nothing like tales of ethnic cleansing in the Middle East for getting a chap back to sleep.
I turned to Genesis 6 through 9, the story of the Flood, and again it struck me how deep and true a story it is. It is not about hydraulics and the problems of sanitation when in confined spaces. It is a story about the futility of simplistic solutions. God is dissatisfied with the world, so he cleans it out, in order to start again. And what happens when he has done this? Noah, the one who “found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” gets stinking drunk and one of his kids laughs and sneers at him. We are right back to square one.
Complex problems are going to need careful and thoughtful solutions, probably taking much time and effort. If only those good Christians George W. Bush and Tony Blair had read their bible before they marched into Iraq. If only the Tea Partyers would read their bibles before they propose their instant remedies for the country. Abolishing legal abortion and giving all of our money to the rich is not going to solve the unemployment problem. What is wrong with Christians? Instead of spending time trying to get the rest of us to accept their religion, why don’t they start by accepting the religion themselves?