Science Book Club: When Science & Christianity Meet Ch 6

Sage advice for so many situations. (Photo by GregPlom)

The gap year is a popular option for college-bound students looking for a wider range of experiences. Of course, it’s really only a gap if you expect education to involve continuous matriculation; for the student it’s not a gap at all. Now, how about a gap century, or gap millennium, or longer? For William Buckland, the subject of this weeks’ chapter from When Science and Christianity Meet, a gap between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 helped to resolve questions about the chronology of creation posed by geological discoveries he and his colleagues were making. One of the things I appreciated from Mott Greene’s essay was learning more about the events proposed for that period, since the Earth didn’t actually experience a gap.

The convenient thing about a gap, especially one of undefined size, is that you can put anything in it. Initially, Buckland and many others expected that a study of geology would reveal evidence of a global, cataclysmic flood consistent with their reading of Genesis and the story of Noah. As a scientific hypothesis, such a narrative would predict certain geological observations while excluding certain others. Finding a predator’s remains along with the accumulated remains of months or years worth of prey is not the most likely scenario after such a flood if the flood also needs to explain the death of the predator. Such a deluge would disturb the prey bones. Greene explains that Buckland was involved in investigating exactly such a find and it led him to reconsider explaining all of geology in terms of a single flood. Eventually he settled on a gap model, where most geological features were established between those two verses in Genesis. Since no details are provided, virtually any observation is consistent with such a model.

You can see the appeal of the gap model. It allows for a wide latitude of future geological discoveries without requiring theological updates. Science and the Bible remain reconciled on real terms (to use Greene’s language), meaning that they both describe the same real historical events. At the same time, the account of Buckland’s reasoning and that of his student Charles Lyell seemed to foreshadow further difficulties. Or maybe I just know where the history is going, and so I could see which assumptions that seemed solid would eventually shift and raise new questions. Most notably, the assumption that all of human history started after Genesis 1:2 may have been more tenuous than Buckland realized (more on that next chapter/week).

Photo of sea cave

Water definitely shapes geology, but usually just a little at a time for many years. (Photo by dimitrisvetsikas1969)

Still, nearly 200 years later, there is still a lot of interest in Flood geology and in reconciling science and the Bible as parallel accounts of the same real history. We have more data and some different scientific models, but some of the key questions remain the same. In particular, how do you reconcile science and the Bible when one can be updated by new data and the other cannot? As we’ve seen, part of the solution is to acknowledge that interpretation of the Bible can be updated, or if you prefer theology can be updated, even while the text remains the same. And science is not fully up for grabs either; the observations we’ve already made won’t change which provides some certainty about inferences we’ve made from that data. Still, there are open questions within the domain of science — and arguably within the domain of theology — which can look an awfully lot like gaps. Thus we get God-of-the-gaps and science-of-the-gaps and possibly other of-the-gaps as well.

Now, I won’t claim to have completely solved an age old problem. Still, one principle I think can be helpful is to hold loosely to the ideas we use to bridge the gap. That’s part of why I think science fiction and other pop culture references are useful. They automatically date whatever you’ve written. In a sense, they ensure that your messages will self-destruct. Of course, if the science itself is updated that will have a similar effect, but tying in culture that is by nature ephemeral makes the temporary aspect more explicit. Staying relevant to the latest sci-fi forces me to periodically reevaluate my ideas and reconsider the links I’ve made between science and theology to verify whether they still work.

As I said, though, that’s not a complete solution to the problem of the gaps. So I’d love to hear from you what techniques or solutions or approaches you use to address the incomplete nature of scientific explanations as they relate to theology. Feel free to drop some ideas in the comments below and share your ideas in person next week via video chat. And if there’s another feature of the book you want to talk about, go right ahead.

Last week I said there would be a video chat tonight, but I’m sorry to say I have to reschedule. I hope you can join us at 7:30pm Eastern next week (3/21/2018) instead. My apologies for any inconvenience.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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