Questions of the Modern Mind
by Matt Shrader
It has been a long while since young-earth creationists have made such an international appearance. On February 4, 2014 Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis debated with Bill Nye from Bill Nye the Science Guy. Many in the scientific community tuned in to see how the debate would go. Countless churches and schools organized viewings of the debate. This author turned on the online stream which allowed me to conveniently pause and restart as needed. Many billed this as the second Scopes Monkey Trial. Interestingly, several prominent scientists excoriated Bill Nye for even debating. Many of the world’s leading atheists, including Richard Dawkins, objected to even giving creationists (let alone young-earth creationists) a podium from which to speak. For such scientists there is nothing to debate because creationism (and theism for some) has lost its day. This suggests that there is something bigger at play here, and it stretches back past the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920’s, past the publications of Darwin of the late 1800’s, and more precisely to the central questions which have come from the “modern” critiques of Christianity. Such questions predate that time period, but they were never presented with such tenacity, penetration, and widespread acceptance than they did at that time.
The central question of the Ham-Nye debate was this: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” That is a great question, and I am glad that it gained some international news attention. I agree with those who have pointed out that the central question must inevitably turn not just to scientific data, but also to issues of how we can know anything (epistemology), what is our ultimate authority, what does it mean to exist, what do you do with the questions your viewpoint will inevitably create, and is there a Creator God that we can know on a meaningful level? Those questions reveal where the real differences reside.
The debate was not really about evidences. If the debate was all about which model presents the best explanation of the evidence then their could have been a more focused debate over the evidences. Instead both debaters referred the listeners to various resources to check their statements. And truly, the debate over the evidence is nothing new and there are myriads of explanations for either viewpoint answering the other viewpoint. It is well worth the time and effort to evaluate those evidences. These issues had to come out to answer the central question of the debate but they could never fully satisfy that question because the question points to those bigger issues I mentioned.
If you watched the debate, and it is surely still able to be accessed online, then you may have gotten the same feeling that I did: these guys live in very different worlds from one another. Furthermore, Bill Nye and those who agree with his point of view had to look at Ken Ham with an air of complete consternation. Ken Ham kept pointing to the Bible as his authority, an authority which Bill Nye repeatedly referred to as an old book come to us through countless modifications resulting in its utter unreliability. Bill Nye even pointed to certain ideas which he saw as morally reprehensible in biblical theology (theodicy questions) as well as rejecting any kind of non-natural explanation for human consciousness (psychology). Those questions all point to the central idea.
Bill Nye, who also happens to be a former student of Carl Sagan, could not understand why someone would reject not just the critiques of modern science on the Bible but also the critiques offered in the areas of psychology and moral theory and biblical higher criticism. I half expected Bill Nye to stop and respond to the major question by saying: “Viable??? Mr. Ham, don’t you know that the Enlightenment and modern critiques of religion have happened…and you lost?” In essence, how can anyone accept biblical explanations of anything (such as science) when they consider the huge body of modern religious critique?
I would like to take this article and explain a little bit of where such a question comes from by giving a historical survey of the modern critiques. I think we must also make the point that these questions are extremely significant to many. And I want to talk to how the current conservative Christian who accepts biblical authority and inerrancy can start to respond to such questions. But to answer a question we must first understand the question.
The Modern Challenges to Religion:
The critiques of the modern mind began in the time period called the Enlightenment, a period which stretched from the post-Reformation religious wars (ca. 1648) until the French Revolution (1789). “It is the age which brought together the humanistic spirit of the Renaissance and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and thereby ushered in what we call the ‘modern world.’”1 This time period brought about revolutions in science, philosophy, anthropology, and also religion. Instead of an understood reliance on theological authority from the Bible or the Church, the modern man looked elsewhere for a foundation. Autonomous humanity was the central cry. Reason as the authority dominated especially the 1700’s. There was a trust in the ability of humanity to understand nature and inevitably progress, an understanding which produced much optimism. Other Enlightenment ideas such as toleration and the scientific method were also presented as a result of this newfound foundation. For Christianity, the options were whether they should accommodate to these changes; how they should adjust to these changes; or how they could resist these changes.
David Hume (1711-1776) was one of the first (and perhaps the best) of the modern critics of religion. He essentially destroyed any attempt to build a religion on pure reason alone. This was a blow to that Enlightenment idea but also a blow to those theologians who were attempting to build a natural religion which appealed to nature and reason apart from or in concert with special revelation. Now theology could no longer make appeals to its old authorities and neither to pure reason. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) then put forth what he understood to be the new boundaries of religious discourse. This left religion reliant upon central moral laws inherent in humans (Kant’s categorical imperative). Because of these philosophical critiques Christianity was allowed to operate in fewer and fewer places with fewer and fewer potential foundations.
As the Western world came to grips with the philosophical programs of the Enlightenment certain solutions were offered by Christians (and they are quite diverse). Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was the most important of the early liberal theologians. He sought to provide an exposition of Christianity that could fit within these bounds. The title of one of his most important books reveals exactly what the modern Christian felt they had to do: On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.
The critiques, however, were not finished. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) began the study of the life of Christ and attempted to determine what could be actual history and what was mythical or religious. Essentially, Strauss started the historical critical movement which subjected the Bible to the foundations of the modern mind and did not accept miracles or supernaturalism. Among subsequent modern theologians, simply accepting the trustworthiness of the Bible in matters of history, science, and other areas has not been entertained as a serious option since Strauss inspired biblical higher criticism.
In an entirely different vein Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) began to envision what the true nature of Christianity must be and concluded that God is simply the projection of our own failures in life (and so God is the perfect we always fail to be). Christianity (and any religion) was simply a tool of the past that can and should be discarded because of the discoveries of the modern mind. This idea influenced significant modern thinkers such as Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche (1844-1900) who then critiqued Christianity’s morality because it hindered humanity from embracing the truths of the modern world. Nietzsche’s parables about the “death of God” began to question why culture had not moved on past religion. With Feuerbach, Freud, and Nietzsche Christianity was questioned as to the viability of its anthropology, psychology, and morality.
Daunting as these critiques were, perhaps the scientific work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) challenged the Bible’s trustworthiness even more fundamentally. The very origins and makeup of humanity and indeed the entire physical universe was radically rethought following his books. Any type of Christian theology that appealed to nature as clearly and undeniably pointing to God was now theoretically answered by the modern mind.
These are but a few of the critiques that have been and are being leveled at Christianity. When Bill Nye is asked to respond to whether a biblical creation account is viable or not he must be a bit puzzled at the supposed unlearnedness of those who do. As I noted above, Bill Nye questioned the Bible’s trustworthiness (as did Strauss), the Bible’s morality (as did Feuerbach and Nietzsche), the Bible’s explanation of consciousness (as did Feuerbach and Freud), and of course the Bible’s views of science, nature, and anthropology (as did Darwin). Bill Nye is committed to only natural evidence and human reason, as is any child of the Enlightenment.
All this begins to show the questions of the modern mind. And I am speaking of those beyond and behind the explanation of scientific data. I might summarize these as: “What is the truly religious person supposed to do with their religion considering the full barrage of challenges and problems that have been presented by the Enlightenment?” The postmodern also asks these questions. They may add other issues such as skepticism, relativism, and truth because they have not accepted the modern solutions to those questions. What we must see is that to the modern and postmodern the issue of existence becomes central. What am I? Am I alone without God? What can I know? What does it mean to be and exist?
I hope that you see the incredible weight that is on the person who truly asks these questions. They are basic and unsettling. And that is one point that should not be missed. For a Christian to simply cast off such questions as “impious” or “off base” can be harmful. When you discard such questions, the modern thinker (and even a postmodern is an heir of this Enlightenment) takes your brushing off as a disinterest in them as a person because they think you do not care about their existence.
So what does the Christian do? How can the Christian respond? I believe that there are answers and I believe that the old truth is powerful even in a new day. We answer these questions for the sake of the truth (aletheia) but also for the sake of the person who needs the truth.
Answering the Questions:
The answers provided by modern theology since these questions have been asked are incredibly diverse and certainly not equally valid. They range from a rejection of Christianity as a necessary form of religion to an intentional return to a pre-modern understanding of the questions and of Christianity. My response to these questions comes from a conservative cultural and theological stance. There is no way to give a comprehensive treatment to those questions in the remainder of this paper. Theologians have given their entire lives to writing about these answers and still wish they could explain and answer more. Part of what we do with the continual publication of a paper like this is to give various and multi-faceted answers to these and other important questions. And so as a start let me give six things to remember.
Stand for Truth. This is simply to say that “Truth” exists and it is important. It is not to say that we infallibly know truth, but we may know it well because of God’s divine accommodation in Scripture and through the works of the Holy Spirit in the individual Christian. This is truth not only as the Bible speaks but also as humans speak and interact. We believe that there are things that are true and thus things that are false. We desire to encourage true beliefs, true speech, and truth in all endeavors. And of course, it is the truth of the gospel that is at the center: a truth which has come to us through God’s revelation in the Scriptures. Today many do not even believe in the existence of God which leads them to deny or radically redefine the idea of “Truth.” We must be sharp in our apologetics, find the questions that are at the heart of each person, and never give away the idea of truth.
Expose the bankruptcy of skepticism and relativism. An incorrect response to the critiques of Christianity is to slide into skepticism or relativism. Skepticism refuses to allow that there is any way to know knowledge and relativism is the related denial that there are any universal truths. As Christians we cannot agree to those ideas but we surely admit we make mistakes and may need time to answer questions and so we should be understanding and humble. I think that diversity is a good thing but I do not agree that this means that every kind of diversity is good (then any idea is acceptable, even eugenics for example). We should recognize we are fallible and that we have questions that are hard to answer but we should still insist that there are answers and that certain answers are better than others based on their adherence to truth.
Love your neighbor. All Christians must recognize their responsibility to love their neighbor and to fulfill the Great Commission. We should be winsome and approachable and civil in our discussions. We should also speak the truth and seek to convince others of the truth. This point should not be confused with weakened convictions or timidity to approach hard subjects or a lack of militancy for truth. We care for those around us and so we are careful that we do not drive them away with something other than the truth. We see all peoples as worth reaching with the truth.
Preach the Gospel. It is the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God that is behind the preaching of the gospel. To change someone’s mind concerning ultimate matters often means a change of that person’s heart. This is, of course, the ultimate answer that many are seeking when they ask the questions of existence. This is what we want for them. I also believe the Bible teaches that the regenerate Christian is able to see truth for what it really is because they have experienced the change of the new birth. Romans chapter 1 reminds us that the unbeliever will suppress the truth in unrighteousness and so we must seek for them to be believers. Evangelism is a command and it is also the most powerful convincer of truth.
Know that you are a pilgrim and sojourner. We are not Christianizing the world, but we are being salt and light. We are not staking all things on forging a world that is free from sin and error, but we do accept our responsibility to speak prophetically against sin and error when we see it. We seek to better the world we are in and to do whatever we can with the stewardship that God has given us. This may mean that we find ourselves in the cloud of witness that have suffered for their faith, a position that is truly glorious for its association to Jesus (Acts 5:41). As pilgrims and strangers we realize our permanent residence is elsewhere and realize our stewardship responsibilities even now.
Trust God. We can never forget that deception can convince anybody. Sin causes us to suppress truth. We rest in the truth of Scripture and we rely on the regeneration, illumination, and filling of the Holy Spirit. We trust God’s word and love and find our ultimate delight in God.
Is creation science viable? To answer we must first answer the bigger questions about God, revelation, authority, human ability, and human existence. Is faith viable? Yes, it has been and it will be (and everyone exercises it).
Today, people want to know what they can trust about these ultimate questions. Christians point to God’s sovereignty over all the universe past, present, and future. Notice that when the apostle Peter responded to those who scoffed and doubted the coming of Christ and saw no indication to accept it, he said remember creation, the flood, the coming of Christ, and the absolute reliability of God’s promises. God has not forgotten and God has not failed to accomplish his purposes.
(2 Peter 3:1-15, ESV)
This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, 2 that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, 3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. 11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 14 Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. 15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation.
Let the Christian see our present battles and God’s waiting not as reason to doubt His faithfulness, but as reason to be diligent. And let the unbeliever see God’s waiting not as evidence God is not there or that He does not care, but as His patient longsuffering giving opportunity for salvation.
1. James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought, Volume 1: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 5.