March 26, 2010 — Leave a comment


“Explaining the Magnificence of the Universe

A Review of
The Seven Pillars of Creation:
The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.

William P. Brown

Reviewed by David E. Anderson.

The Seven Pillars of Creation:
The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.

William P. Brown
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2010.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]

Seven Pillars of Creation - William BrownScience and religion are strange bedfellows along the lines of Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in the movie The War of the Roses. The family dog is safe, but both parties are going at each other red in tooth and nail, and it’s just a matter of time before the chandelier crashes down on them.

Columbia Theological Seminary professor William Brown says that this dysfunctional relationship that we find nowadays between science and religion doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than look around us at our current messy state of global affairs—pollution, climate change—or back at the long and often sorry history of humankind’s rape of nature—not infrequently justified by religion—and exclaim “The horror!” we should gaze at our world with a different mind-set and rejoice at the wonders of creation. According to Brown, science and religion may not explain the magnificence of the universe in the same words, and at times their explanations may clash, but they share a transcendent goal.

Brown fervently believes that science and religion need not be at each other’s throats: “Is science really hell-bent on eroding humanity’s nobility and eliminating all sense of mystery? Not the science I know. Is faith simply a lazy excuse to wallow in human pretension? Not the faith I know. What if invoking God was a way of acknowledging the remarkable intelligibility of creation?” His goal in this wide-ranging study is a simple one: “I want to bring together two distinct disciplines, biblical theology and modern science, and explore points of conversation in ways that I hope generate more synergy than sparks. My conviction is that one cannot adequately interpret the Bible today, particularly the creation traditions, without engaging science.” Brown’s methodology is straightforward: (1) “Elucidate the [Biblical] text’s perspective on creation within the text’s own contexts.” (2) “Associate the text’s perspective on creation with the perspective of science.” And (3) “Appropriate the text in relation to science and science in relation to the text.”

When most of us are called upon to list creation stories in the Bible, Genesis 1 and 2 immediately come to mind. And then we probably draw a blank. There are others? Brown identifies seven, all in the Old Testament: (1) Genesis 1:1–2:3; (2) Genesis 2:4–3:24 (the garden, Adam and Eve, and the fall); (3) Job 38-41 (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”—God’s majestic challenge to Job); (4) Psalm 104 (“O Lord my God, you are very great/you are clothed with splendor and majesty”); (5) Proverbs 8:22–31 (“The LORD brought me [Wisdom] forth as the first of his works,/before his deeds of old”); (6) various passages in Ecclesiastes (e.g., “Remember your creator in the days of your youth,/before the days of trouble come”); and (7) selections from “Second Isaiah” (e.g., “I am YHWH who makes all things,/who alone stretches out the heavens,/who by myself hammers out the earth”). (Brown doesn’t tell the science types reading his book that some of his assumptions about authorship aren’t universally accepted.)

Brown’s aim seems more to show people of faith how the accounts of science are in accord with Biblical accounts of creation, than to convince people of science that the human writers of the Bible had more insight into the turning of the gears of the cosmos than they are usually given credit for. Thus readers get a wide-ranging tutorial in modern science, from the Big Bang and the inflationary epoch, to spacetime and quantum entanglement, to evolutionary theory from Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould, to theories of learning. In these scientifically oriented sections Brown demonstrates that he has mastered his material, although he name-drops this scientist and that philosopher of science a bit too often, no doubt to stay on the scholarly safe side. Readers without any scientific background to speak of will be able to follow his discussions without needing to run to wikipedia or their children for clarification.

That said, this book misses a couple opportunities to make connections between texts and with other sets of readers. First, Brown is an Old Testament Wisdom scholar, which perhaps explains why he doesn’t draw into his discussion a verse from II Peter: “[Scoffers] deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire” (3:5–7). Peter no doubt was giving voice to first century c.e. Jewish thought, and he wasn’t too off track scientifically in his statement that the earth was formed “out of water and by water.” His letter goes beyond acknowledging just the role of the waters in spawning sea creatures in Genesis 1 to recognizing its continuing work of creation and destruction, and it bears similarities with Brown’s Psalm 104. Likewise, if the sun expands right on schedule, the earth and its heavenly neighbors in the Solar System are indeed reserved for fire.

Philo, writing a little earlier than Peter, in his De Opificio Mundi (On the Creation) ascribes to water a similar importance in creation and engages in what passed for scientific thinking in the first century: “The whole body of water in existence was spread over all the earth, and had penetrated through all its parts, as if it were a sponge which had imbibed moisture” (XI, 38). He goes on to describe how salt and fresh water separated, dry land formed, and then fresh water issued up from “breast”-like features to nourish the land. This Mother Earth/Gaea imagery, which appeals to many people today, is also found in Job: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there” (1:21). With Brown’s emphasis on our call to stewardship over creation, discussing these passages might have drawn in yet another circle of readers.

Brown’s other missed opportunity is to go after the famous, and hoary, “Blind Watchmaker” argument: namely, that life is too complex to have evolved through chance. Brown explains chaos theory in some detail, but work is being done to counter the arguments about randomness and chance often raised by adherents of intelligent design (a term that I don’t believe you will find in this book, by the way) that he might have drawn upon. To quote Templeton Prize laureate Micha? Heller, who is conspicuous by his absence here, “Chance events are still part of God’s mind. I don’t see any conflict between chance events and God’s planning of the universe.”

Brown’s book is magisterial in its scope, beautifully written, and accessible to both sides in the science and religion debates. Although he may not change many minds, he will make them better educated minds, and hopefully minds more willing to understand their opponents’ belief-sets.

— ———-

David Anderson is a senior science reviewer for Publishers Weekly. He tweets on religion at www.twitter.com/dvdandrsn.