By Joseph Phelps
People love a fight, especially one that includes religion. So Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, did their best this week in their nationally-watched face-off to recreate the Scopes Monkey Trial brawl of 1925.
The debate topic: “How did we get here?”
Despite the painfully predictable positions, there were a few interesting moments, including a number of roundhouse punches, mostly delivered by Mr. Nye and absorbed by Mr. Ham, who, not realizing he’d been knocked out, kept talking in circles.
As the bout continued I wished for a third contestant, one who would have reached down and picked up the Bible out of the mud after it had been unceremoniously mishandled by both Mr. Nye and Mr. Ham.
Mr. Nye was defending science. Mr. Ham was defending his particular, peculiar view of creation.
Who was there to defend the Bible, which didn’t volunteer to be a punching bag in this fight?
Where was the voice of the many who celebrate the Bible as our primary resource for exploring the mysteries and mercies of life’s sacredness?
Where was another view of how to appropriate wisely the stories of the Bible in ways that speak to questions beyond or within those of science?
I was embarrassed by Mr. Ham’s ham-handed handling of the poetry and storytelling nature of the Bible. He recruited to his arsenal any available line or word as “proof” — for example, the psalmists’ reference to God flinging the stars in the sky as evidence of a singular, specific event where a big deity literally disbursed the bodies of the universe.
What kind of childish literalism reads the anthropomorphic language of Genesis and concludes that the Bible can only be read as a historical rendering of the origins of the universe?
I appreciated Mr. Nye’s repeated observation that there are millions of people of faith who read our sacred texts with full devotion to their truthfulness but who do not believe the creation stories to be literally true.
These millions know that to take the Bible literally is a poor substitute for taking it seriously. Literalism chokes off the disparate voices of its writers and mutes its capacity to speak compellingly to the deep spiritual matters that are its subjects: matters of sacred centeredness, gratitude, humility and compassion that are the building blocks for constructing personal and communal ethics worthy of the word “holy.”
So thank you, Mr. Nye, for your shout-out to the rest of us.
Unfortunately, in Mr. Nye’s dismissal of the notion of the Bible as a science book he may have also implied a dismissal of how this odd, old collection of writings speaks to mysteries that science does not broach: What informs our consciousness? How are meaning and value derived in a world that, on its surface, appears indifferent and sometimes hostile? Are empathy and love anything more than neurological synapses reacting robotically to some external stimulant?
I don’t fault Mr. Nye for failing to raise these questions, but I do wish there had been someone on stage to posit to viewers that there is much more to the Bible, and to religion, than was being represented by the two debaters.
Mr. Ham’s view of God demands an instantaneous creation by a heavy-handed deity whose super powers force fearful subservience from humans. Without this, he says, everything sacred and religious falls apart.
If that’s the only legitimate view of God, count me an atheist.
Fortunately, that’s not the message of the Bible. In fits and starts the Bible points toward the universal connection of all things — stars, water, plants, people — and names the obvious: we are one. This unity of both destiny and purpose is a wonder. It invites a connection and a partnership on life’s complex journey toward completion.
Science explores the origins of this journey and researches its physical patterns and peculiarities. Religion explores the journey’s inner implications and the deeper meaning and relationships we discover on this journey.
That these two disciplines are partners seems obvious to many who work in these fields. This profound partnership and the myriad mysteries they explore begin to approach what many of us mean by the word “God.” One way to employ the word “God” is as shorthand for the energy that moves us and the emotion that gives us meaning. God means more than this to many of us, of course, but not less.
The first creation account in Genesis suggests this energy is at work, moving slowly, imperceptibly through the ages, present in and among the changes that took eons.
The second creation tale (yes, there are two, and they are quite different in style and content) tells of a deity doing handiwork, forming the clay and breathing life into it. What a primitively profound presentation of our origins as humans!
It is poetry and story. It is myth with meaning. It is a tale with a twist that invites us to view our lives more wholly — connected to earth and sacred breath, wholly humus and wholly holy.