“How did we get here?”
It seems like a fairly straightforward question, yet it’s pregnant with meaning because it requires us to consider some other questions:
- How did the universe come start?
- How did life begin?
- How did the various kinds of life—most significantly humanity—come into being?
It’s no wonder, then, that such a seemingly simple question can get even the most laid back person hot under the collar. Indeed, this is too often what we see whenever the subject arises. But is it possible that, to some degree, each side is talking past the other?
Is our rhetoric getting in the way of honest debate and discussion?
Gerald Rau argues that this may indeed be the case—and his new book, Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything, is an attempt to correct this error by first explaining the evidence for how life came to be, how each viewpoint interprets that evidence and attempting to show what difference how we interpret the data makes.
Presuppositions and interacting with evidence
The starting point for Rau is presuppositions. ”Our worldview and philosophy shape the way we view that evidence from the first time we hear it,” He writes. “Each scientist is working from the perspective of one particular theory, which affects both data collection and interpretation.” (Kindle locations 189, 202)
This is the first significant point Rau addresses: no one is capable of coming to the evidence entirely objectively. Our worldview and its underlying philosophy—in short, our presuppositions—necessarily affect how we view the evidence surrounding the origins of everything. If our worldview is one in which there’s no possibility of the supernatural (naturalism), then we’re going to reject any notion that the universe could begin through anything but naturalistic means. Likewise, the young-earth creationist is more likely to look at the evidence as being proof of God’s direct involvement in the creation of all things.
But the difficulty this represents is that we wind up talking past one another almost all the time. We talk and talk, but we don’t understand because we’re not really speaking the same language.
This is important for us to acknowledge and Rau handles it with great care. Indeed, it’s clear that he’s read carefully the scholarly work of each model and so an attitude of congeniality comes through. He’s generally careful to avoid easy criticisms of any model, which is a breath of fresh air—after all, deconstructing each model isn’t his purpose, explaining them is (but more on that in a bit).
Theological awareness and scientific consistency
As Rau explains how each model in the origins debate interprets the evidence available to them, it’s clear that he’s aware of the theological concerns that come with each position. Every view holds a different relationship between religion and science; some see the two as entirely distinct or complementary domains of knowledge, and others as interacting or overlapping domains. This is yet another point that I’m thankful Rau addresses in this book, even if he only touches on theological concerns briefly.
Do science and theology interact? Absolutely. A tragic error of the last 200 years has been the divorcing of the two. And yet it was never intended to be so. Theology was once considered the queen of the sciences; today it is rarely recognized a legitimate pursuit.
This leads to additional challenges for the Christian. Because “at least four different models believe that the Bible and the world are equally important revelations of God, and that the two, properly interpreted, will not conflict with each other,” Rau writes (location 440), we need to consider carefully how God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures and in creation interact—and should one be held in higher regard?
On this point, Mapping the Origins Debate is arguably at its weakest. Rau’s expertise is in the empirical sciences and so his focus is naturally there throughout the book. But readers would be right to be concerned with the notion of the Bible and the world being “equally important revelations of God.” While neither is unimportant, they serve different purposes. Creation tells us what He is like; Scripture tells us who He is and what He has done.
Romans is instructive on this point. There the apostle Paul explains that God’s wrath is upon all humanity because of what the world reveals about God—
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:19-20)
God makes much of Himself apparent in creation—yet where it ought to have brought us to our knees in adoration, we instead began to worship the creation instead of the Creator (Rom. 1:21-23). In short, what is revealed in nature is only enough to condemn us in our unrighteousness.
This point is something worth stressing in the origins debate—if the Bible is true on this point, then we have to consider the implications of our understandings of origins. Do they properly ascribe God the glory that is His due or do they implicitly suggest some deficiency on His part?
Building bridges for honest debate
What you won’t find explicitly laid out in Mapping the Origins Debate is Rau’s own position. In all honesty, this frustrated me initially. I wanted to know where he stands (and if you dig deeply enough in the book you’ll probably figure it out) and defend his position.
But Mapping the Origins Debate isn’t that kind of book; in fact, had Rau not done his best to be objective (as well as any of us are capable of being that is), this book would have been significantly less useful to readers. Instead, his restraint allows the views of all positions to more-or-less stand on their own merits. His goal is not to deconstruct any particular view point, but to show how each one is logically consistent within its own worldview and philosophy.
That, perhaps, is the strongest element of the book and something that many involved in these debates miss and it again comes back to that issue of presuppositions. When we understand opposing viewpoints well, when we have a sense of the presuppositions directing them, we’re better able to explain our own views on contentious issues—especially one as hot-button as our origins.
Mapping the Origins Debate is helpful starting point in understanding the different models of how all things began and one that’s worthy of your attention. Give it a read and use it to build bridges for honest, thoughtful discussion and debate.
Title: Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything
Author: Gerald Rau
Publisher: IVP Academic (2013)
Buy it at: Amazon