More Philosophical and Creationist lol-critters

This one was inspired by one I found on the ICHC site, and I thought I would improvise a little on it for my own nefarious porpoises!

This one is for John V. who recently commented on my apparent negative attitude towards dogs.
Found this somewhere on the web:

Science, Genesis, and the Fabrication of Scriptural Meaning

The Bible and Interpretation online magazine has been posting a few “interesting” (in all of the loaded, academic senses of that term) articles of late. It sometimes becomes a battle field for very different points of view: witness its set of variety of articles on the “minimalist/maximalist” debates (that is, the arguments over how historically reliable the Bible should be assumed to be). The site is a curious resource for scholars and other interested folk, and it spans not only interpretation of the Bible, archeology of ancient Palestine but also the state of biblical scholarship, with academic and confessional voices given space.

In December of last year, Charles David Isbell of Louisiana State University published an article called Creation, Science and Genesis that posits a science-friendly way of reading the creation narratives. What struck me, however, was that Isbell’s “creative” interpretation, while affirming some kind of accommodationist stance, really is not all that science-friendly and his biblical interpretation is fraught with difficulties.

The article’s abstract does not really capture the essay’s main point.

“Does Genesis 1.1 affirm the existence of the earth before God began His creative work described in the opening verse of Genesis?” Since there is no doubt that such an affirmation is both possible and plausible, grammatically and syntactically, the creation described in Genesis 1 need not be a description of the beginning of the world “from nothing,” but it may be understood as the act of transforming a formless and void earth into a universe of order, structure, and beauty.

What the abstract misses is that the article is not really a linguistic study of Genesis 1 or a refutation of those who understand the book as affirming a doctrine of creation from nothing: academic topics open for study by anyone, believer or not. Rather, the article argues against seeing a sharp polarity between the Bible and science and for a religious accommodationism between faith and science. In defending the view that religion and science are compatible – since they deal with different subject matter in different ways – Isbell offers a highly ad hoc, selective, and even dishonest interpretation of the Genesis that recreates the world of the ancient authors in the image of Isbell.

Isbell is not a literalist by any means and says as much but in some respects his position shares some ideals  with the “fundamentalist” position he disputes. Moreover, his position is hardly friendly to the full scope  of secular research. Indeed, he seeks to insulate the contents of “religion” (at least, the content of his religion), from scientific or other academic scrutiny, while all but ignoring the impact of other secular academic work into the nature of religion itself. And this is core of my objections to this and to virtually all forms of accommodationism. It opens a space for allowing science to exist but closes the door to the academic study of religion.

It could be argued that secularists should not be too hostile to the religious accommodationist camp since it forces only minor compromises on scientific and social scientific thought. Any “damage” they might do politically or educationally (from a secular point of view) is fairly minimal when compared to the sheer anti-intellecualism of dyed in the wool creationists like Ken Hamm or the Discovery Institute, (most of which seem to be the U.S., but, alas, there are anti-science voices in Canada, too, as I’ve commented here).

Yet, the accommodationist and the young earth creationist perspective are not always that far removed from each other. Both are reactions to the strength of scientific thought in the modern world. Both preserve religious claims that are beyond proof or falsifiability: e.g., that there is at least one deity responsible for the way things are, and that human intelligence and the sciences may study the results of the divine handiwork, but not the deity itself.

For some other arguments against accommodationism, see the many posts on Why Evolution is True, such as here,  here, and here, while Biologos takes a rather opposite view (this Biologos article by Peter Enns deals with the Cain and Abel story). I’ve posted here, too.

What is sometimes lost in shuffling debates over accommodationism (and certainly in Isbell’s case) is that religion itself is itself a product of human culture and is inherently flexible. Religious “truths” shift and evolve with changing times, conditions, moral sensibilities and the uncountable interactions of its various adherents, hangers-on and outsiders. An academic view of religion would accent this creativity as it calls into question any religious claim about reality that stands outside of empirical evidence.

Thanks to Neil Godfrey over at Vridar for finding this cartoon for me.

Religions also shift with changing intellectual and moral climates. For example, modern sensibilities have forced Jesus to wear the hats of the socialist, capitalist, feminist, and gay-rights advocate, while believers find different ways to reject or explain away biblical support for slavery, genocide, or capital punishment for urban rape victims. One of the functions religion often performs is to turn recent ideas into ancient, primordial or timeless ones, which often results in covering the tracks of a tradition’s own history. Understanding the ways this happens is an important part of the academic study of religion.

The Young Earth Creationist movement is a great example of how religion can adapt and cover  its own tracks. YEC can neither reject or ignore all levels of science. To a great degree it advocates a certain level of accommodationism, too. YECs are not Luddites, they use a lot of technology and some contribute to various scientific researches. Yet, science is a threat to them and so their response to the rise of our scientific world is not to let the scientists have free reign, but rather to appropriate or co-opt the terminology of science to “prove” that their construction of a Biblical cosmology is defensible.

“If we build it, the cargo will come.”

YEC is predominantly a symbolic process, appropriating aspects of science and creating icons of them in a new context that appears to create legitimacy for an allegedly “old” way of life. This “old” way, however, is itself a modern construct, generated in response to the threat to social status and group integrity by science and the enlightenment. That the symbolic “science” doesn’t actually work by the standards of the outsiders isn’t the point. Its true significance is that it “works” for the believers on a symbolic, mystical, and mythical level and that covers any shortcomings in terms of logic, science or engineering. And for them, the mythical is what matters (although, of course, they call it something else). For the YECer, emphasis on the (pseudo-)scientific integrity of scripture is the natural, obvious, and correct interpretation;the timeless essence of the faith. Thus, they are often blind to the history of interpretation and intellectual legacy of their own, wider religious community and the fact that they are products of their own time.

Harry Nibourg's Creation Science Museum in Big Valley, Alberta

“If we build it, the science will come”

Isbell’s paper can be seen as an example of this kind of reshaping of religious tradition to accommodate new ideas or unavoidable realities in a positive fashion. Isbell advocates a form of accommodationism that is hardly ameniable to a YEC viewpoint but he still calls for a sharp segregation between science and faith and setting the content of faith as out of the reach of academic critique.  His is as mythical a world view as anything imagined within the YEC community.

In the course of affirming that science and bible-based theology are two completely separate fields of human intellectual endeavour Isbell says his purpose in writing is to deconstruct “the idea of a single biblical view of creation (‘the’ biblical viewpoint)”, which stems from the “false presumption that there is only one way to read Genesis.”

He tackles the ambiguity of Genesis 1:1, typically read as “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the Earth”. Isbell claims that:

the assumption of only one acceptable translation of Genesis 1.1 has established an unnecessary barrier between science and the Bible, two very disparate disciplines with different but equally valid goals and methods of inquiry.

Isbell throws too much importance on Genesis in his presentation of this “unnecessary barrier”.  The barrier could be established by looking at the plausibility of the stories of the resurrection, the sun standing still, talking donkeys, the absence of evidence of the Exodus, and a host of other miracles and physical impossibilities detailed within the Bible’s pages.

It might seem pedantic, but, contra Isbell’s formulation, “the Bible” is not a “method of inquiry”. This might be just a poor word choice, but it brings to mind the assumption that one sometimes finds in very conservative and fundamentalist circles that the Bible is, in its own right, a knowledge generating entity. But the Bible does not interpret itself, however much many believers, blind to their own traditions and input, seem to think. It is false description that says nothing sensible about the “Bible”, the collective term for a variety of collections of Jewish and Christian writings.. The construal of the Bible, a product of culture, as a “method of learning” serves to distract one from the very human origins of these collections of writing.  Moreover, it serves to legitimize the claimant’s interpretative strategies as being at least equal to the methodologies and conclusions of the various sciences while keeping them securely out of the way of critical scrutiny.

He also misconstrues evolution:

Basic to the debate is the assumption that both evolution and Genesis are addressing the same question: When did the world begin?

Again, Isbell adopts a misconception common to anti-intellectual religionists, that the Theory of Evolution offers an explanation of the the origins of the universe. Evolution has nothing to do with the Big Bang and even the origins of life. The theory only covers speciation.  But this hardly matters to the faithful (see my post on a high school teacher who makes the same mistake) What YECs and many others call “evolution” is the entire world of science and modernity that is seen to threaten biblical “truth”. Their “evolution” is more than a logical strawman, it is a religious icon of the “truth’s” enemy.

In perhaps unconsciously appropriating the creationists’s cypher for anti-religion, Isbell not only shows himself as more comfortable with certain religious based misrepresentations of science than with science itself. Moreover, (here I’m being a bit mischievous) he also seems to embrace an “earth centered” universe that is so typical of ancient and religious cosmologies. We can see this in how he points to “geological and fossil evidence” as implying an early start to the universe. Certainly these factors were important (and hence, now iconic) in the 19th century’s challenge to biblical chronology, but they are no longer significant to cosmological research. The age of the universe (ca 13.75 billion years) is actually determined by measuring the background radiation of the universe and estimating the rate of the universe’s expansion. Isbell himself doesn’t seem aware of the real state of the question as he writes rather glibly that “physical evidence that now speaks in terms of millions or even billions of years” for the age of the earth. This raises an important question: how much can Isbell actually say about the compatibility of science and religion if he is so unaware of which science is which and what the prevailing scientific opinions are.

Still, Isbell is right in pointing to the rather large gap between the  scientifically determined age of the universe and that age accepted by most YECs (ca. 6000 years), a time span derived from the genealogical schemes in the Bible as estimated by James Ussher. Isbell writes that Ussher was probably influenced by 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4 which claims that from God’s point of view, a thousand years is but a day.

Ussher thus interpreted the six days of Genesis 1 both literally to describe the length of time God spent in creating the world and figuratively to prefigure the length of time that creation would endure.

The first creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:4) ends with the sanctification of the seventh day and the creator’s rest, the Sabbath. Isbell notices the connection the Ten Commandments makes between this as the Sabbath regulations (Exodus 20:8-11). It is interesting, however, that Isbell does not link the creation week of Genesis to the establishment of an ancient ritual calendar and this certainly must have been a primary social/cultic function of the text in its early days. It  STILL functions as the Sabbath’s charter myth for both Judaism and Christianity. In this regard, Genesis 1:1-2:4 is quite comparable to Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation account that was, like very many ancient creation myths, linked to religious ritual.

Isbell does engage in brief a comparative study but ritual or other Religious Studies issues are ignored in favour of affirming that the Bible has a moral perspective lacking other ancient religious writings. He does not explore the possibility that ancient Israel’s neighbours had moral codes and ethical systems enshrined in other bodies of written or oral tradition. Oddly, his comparison is introduced in the context of affirming the distinction between science and theology and in arguing that the Bible has no place in science classes (presumably he doesn’t think Enuma Elish belongs there, either). He writes, “the physical laws of the universe do not allow for the making of moral or theological judgments.” It is these kinds of judgments which govern his comparison. Isbell’s sees the “profoundly theological” creation stories of Genesis in direct opposition to other ancient creation stories such as the Hymn to Ptah (Egypt) or Enuma Elish.

Specifically, Genesis transforms the idea of multiple gods creating the world by committee into the picture of a single deity acting alone in sovereign power, and the entire opening literary unit of Genesis (chapters 1-11) underscores the distinctive character of the God introduced in the creation narratives.

Isbell says that the god of Genesis is “one majestic, and all-powerful” deity, and that science “inclues no category for evaluating” the “theological affirmation” that Genesis’s god overthrew the the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) in reaction to human hubris and presumption.  I fail to see what sort of insight Isbell thinks he is making. He is simply defining theology as as beyond the reach of science. Of course, science can’t tell us a lot of things so little is learned by Isbell’s silly claim .

Dan Stark (Bradley Whitford) of The Good Guys (Fox TV) gets philosophical.

Yet, Isbell is excluding the impact of other disciplines on the biblical story. Historical linguistics, archaeology and a host of other fields have a radically different explanation for the distribution of human societies and the relationship of different languages which the Tower of Babel myth seems to explain. Such studies also discuss how mythology is formed.

The Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 is indeed about human hubris but also of divine fear that perhaps one day he could not control his own creation:

The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. (Gen 11:6-8, New American Standard).

By highlighting this story, perhaps Isbell implies that modern science is guilty of a similar infraction against some deity’s “sovereign power”. As a “theological affirmation” the Babel myth says nothing about the world at all, outside the sphere of belief of those for whom it is a (true) myth, or the suspended disbelief of the literary reader.

So what if the Bible said that the diversity of human languages stemmed from hubris? Religions say a lot of things. Why should any of it be taken seriously? And what is gained by highlighting science’s alleged inability to probe “theological affirmations”? Nothing but a shoring up of the Bible’s cultural relevance against its growing irrelevance for explaining the history of humanity, let alone natural history. It is a way of reinforcing a humility vis-a-vis a perceived deity whose reputation has taken hit after hit by generations of scientific and other academic research.

Similarly, emotion and value laden language like “sovereign power” and “majestic” says a lot about Isbell’s own subjectivity. For him, the biblical deity does not “relate to human beings via raw human emotions like jealousy or irritation”, and Isbell thinks he can prove this by a further comparison of the flood account of Genesis with that of Atrahasis, a Babylonian counterpart. Before discussing his comparison, however, it is worth pointing out that elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh is jealous, often irritated, downright vengeful and vindictive, petty, and horribly violent. And none of this gets so much as a foot in the door of  Isbell’s formulation.

Isbell notes that in Atrahasis, humanity is doomed because their noise disturbs the gods, whereas in Genesis, God is displeased with human wickedness. Atrahasis is said to provide “no moral justification” for the god Ea’s warning of the hero Utnapishtim to save himself by building a boat, whereas Genesis has Yahweh warn the righteous Noah.

Nothing is proven by this, however. Isbell has to ignore a lot of the Bible to affirm the essential moral character of the Bible and its god. God’s actions in the Garden of Eden are fairly inexplicable: why even give the people access to the forbidden fruit? Why let the snake near? Isbell also misrepresents the biblical justification for the Flood? The Priestly account in Gen. 6:11-16 sees not only humanity but the “earth” itself and “all flesh” as corrupt. It is clear that a simple moralistic reading of Genesis is inadequate, both as as answer to its scientific impossibilities, and as a point of comparison with other ancient religious literature.

Is metrification morally and theologically defensible? You
be the judge.

Yahweh is certainly capable of violent, and inexplicable outbursts in which huge numbers of people are slaughtered, and the destruction of almost every man, woman and child in the Flood is hardly the kind of morality with which many people in the modern world would be comfortable . Indeed, genocide is ordered by this deity elsewhere in the Bible, and all non-believers are doomed to hell, according to other passages. In the light of this, we can see Isbell selectively picking and assessing passages to create a response to a perceived weakness in sciences’ challenge to religion: its lack of a moral sensibility.

Isbell also thinks that “humans in Genesis are not divided into winners and losers” as they are in other ancient religious literature. While these other cultures saw the king as the image of the god, the Bible is more democratic. “Using the sharpest contrast imaginable, Genesis 1 asserts that it is not just kings, but the mother and father of us all who are created ‘in the image of God.'” But here Isbell is reading things into Genesis. The creation narratives do not talk about other religious conceptions at all! The sharp contrast is Isbell’s, not Genesis’s. That Genesis is a polemic against non-Isrealite cosmologies is a view shared by many other biblical scholars, but it is badly overwrought.

Other scholars sometimes talk of how the writers of Genesis “demythologized” foreign creation myths, eliminating divine combat against forces of chaos andreducing deities to mere sea monsters or or astronomical bodies.  For example, in his introductory text,  The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Michael D. Coogan makes such a claim.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, Genesis 1 hardly “demythologizes” anything since it is a charter myth in its own right. Moreover, if Genesis is polemical against anything, why pick on the Babylonians or Canaanites? Isaiah, Job, and the Psalms have passages which allude to myths of a cosmic battle between Yahaweh and chaos monsters like Leviathan and Rahab, stories quite comparable to other ANE mythology. Why can’t Genesis be a polemic against other Israelite myths? Isbell, of course, does not mention the Israelite combat myths. To create a meaningful response to science he requires an internally consistent presentation of the book on grounds that are marked as “off limits” to scientific inquiry. His chosen ground is morality and he does his best to smooth over, or ignore, its rather rough topography.

It needs to be pointed out that the Bible DOES divide humans into Israelites and others, and on this basis makes a lot of value judgments as to people’s worth. The basis of this mythical division begins in Genesis 10 with the repopulation of the earth after the flood. The resulting families of humanity are variously cursed and their ancestors labelled as incestuous father-rapers (see Gen. 9 for the sin of Ham, and the curse on Canaan, the patriarch of the Canaanites who are to be eradicated, and Gen. 19 for the incestous daughters of Lot, matriarchs of the Ammonites and Moabites. The Bible certainly does divide the world in to “winners” and “losers” through rather sharp and obscene racial profiling.

Again, Isbell’s construction of the Bible’s meaning (at least in his essay) has no place for biblical ideas which do not serve his immediate purposes of protecting the Bible from scientific scrutiny while constructing a “moral” foundation for religon to make good science’s perceived shortcomings. These are only ‘perceived’ shortcomings in view of the falsely grounded comparison Isbell makes between science as competing systems of inquiry. He is judging science by what he wants to find in religion.  Alas for Isbell, though, it is science, and not the Bible, which really problematizes the whole issue of “race” and the relative worth of people.

Isbell’s also notes that Genesis 3’s talking snake is not a deity and “cannot act independently”.  It is quite unlike the serpent of the Gilgamesh Epic who steals the plant of immortality from that book’s hero. But the Genesis serpent does, after a fashion, help keep the man and woman from attaining immortality by getting them to defy God before they have a chance to sample the produce from the Tree of Life. Isbell does not mention that tree, nor does his offer any comment on the Bible’s versions of the Combat Myth.  He writes:

Clearly these early chapters of Genesis are about moral choices, made both by God and by humans. So it is appropriate to turn to Genesis seeking information that science does not have and does not seek.

This is nonsense. Just because a book is about moral choices hardly means it says anything useful or enlightened about such topics. There is, the question of whether the Bible is good guide for morals at all. When we notice how selective Isbell is when if comes to finding relevant biblical passages, we can see that he is not so much getting morals from the Bible as he is reading morals into it.

A good bit of Isbell’s argument rests on some linguistic issues. Isbell argues that the word “create” bara, in Genesis 1:1 does not always mean creation from nothing (see Psalm 51:12, Isa. 41:18-19, Isa. 65:13-14) and that the “alternative” translation, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was unformed and void, …” is equally defensible. This alternate reading implies some pre-existing, albeit chaotic, matter which God then ordered. Isbell is right in saying that this reading is as grammatically acceptable as the “traditional” understanding.

Besides bara, Isbell also examine the word yatzar, “form”, used in Genesis 2:7 to discuss how Yahweh, potter-like, formed a man from the “dust of the ground” in the Bible’s second creation account (the Garden of Eden story).

Here it is obvious that a brilliantly creative act involved not the bringing of something into existence from nothing, but the transforming of an existing substance (“dust”) into a human being.

On the one hand, Isbell notes that the alternative reading of Gen. 1:1 does not contradict the scientifically determined age of the universe. ON the other hand he observes that the biblical claim of humanity coming from the “dust of the earth” in chapter 2 is hardly compatible with the theory of evolution. To resolve this apparent dilemma, Isbell tries to harmonize the Genesis 2’s story of God’s putting the “breath of life” into the dust-man with Proverbs’ depiction of “Lady Wisdom”, a personification of divine wisdom who delivers a lengthy speech in Prov. 8-9.

In 8:22, Wisdom says “Yahweh created me at the beginning of His course”, prior to the creation of the world. From this Isbell draws a curious conclusion.

And since wisdom claims to have been a “confidant” of God who was “with Him at all times” during the process of creation (8.30), it becomes apparent that the “breath of life” breathed into the dust at the time of the creation of the first human in Genesis 2.7 was nothing less than the capacity for wisdom which all other creatures lack.

First, it seems to me that the logical inconsistency between the actual origins of the human species and Genesis’ “dust of the earth”, story can hardly be resolved by an appeal to the metaphorical, symbolic and ephemerally spiritual world evoked by language like the “breath of life” and a personified “Widsom” entity from another book entirely.

This forced harmonization stems from the religious conception of a mutually supporting canon of “scripture” and the resulting obsession with forging links between diverse passages as a problem solving and meaning-creating exercise. It is “apparent” only if one buys 2000+ years of practice inventing these kinds of theological discoveries of the obvious. And what happened to Leviathan and Rahab? Why not include these in the harmonization? Unlike science, however, this creative activity need not embrace all the data but is essentially selective, ad hoc, and open to change the minute a different idea needs to be articulated through another mix and match process.

At this point in his article, however Isbell  returns to evolution, writing that Genesis should not be expected to give a hint of speciation. Rather:

What Genesis seeks to affirm is that the uniqueness of “the earth creature” [Hebrew: ’adam] (male and female!) derives directly from the infusion of the very breath of God. If science discovers that the laws of the physical universe dictate a long process of development through various stages from simple to complex, this affirmation of Genesis still stands. If only wisdom, which is part and parcel of God, constitutes the difference between a human and all other creatures, then Genesis is describing that difference in its own simple theological terminology.

This is the god of the gaps theory in action but its accommodationism is not as comfortably  compatible with scientific knowledge as Isbell would want. Neither is its essential theological points imune to science’s (and other disciplilne’s) critique or invisible to its purview. Evolution holds that uman intelligence is a product of nature and not a “gift” from outside. Indeed, there are levels of intelligence in other species, too. By creating a category called “Wisdom” and seeing it as fundamentally different from natural intellectual capacities, Isbell is sharing with the fundamentalists a sharp dichotomy between humanity and other earthly species, a distinction that is profoundly anti-science and deeply mythic.

1871 cartoon by Thomas Nast

What is really offensive to many fundamentalists is the idea that evolution displaces humanity from its pride of place as the crowning glory of divine creation.  Isbell also seems more than a little concerned about this.

Savage Chickens! The best chicken cartoons in the world.

No one likes being an uncivilized,
itch-scritching monkey, but hey, its a living.

Isbell’s category of “Wisdom” is to human intelligence what the cargo-cultist’s airplane is to real aerodynamics: a symbolic construct designed to combat a percieved “foreign” hegemony.

Perhaps Isbell’s true colours are shown in his conclusion in which he asks (perhaps only rhetorically):

What if science is correct and the earth came into being over a period of millions or even billions of years?

I don’t really understand his reticence to admit to the great age of the universe, unless he has some sympathy with the YEC position. Why hedge one’s bets like this if the results of scientific research really pose no threat to religious “truth”? He is right to regard Genesis as dealing with the religious meaning of human existence and the world. The same can be said of any religious cosmology, be it Hindu, Scientologist, Wiccan, or aboriginal Australian. All of these traditional cosmologies stood in a relationship to secular science’s description of the universe; that is, any points of contact between them are circumstantial, or reflect the influence of science on faith, not faith on science. These other religious systems are not, however, in equal standing in the eyes of Isbell as the Bible is without comparison.

That being said, the core affirmations of Genesis stand in unrivaled beauty and timeless theological value: the belief that the created world is fundamentally “good,” the affirmation that human beings enjoy a special status which brings a sobering challenge of responsibility, and the conviction that a unique divine deity acted alone.

The “core affirmations of Genesis” are, of course, the product of Isbell, not the writers of Genesis. He continues:

In His own time and for His own purpose, the creative hand of God brought beauty, order, structure, and purpose to what had been merely a formless void before He began to act. For reasons that are not explained, God also chose to “create” human life from the lowly dust of the ground. This is a clear case of the movement of a substance from one stage to another, higher plane. And as the citations of the Psalmist and Isaiah show, the creative power of God remains at work long after Genesis, transforming the human heart, recasting the structure of nature, and overturning an evil social and political order for good.

Here, Isbell re-creates a timelessness in face of the challenge of sceince which casts humanity not as “a little lower than the angels” or even a little higher than the apes, but simply as an accidental product of a vastly complex but wonderful universe. The “core affirmations” and “timeless” ideas are simply Isbell’s own created structures of legitimacy for religious ideas to which the scientific world view will not (or at least should not) surrender pride of place.

Only God could have “formed” humanity from the dust because only God can infuse a lump of clay with the spirit of “wisdom” that makes one human. Only God has the power to create and recreate nature and society. This is not faith in search of evidentiary proof, but faith that welcomes and rejoices with every new discovery, secure in the knowledge that faith and science use two different methods of inquiry, and that they can neither prove nor disprove the other.

Of course only God could have “‘formed’ humanity from the dust”  because he is the only deity in the story! But humanity was not really “‘formed’ from the dust”. This is metaphorical, figurative speech, that operates within a story world and should not be taken as literal, by Isbell’s own admission. Again, Isbell axiomatically dismisses any challenge to his “faith” though science. Here is a “core affirmation” of Isbell, that places science in the role of cheerleader for God: accommodation through segregation.

As our knowledge of the physical universe grows, the time has come for all parties to be reminded that the biblical accounts are not concerned at all with physical science. Science and theology are two separate disciplines, each with its own independent integrity, and dragging either one into the classroom of the other is academically disingenuous. Science neither proves nor disproves the Bible, and the Bible tells us nothing about science. Period.

As a religious statement, Isbell’s points of view are his own to hold. Besides seeing them as a religious response to secularization and science, the secular scholar should leave him to it. When Isbell charges that it is academically disingenuous to affirm a contrary ideas to his own, however, it is fair for secular critics to strike back. Certainly the Bible does tell us nothing about science, but science and especially the social sciences, can tell us a LOT about the Bible and its claims about history, humanity and the cosmos. Hell, the birth of morality itself has an origin in human evolution and academic study of the development of  culture and science can likely tell us a lot about that, too. A comparative religion study can also reassess religious claims to the Bible’s uniqueness (and often has). What is academically disingenuous is marking the Bible off from critical scrutiny while not being forthcoming about its own internal contradictions and complexities, and the subjectivity of one’s own theological interpretation.

The Bible has been beaten to a pulp by science. That Isbell uses the pulp to make a new paper mache biblical edifice that is purportedly impregnable to science only underscores secular academia’s success in attacking the foundations, uniqueness, and relevance of biblical “knowledge”.

Genesis is affirming that the world as the authors knew it was “good,” that it provides everything we need for existence, and that human existence must be enriched through spiritual and societal growth defined as obedience to the biblical perception of the God of the universe.

Ok, so the Bible claims we must become spiritually enriched through obedience. I don’t disagree. But why should anyone give it any heed? The notion of an internally consistent Bible as the revelation of moral deity with some transformative power over humans is itself is a mythic construct. As a mythic-maker, Isbell is simply doing what myth-makers have always been doing, recreating tradition in new situations, and if recreation doesn’t work, wholesale inventing. Scholars of mythology and secularism may take interest in Isbell’s work as the topic of further research, but his views do not really establish limits of science, the social sciences, or even biblical scholarship.

To bring this overly long rant to a close, I would posit that religious accommodationism of the intellectually segregated sort as advocated by Isbell (among others) offers only a slightly less dangerous threat to secular intellectual endeavours than that of young earth creationism. While Isbell and his co-religionists would support the teaching of evolution and the old universe, it still imposes indefensible limits on the scope of scientific research. Accommodationism suggests that science and other fields of study should be the willing guardians of religious “truth” and that makes it intellectually offensive, to say the least. Isbell is not calling for the advancement of knowledge but its curtailment. And since he is himself, a scholar of religion, that is a sorry situation indeed.


Deep Packed Chopra believes the infinite. Whatever the heck that is

I’ve been meaning to make some more substantial posts of late in response to all of the comments people have been making about my secular biblical studies posts, but, alas, there is marking to do. So I’m just making the odd silly post for a distraction. Like this:

Couldn’t resist. Found this somewhere on line a long time ago and thought I would forward it on:

Ah, but there are people who know about Quantum Mechanics. Whatever the heck that is.

Religion and Science Accommodationism. The Lolcat perspective

OK, lots have been said on accommodationism. Here’s my view on the subject, inspired by the recent post on J. Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True“.

And don’t forget the other creationist kitties and

Why Meoweh is better than Yahweh

Why Cats Are Better than God

The Breakfast of Cambrians: Burgess Shale Pancakes!

My friend Dan who is a scientist at the University of Lethbridge and sometimes commenter here at the Thinking Shop sent me some interesting photos and gave me permission to post them here.

I’m not sure how long about it was, but he took his kids to the Burgess Shale formations near Field B.C. in the Rocky Mountains. They could no go up the mountain that day, but Dan promised the little guys that he would make them pancakes when they got home.

Here is the some of the info from the website Burgess Shale Foundation.

The Burgess Shale fossils have been called the world’s most significant fossil discovery, mainly because of their great age, their diversity and the incredible detail of their preservation. What makes them different from other fossil sites is that a series of geological factors resulted in these soft-bodied animals (mostly arthropods) having not only the hard parts of their bodies – bones, shells, teeth – but also the muscles, gills, digestive systems and other soft body parts preserved allowing scientists an unprecedented opportunity to observe not only these details but also the way the creatures lived and interacted.

The Burgess Shale fossils merit special interest for several reasons:

  • Their age – from the Cambrian period, 505 million years ago, shortly after an astonishing burst of biodiversity occurred in the ancient oceans.
  • Their exquisite preservation – amazingly fine details of the structure of the animals are seen in the fossils, which tell paleontologists much more about what the ancient animals looked like, and how they lived.
  • The fossils reveal important clues to the nature of evolution – all of the major types of animals (phyla) known today are represented in the Burgess Shale, plus others that cannot be placed in our modern classification system.

So here is are scientific and culinary representations of the critters!


Image from Burgess Shale Foundation

Photo by D. Johnson

Opabinia had five eyes at the front of the head and a long, flexible proboscis that ended in an array of grasping spines. Opabinia is thought to have lived in the soft sediment on the seabed. It swam in pursuit of prey using the lateral lobes. (Burgess Shale Foundation site)


OLENOIDES-TRILOBITE lenoides-trilobite

Wikipedia photo


By Dan Johnson

Olenoides was a trilobite from the Cambrian period. Its fossils are found well-preserved in the Burgess Shale in Canada. It grew up to 10 cm long.

Olenoides followed the basic structure of all trilobites — a cephalon (head shield), a thorax with seven jointed parts, and finally a semicircular pygidium. Its antennae were long, and curved back along its sides. Its thin legs show that it was no swimmer, instead crawling along the sea floor in search of prey. This is also evidenced by fossil tracks that have been found. (Wikipedia)



D. Johnson

Anomalocaris (“abnormal shrimp”) is an extinct genus of anomalocaridid, which are, in turn, thought to be closely related to the arthropods. …Anomalocaris is thought to have been a predator. It propelled itself through the water by undulatingthe flexible lobes on the sides of its body … For the time in which it lived Anomalocaris was a truly gigantic creature, reaching lengths of up to one meter. (Wikipedia)



D. Johnson

Burgess Shale Foundation

Wiwaxia is a slug-like creature whose top surface was covered with leafshape ribbed plates (sclerites) and two rows of longer spines. These are often preserved as a flattened mass of armour, which hides the details of the soft tissue. Occasionally a radula bearing two rows of teeth is seen at the anterior (head) end of the organism. Wiwaxia has been considered a polychaete (bristle worm), but this interpretation is controversial. It crawled along the sea floor, feeding on organic detritus. (Burgess Shale Foundation Site)

And the neatest part of all this is that Dan insists that the pancakes were served warm. Not sure if that is scientifically accurate though. Perhaps they were warm blooded. Or at least warm syruped. But I’m waffling.

Love in the Islamic Mystical Poetry of Rumi: U. of Lethbridge Public Lecture

The Religious Studies Department and the Islamic Studies Fund presents:

Love in the Islamic Mystical Poetry of Rumi (d. 1293)

Prof. Mohammed Rustom (Carleton University)


Date: Monday, March 21, 2011
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Location: TH201 (Turcotte Hall)

Everyone welcome. Refreshments provided.

Funny Churches. What’s in a name, anyway?


Birthday prezzie ideas?

As regular readers of whatever the Thinking Shop are aware, Dr. Jim will soon begetting a new Better Half, who is already the good Doctor’s Better Brain. Sadly, the Doctor is plum out of ideas for her upcoming birthday (early April).

She got a lot of jewelry of late (not counting the diamond ring), and I’m not that great at thinking up other stuff. So, any ideas? I’m tooo busy for a romantic getaway (and we are off to Ireland in early June and Munich in late June), and I don’t know one perfume from another. Add a comment here or email happilyunchurched (at) gmail (dot) com.

*wwink mode: ON* And Mary, no sock-puppet sneaky asking for stuff!

Categories: Fun
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We will deal with the West later…

Jim West, the evil cat-hater, is at it again. He is complaining about the existence of a cat toy!

He says it is the “dumbest thing he has ever seen”.  Well, I’m pretty busy now, but Dr. West, be warned…

Just How Badly Can Someone Miss the Point?

I’m grateful for the supportive comments, observations and constructive reservations that some folks have expressed concerning my post on the 13th called  When an Academic Society Does the Church’s Work. Can Elephants in the University be Academic? It got noticed by Daniel McClellan on his blog while James McGrath had a bit more to say at Exploring Our Matrix. Between his original post and comments by himself and others there and in my original  post, there are a number of issues that I will need to address and expand on. Hopefully I will have that posted tomorrow sometime. There were serious observations and deserve a serious and cordial reply.

One comment on James’ blog, however, merits more of a scathing reply than a cordial one. John Hobbins’s objections to my post are so laughably misrepresentative of what I wrote and so badly misread the larger issues which I addressed that an ad hominem attack seems more appropriate than any kind of point by point rebuttal. But what the hell?

Hobbins writes:

I find it hard to fathom that Jim Linville sees fit to imply that the following SBL Annual Meeting Program Committee is guilty of a bias against “secular” biblical scholarship:

Francisco Lozada, Jr. Committee Chair, Brite Divinity School
Tamara Eskenazi, Hebrew Union College
Robin Jensen, Divinity School, Vanderbilt University
Jeffrey K. Kuan, Theological School, Drew University
Halvor Moxnes, University of Oslo
Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Laura Nasrallah, Harvard Divinity School

Is he that unacquainted with the persona and academic profiles of said scholars?

Ok, so according to Hobbins, I imply that I’m the victim of a wilful bias by poor scholars. Here’s what I ACTUALLY WROTE:

Among the ranks of the SBL are many devout Christians and Jews, and truth be told, they make their fair share of valuable contributions to the secular study of the Bible and its cultural contexts.

When I named the people on the committee I said this:

I don’t want to get all conspiracy-theory or impugn the integrity of any of the program committee members but here is the make up of the SBL’s Annual Meeting Program Committee.

That some of these scholars work in divinity schools and the like does NOT mean they are not real scholars.

I then said that committee reaches the wrong decision, not that they are incompetent or  malicious. Where is the claim that there was a conspiracy? Not in my words, but in delusions of Hobbins’ mind.

Hobbins continues:

Secondly, Linville seems to define secular biblical scholarship in contradictory ways:

(1) When scholars for whom the Bible is a cultural resource come to conclusions he or some other scholar who thinks of the Bible as so much rot might concur with, they are doing secular scholarship; if not, it is faith-based;

(2) When scholars make comments of the kind Avalos is famous for (see below), we are being offered secular biblical scholarship of the highest order and of the greatest academic rigor.

Neither definition is persuasive.

This, of course, is complete bullshit. First of all, I don’t think the Bible is “so much” rot, and people for whom the Bible is important culturally and religiously disagree with me all the time and typically those objections to my position are quite thoroughly secular. Hobbins’ complaint is directed a giant stawman.

As far as my alleged second “definition” goes, where in my post did I state or imply that Hector Avalos’ work was the finest ever produced? The only reference to Avalos is one little note that he was the chair of the steering committee. Let me repeat: CHAIR, not “hero”, “role model”, “dictator”, “prophet”, “Pope”, or “guru”. He’s just a very well-educated guy with some ideas I agree with and some over which I must beg to differ.

For example, Avalos takes a stronger position than I on the society changing role of biblical academics. I don’t really see my obligation as a tenured academic to end the cultural hegemony of the Bible and Bible based religions in the Western world. One of the points that Avalos makes in The End of Biblical Studies is that I should work towards that goal. But I disagree.

The same would go for all the members of committee of the proposed group. We share some ideas and we have a lot to quibble over. When we first met in 2009 there were all sorts of ideas being presented and few met with complete agreement. Rather, there were compromises and as the informal chair of the meeting, Avalos facilitated these discussions with a lot of flexibility and openness. And that, I think, was why he was later elected chair of the steering committee (and the fact that he has experience working on SBL committees).

I don’t think Hobbins even knows what secular means: it  does NOT mean “anti-religious” or even “atheistic”. Believers do secular academic work all the time. Indeed, the majority of believers presenting papers in the SBL national meeting are DOING SECULAR WORK, because their methods and conclusions do not depend on specific religious conceptualizations or premises. Rather, the methods of analysis are easily understandable, accessible and open to someone from any religious tradition or no particular religious beliefs. Those methods and premises can be used by others of any religous tradition without forcing them to “convert” or otherwise adopt religious views.

And, importantly, a critique of those methods do not amount to a critique of whatever religious bellief the scholar may have. In fact, Hobbins himself has probably done secular biblical criticism. I’m almost certain of it. On his website lists these two publications (among others).

“Regularities in Ancient Hebrew Verse: A New Descriptive Model” in ZAW 119 (2007) 564-585

“Resurrection in Daniel and Other Writings at Qumran,” in The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception. Volume Two (John J. Collins, Peter W. Flint, eds., Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 83/2, Leiden: Brill, 2001) 395-420

I haven’t read either paper, but I can’t believe that the Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft would publish anything but fairly secular scholarship nowadays. The “Regularities in Ancient Hebrew Verse” should be there for anyone to see, regardless whatever deity or deities the reader does or does not believe in. The utility of the model he proposes would rest not on doctrine or revelation but logic and reason. As far as the resurrection paper, there is no reason to suppose here that religious belief has unduly clouded Hobbins’ appraisal of the resurrection theme in Daniel or other early Jewish literature. Perhaps Hobbins thinks Daniel is inspired in some way, but I don’t automatically think that the acceptance of his conclusions about Daniel would require me to believe in a similar kind of revelation.  Moreover, one might say his conclusions in that paper are wrong without implying that he should abandon his religion on logical or any other grounds.

My main beef is that the SBL hosts many sessions in which the methods and premises are firmly grounded in religious beliefs and to really enter the discussion one must adopt at least some of those beliefs. In many cases, the level of commitment is pretty high. This include regarding the Bible as divine revelation or construing particular religious groups as being the only ones with a proper relationship with a purportedly real god. I do not think that this is all that compatible with or complementary to the way most scholarship into religion is conducted. It also raises the question of the privileging of some religions’ intellectual engagement with their own scriptures while leaving others out. As I rather playfully implied in my post, religious studies academic societies are unlikely to welcome papers predicated on the belief that human sacrifice can influence the weather. Yet such were the beliefs of some people. On a different note, how much of the history of pre-European colonial North America must be predicated on LDS beliefs about Semetic refugees reaching this continent? Only within the halls of Mormon dominated institutions would that be at all tenable. It would be excluded by secular academic institutions. Why do we allow some religions to “talk shop” in our meetings but not others?

I also faulted the SBL for tolerating this privileging of (some) religion while being reluctant to include  discussions about secularity of scholarship and the impact of confessional discourses embedded within biblical scholarship and the SBL. Anyway, more on this will be the subject of a later post.

To return to my  original post of last Sunday, please recall that I complained about  the “Bible in Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions”. My complaint was that membership in this program unit appeared to be restricted to “biblical professors and scholars from the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions”. This I see as an offensive sectarianism and exclusiveness that serves no academic purpose. But of the abstracts published for the 2010 meeting, here is what I said:

The list of papers in the 2010 program books was, however, reassuring. From my quick survey, they all seemed to have a good scholarly perspective on how the Orthodox Church related to its scripture.

So, here I am freely asserting that these Christians can have scholarly perspectives on their own traditions. My only complaint is that they are not opening the forum to non-Orthodox scholars.

And this raises a larger issue of misunderstanding what the proposed group is about. We are NOT supposing that only we are doing secular scholarship! Hardly. Rather, we just think that the SBL needs a venue for discussing the question of secularity in scholarship and the degree to which this is compromised by the current state of the SBL. The point of my post was to complain that the SBL program committee had made a mistake in not agreeing to let these discussions go forward without restriction. This is an issue that I will return to in a post in a day or so, but let’s get back to Hobbins.

After his misbegotten presentation of my  “contradictory”definitions” of “secular biblical scholarship”, he closes with this:

Famous Avalosian quotes:

“Shakespeare’s works have no intrinsic value.”
“[T]he Bible has no intrinsic value or merit.”
“I get paid to do what I love, though my conscience is increasingly telling me to do something more beneficial for humanity.”

So it’s not really about me but Hector Avalos, who seems to have really gotten up our poor, confused, Hobbins’ nose and so make such a convenient red herring to hang around the neck of his stawman. Regardless of what one thinks of The End of Biblical Studies (one of the most misunderstood recent books in biblical studies), Avalos has made more than a few contributions to biblical studies in a number of areas. None of this matters to Hobbins, of course, who so self-righteously accuses me of impugning the dignity and work of others.

And what the hell is wrong with the three “famous Avalos quotes”? Besides not providing any context for them, Hobbins seems to think they are simply wrong headed. But is this really so?

Would Hobbins please enlighten us as to the “intrinsic” value of Shakespeare or the Bible? I’m really interested in this since my recent book on the mythic and poetics nature of  Amos  has a number of quotes form the Bard. And, perhaps Hobbins could also explain how people who write books on the biblical poetics really think of the “Bible as so much rot”?

Cultural values and appreciation of art are rather subjective and ethno-centric, not to mention class-centric. What intrinsic value could Shakespeare have for someone from China or someone who never reads much? Would native English speaker of African ancestry really think Shakespeare is all  that important? Shakespeare, or the Bible, for that matter, hasn’t got a lot to say about a lot of people’s lives. The “intrinsic” value is a constructed value. There is a huge discussion in literary circles about the “canon” of English literature. And why is it wrong for an atheist to reflect on the social impact of his work? Are atheists just monsters with no feeling?

Hath not a Jew an atheist eyes? Hath not a Jew an atheist hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means,
warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is?

Are atheists devoid of a social consciousness, without morality or concern? Certainly some Christians have created such an atheistic boogey man to feed their own sense of self-importance (as many atheists have done to religious folk). Is John Hobbins among them? Or is he just rash and simplistic?

There are more things in Avalos and humanity, Hobbins
Than are dreamt of in your fallacies.

No, its probably worse than short-sightedness. In my first post, I castigated a number of overtly theological groups within the SBL, but Hobbins totally ignores the substance of those complaints. Rather, he so badly misrepresents what I wrote that I find it hard to believe that it is anything but dishonesty (could someone with advanced degrees really be that careless?) And then he goes on the attack against Avalos. Well done, John Hobbins, putting your loathing of a self-imposed bogey man ahead of your brain.  You certainly stood up for real scholarship there, well done indeed.

(John, that was sarcasm: look it up before you blame Hector for telling me to use words you don’t understand).

Some other (and more careful and honest) readers, have taken me to task over some other issues. As I have noted, they will have to wait a little for the proper response that they deserve, but I’m working on it.