A Theology for A Scientific Age by Brian Butterfield

(Professor Emeritus Brian Butterfield has given me permission to post the following on my website. It raises some key issues which deserve thoughful reaction. Use the comment box underneath to join the discussion)

The following issues need to be addressed by the Christian church if it is to maintain any credibility in the twenty-first century:

1) THE WORLD WAS NOT CREATED PERECT AND IT DID NOT FALL FROM A ONCE PERFECT STATE

The concept of a Fall from a perfect state is taught in Old Testament myths and reinforced by Paul. We now know that there never was a perfect state. Long before humans ever appeared on this planet (about 400,000 years ago depending on your definition of a human) there was death, aggression and cruelty. The existence of coal seams dating from many million years ago shows us that death of trees and other plants was normal. Crude oil comes from the decayed remains of sea creatures that lived hundreds of millions of years before humans ever appeared. The skeletons of ancient forms of life locked in death fights bear testimony to the cruelty that has always been here. Death has been part of life since the first cell. It has nothing to do with the appearance of humans.

The concept of a perfect creation before the “fall” also assumes that all of creation was finished after the event – be it 6 days or 13.7 billion years. It would have to be be finished for God to look on it and say it was good.

It wasn’t. Creation is still in progress. New stars are still being created in the M16 Pillars of Creation nebulae and elsewhere. You can see it on the NASA website.

New species are forming on earth all the time. Where else do you think all the new nasty retro-viruses and bacteria are coming from?

Creation is very much a work in process. Every earthquake and volcano bears testimony to a continuously evolving earth.

2) CREATION IS AN IMMEASURABLY CRUEL PROCESS

Outside our planet, stars are being born and destroyed only to spiral down black holes. Galaxies collide – we will merge with the Andromeda galaxy in 4 billion years time. But our own star, the sun, is due to explode about then anyway.

Every time our cells divide, a small number of genes mis-replicate. That is because the process is not a perfect one. Most of these mutations don’t matter, or are quickly corrected by the cell. Sometimes they lead to cancers and genetic diseases. More often they lead to variability between individuals in the ecosystem. The horrible forces of aggression, predation, carnivory etc then act on these individuals and the weak and less successful are driven out of the system. These forces have been around since the very beginning of life and have nothing to do with any fall or sin of Adam.

In fact if they didn’t exist there would be no natural selection and humans wouldn’t even exist on this planet all. They are the driving forces of creation. But they are forces mutually exclusive to the teachings of Jesus who told us to protect and care for the weak, the sick and deformed and the downtrodden.

3) THE UNIVERSE DOES NOT DISPLAY INTELLIGENT DESIGN

I wish that it did. But what sort of creator would leave the left over bits of the solar system (asteroids etc) to orbit around the solar system and smash into things, wiping out whole groups of animals and plants for no good reason other than creation is not perfect?

And what about the catastrophic events that accompany the cooling of our planet – tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanism? Why are these events allowed to kill indiscriminately, wiping out the good and the bad? And they too have been around since the earth started to cool so we can’t blame a Fall for them either.

Some viruses and bacteria are here to break down other forms of life and recycle nutrients, but some are here just to be plain nasty and cruel. In the TV sitcom The Rev, Adam Smallbone once prayed, “thank you God for all the nice things you have created, but why did you have to create Ebola, Malaria, HIV, and other nasties? They don’t do anything useful.”

3) THE ARGUMENTS OF THE LITERALISTS ARE SIMPLY WRONG IN FACT

“Planet Earth is extremely ‘finely tuned’ to support life. Its
environment is the product of an amazing combination of factors
These factors combine – miraculously – to produce conditions
enabling not just basic life, but higher life forms, including humans. ”
– From a sermon by an Anglican vicar.

This statement is all back to front. Planet earth is NOT fine tuned. It is awful. We are here BECAUSE we have evolved into this hostile environment. There is only a tiny bit of earth’s thin skin that we can survive on, and only small parts of that! Everywhere organisms evolve into habitats that fit their genome. Humans evolved here in our present state BECAUSE of the conditions that existed on our planet not the other way around. Just as deep sea creatures have evolved for their environments, or alpine plants for their ecosystems. One of the issues with evolution is that organisms are becoming more specialized and less able to cope with changing or new environments. That is why extinctions increase with evolution. The more specialized that organisms become, the more restricted their habitats. When their ecosystems are lost they will die out. This could happen to polar bears for example as it has happened with mammoths and other species in the past.

4) THE ARGUMENT THAT HUMANS ARE A UNIQUE SPECIES

Unfortunately we are not. We now know with absolute certainty that there have been been many human species living on this planet. Until about 40,000 years ago there were 4-6 different Homo species all living here together at the one time. That is not surprising. There are many species of monkey, ape and the like currently on our planet, and other species have already died out.

We now know that species are not fixed. They change with time. Homo sapiens were not always as we are now. We came from something else by gradual change following mutations. We will move on to be something else in the future. We are both transients and hybrids. The existence of up to 4% neanderthal genes in the genomes of some humans demonstrates our hybrid nature.

An Indonesian prophet wrote: ” We need to redefine God. God is the ultimate in love. But if he is also the creator, he is also the ultimate in cruelty.”

I can identify with that concept. Christian theology needs to come into the 21st century.

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11 Responses to A Theology for A Scientific Age by Brian Butterfield

  1. peddiebill says:

    It occurs to me that the human tendency to interpret understanding about God and creation from a human “accepted authority” viewpoint blinkers us to the way knowledge grows. While I am convinced Brian is right in drawing these issues to our attention I am not hopeful that conservative Christians would want to allow that traditional Bible authority is open to challenge.

  2. dave says:

    I will start with just the second section. I am rather astounded by the use of the term cruel. Cruel is an emotional term. There are of course different definitions available but Merriam Webster has: disposed to inflict pain or suffering; causing injury, grief, or pain. I would not call forces of aggression and predation ‘horrible’ when applied to any non-human events. The predator behavior toward its prey is not horrible but is just part of what it is, part of its life. The behaviors evolved over time, as both animals evolved. As an example, the little mongoose is immune to the venom so it can prey on those snakes.

    There is definitely something missing in this essay when relating these natural forces to the teaching (in many religions) to protect and care for the weak.

    Man is a social creature. Each of us has an inherent capacity to feel empathy for others, to even subconsciously relate to those around us. It is generally recognized that within about 5 seconds of meeting someone new, we will already formed a judgment on them – all without really thinking about it. This consideration of others is innate, not learned. It is in our nature.

    Even though this is our nature, each person also does something counter to it – we think! Thinking is an individual’s way of analyzing and dealing with life. Unfortunately it also puts up an artificial barrier between us and the world – where we can feel as if we are a spectator rather than a participant. As a person focuses on his/her own life, it can become easier to ignore those less fortunate, where we can easily claim ‘that is their problem not mine’. This is even easier when we are part of another similar thinking group. People are social beings and we like to be part of a similar group because that membership becomes confirmation of our worldview. This group behavior can lead to prejudice and persecution – and so again it becomes easier to ignore those ‘other groups’ not in conformance with ‘our group.’

    There is a very important aspect to trying to consistently ‘protect and care for the weak.’ In many cases those people are weak because of the actions by other people. In ancient times, it was more likely resources might have been scarce or limited, like food or shelter. However I expect there were still always stores of grain, if only because grain crops included a fallow year. In present times, with advanced agricultural practices there is actually so much food there is tremendous waste. The problem is either poor distribution or the distribution is intentionally focused on those paying the most. These problems are not caused by ‘horrible’ nature but are actually solvable by people. Even in the case of illness, better care might alleviate the condition or the misery.

    By caring for the weak or sick or deformed, we are confirming our human nature, our inherent capacity to care for others. THAT has nothing to do with the driving forces behind the survival of the fittest in nature, those called cruel in this essay. That empathy is why a person can feel happier when giving a gift, even better than when receiving a gift.

    Our human bodies are very complex and as mentioned cancer can arise. A month ago I actually had some skin cancer removed and none remains, but the time of uncertainty (before I knew all was gone) was very disturbing. Getting cancer is not ‘horrible’ it is just unfortunate. Dying is a part of life, whether of old age or of any other severe malady that afflicts people. I will die but I just don’t know when. What is ‘horrible’ is one person killing another; that event is not natural.

    I find the universe a wonder, with the seasonal cycles (here in Wisconsin we have the two seasons of green and white – and then many colors in the two seasons in between), the longer cycles (like the 60 year oscillation in the Pacific Ocean) that shape the world’s climate, and the much longer cycles that shape geology, like the ice ages. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and numerous other natural disasters are still just that – nature. That life forms die in these events are just a part of the cycles on this planet. There have been mass extinctions in the past and there have been times of bounty in the past as well, like the Holocene Optimum which would have coincided with the mythical Garden of Eden. The various life forms continually evolve and adjust, as each fights for its own survival and eventually finds some balance with all the other life forms around it. I find no cruelty in the cycles of life and death within that natural universe.

    The problem I see here is in the essay’s conclusion, as ‘God is the creator and so he is the ultimate in cruelty.’ This perspective implies the universe is rather like a doll house where everything in it is being manipulated by the little girl. Every act of aggression or kindness is part of the game being played within this doll house, so it appears the little girl is sometimes behaving nasty or cruel in her play with its inhabitants.

    Unfortunately I feel the problem here is: Christian theology is still stuck on this unnatural autocratic image of the universe. You had somewhat touched on this very long ago, with your essay The God Who Limps.

    • Brian says:

      Thanks Dave for your reply. I would like to comment on several of your interesting points but it might have to wait until I have more time.

      You state “I would not call forces of aggression and predation ‘horrible’ when applied to any non-human events. The predator behavior toward its prey is not horrible but is just part of what it is, part of its life.”
      I guess this where I see things differently from you. To a biologist, humans are an animal species. So if something is cruel to humans, then it is cruel to other forms of life as well though they might not have the consciousness to identify this. The forces causing pain and suffering, such as aggression and and predation are cruel (in human terms) no matter what species they act upon. If it is part of life to all animals species. Most mammals display fear, (as do birds and reptiles and some others), so they are certainly aware of aggression.

      I do not believe that God operates the universe like a puppeteer. But if he/she/it is the creative force then it is responsible for the creative processes including evolution. The only alternative option is to believe that God had (and has) no part in the creation process.

  3. sugruerm says:

    I agree with much of what the professor says but I don’t like the way he says it. Dogmatic fundamentalism causes problems whatever theory is being pushed. I think everyone is entitled to have their own view of God, one that makes sense for them. My only reservation is where a belief in ‘God’ causes harm to self or others. I suspect that people dependent on hard facts and harsh realities that require scientific proof are very few, but they are certainly entitled to their view. Life for most people is about community and relationships. Good relationships nurture well being. Belief in the goodness of people and the goodness of God may not be scientifically measurable but happier living is a likely outcome. Of course humankind didn’t ‘fall’ in a mythical garden, but our ability to live stories, relate and create stories, are the essence of being human. And of course nature is ‘red with tooth and claw’ we’ve know these things for a very long time. But we can still be awed by nature’s beauty and the incredible complexities that sustain an infinite variety of life forms. What we name God may not actually ‘do’ much, but to hold the concept that ‘God is good’ and to feel we are individually divinely loved with unconditional parental love whatever our situation suits me just fine.

    • peddiebill says:

      Thanks for the comment Rosalie. I think that Brian was writing his article in response to fundmentalist views of interpretations of God. If you take the view that “God” represents the best and most loving human perceptions about how to get on with others and show responsibility for our world then I follow what you are saying. Certainly following these ideals would lead to better interrelationships. On the other hand, if you are saying that a majority of people are presently concerned about community and relationships I suspect the jury is still out. Some very nasty wars and an almost universal disregard for social harm to those who are outside our immediate concern as evidenced by one billion at present without security of food supply and a world history of very nasty wars suggests not everyone is similarly optimistic.

    • dave says:

      I have no problem with anyone feeling that unconditional love and security in the wonder of life. The ‘religious experience’ as it has been called does not require the person to actually believe in a god. It can be felt by someone involved in religions without a god, like a number of Eastern religions in India and China.

      The reason I responded to the essay is the assignment of cruelty to nature.

  4. peddiebill says:

    Dave: although I see what you are getting at, I suspect your view is at least similiar to what I see as being the main point in Brian’s article . Certainly to attribute kindness to the creator in human terms to the way things are for humans (and other animals) is inappropriate as Brian points out, because from scientific observations shows that many humans and other animals down through the ages have encountered much pain and suffering. I find myself agreeing with Brian that the creation process is continuous and if Brian had said “what we interpret as cruelty is an inevitable part of nature and natural selection” I think you would probably have accepted the rest of his argument. Although I agree the term “cruelty” is also inappropriate in that it attributes an intentional human type characteristic to a creator interferring in a universe (what you portray as God working with a doll’s house) whereas the universe according to science has characteristics better described as continuing nuclear, physical and chemical processes.
    Jesus’ ethical teaching should at least help humans relate better to one another, yet even there, may not actually help natural selection in practice. Helping the handicapped child survive to breed is great for the handicapped child (cf euthenics) whereas the Roman notion of exposing the handicapped child to the elements (an application of eugenics) may be better for the tribe. (the removal of defective genes).
    If I understand your point correctly, although inflicted pain can be a consequence of cruelty you are saying that when the pain is produced as an inevitable consequence of natural process the absence of interference in the process by a creator makes it inappropriate to use the term. Have I understood?

    • dave says:

      Nature is a simultaneous interaction of many processes. ‘It’ has no intent. To imply there is inflicted pain from an act of cruelty, then there must be an intelligent being who is taking this cruelty into action. To claim there is cruelty in nature, then because cruelty implies malicious intent the cruelty must be coming from outside nature. Pain that occurs from a natural event, like a hurricane, is not malicious – unless one takes the position every natural disaster is driven by a malicious agent. I take issue with this malicious creator who is either interfering or not, with this observed cruelty. I do not place a creator behind every event so there is no malicious intent in a natural process – so I see no cruelty in nature.

      Natural selection for the ‘best’ people is quite the slippery slope because of course – who chooses? A mentally handicapped person can actually have certain fantastic skills in a different area depending on how the brain compensates for one shortcoming. I find it ironic certain modern problems like diabetes and even an allergic reaction to peanuts seem to be result of our modern lifestyle of processed foods. Starving people never seem to develop that allergy to peanuts! Someone might suggest these health problems are a cruel reaction by nature while I see it as sometimes the human body is having trouble adjusting to its current environment.

      I suppose my real point is not everyone requires that unseen creator behind the curtain and so not everyone sees cruelty in unfortunate events.

  5. dave says:

    Bill, your comments and those by Rosalie appear to be more oriented toward the teaching of Jesus, who I assume should be at the heart of ‘Christian’ theology. Jesus is mentioned only once in Brian’s essay, in the one section I took issue with.

    Should ‘Christian’ theology be focused more on the Jesus?

    The Old Testament is the first half of the Bible, where God is the vindictive, autocratic tyrant, inflicting revenge on man with the banishment from the Garden of Eden, bringing the Flood which supposedly killed most life on Earth, destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (were ALL citizens, including all the children, truly guilty of a great sin?), and probably a few notable other events which escape me at this moment.

    The New Testament is the second half of the Bible, focused on the life and teachings of Jesus and then on the lives and teachings of his apostles for a while after his death on the cross, at the hands of the Romans during that Roman – Jewish conflict in the first century. The writings of the apostle Paul were critical to the early church, which were the perspective of a Roman on the life of Jesus. Many early scriptures of this time were written in Greek as the early church was oriented toward the Gentiles not the Jews.

    To a great extent the Old Testament is a history of events, with some religion tossed in (like the Psalms) while the New Testament has more religion with fewer of the historical events described in detail (probably because Rome was suppressing any activity deemed rebellious).

    I see Christian theology perhaps confronting a schism. Many years ago I read The Left Hand of God by Michael Lerner. He suggested fundamentalists were championing a ‘right hand of God’ view, with the domination oriented view (like that of the Old Testament God), but he recommended the logical opposition is the ‘left hand of God’ view, one that is more compassionate and hope oriented.

    Most of the essays in this web site appear to be oriented toward the positive teachings of Jesus. A religion should help bring its members together to improve the community – and beyond. This approach, at the personal level, is somewhat a bottom-up religion, focused on the community. An authoritarian top-down religion is more likely to seek division than unity, as it competes with other religions and gets involved in political affairs (so the religious leaders work to get a share of that power at the top).

    My concern is that image of the autocratic God of the Old Testament is always lingering around. I suspect it does for Christian leaders as well. The liberation theology movement in Latin America, helping the poor stuck in unjust conditions, was opposed by those Church leaders who were benefiting from their close relationship with the military dictators, who were being supported by American foreign policy. The Reichskonkordat of 1933 is also notable.

    When Brian recommends ‘Christian theology needs to come into the 21st century’ is he suggesting the baggage of the Old Testament be dropped for a focus on Jesus?

    • Brian says:

      Your comment: “When Brian recommends ‘Christian theology needs to come into the 21st century’ is he suggesting the baggage of the Old Testament be dropped for a focus on Jesus?”

      Another huge question Dave! The Old Testament contains some lovely stories and we would be the poorer without them. But it is not very good history, and it contains some pretty awful concepts that were the beliefs and culture of a primitive tribal people. I am sure you don’t need me to list them.

      Jesus was a Jew and his coming therefore has to be seen in Jewish terms. This includes the strange concept that God can only forgive if something or somebody else is killed and its blood thrown around, be it sons tied to altars, virgin daughters, innocent sheep and goats, or finally his own dear son. This practice called “Redemptive Violence” is at the heart of Christianity and certainly portrays an unusual aspect of God’s nature.

      You cannot separate Jesus from the Old Testament.

      Maybe I will submit one of my outputs on this subject to Bill in the New Year. Thanks for your interest.

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