Beyond the Firmament - Book Review

My first essay to read in College English was How to Read a Book similar to this one. The essay implored readers to really be active about the books they read --- writing comments and questions directly on the pages, making notes in agreement or disagreement, and re-read. I’ve never done that...until I read Gordon J. Glover’s Beyond the Firmament. The reason I scribbled so much is because I was able to treat the book like a conversation as if I knew the author and could go point by point and say where I agreed and disagreed. Perhaps not having the ear of the author kept me from doodling in books before. However, in this case I do have the ear of the author as he frequently comments on this blog and I can also converse with him on his blog.

As demonstrated on this blog and in his book, Gordon has a passion for science and God. He and I have a similar history of belief in creationism and Christian upbringing. In many instances through the book, I found myself nodding at the similar experiences and thoughts we’ve shared in our journeys. For example, Gordon asks, “No matter what “side” you find yourself on at the end of the day, there will be consequences. The question you need to ask yourself is this: what are the consequences of your beliefs and can you live with them?” Compare this to my Faith in... and Flight of the bumblebee posts.

When I accepted evolution, I turned atheist. When Gordon accepted evolution, he did not. What was the difference? Like all of us, we have a model of how the world (with or without God) works. With this model, we interact with the world and receive more information. Then we repeat, modifying our model, then getting more information, etc. When Gordon realized that evolution, as far as anybody can tell, is true, he dug deep. Instead of trying to dispute the evidence like many Christians do (well, okay, he tried for a bit and realized that was a dead end), he looked at how Christianity keeps screwing up with science --- how they keep losing the forest for the trees as our egocentricities get pummeled by science.

I appreciated Gordon’s efforts to keep the scientific and religious view separate. The term "Theistic Evolution" is an oxymoron. Supernatural beliefs should not guide evolutionary science. A person can simply be a theist and an evolutionist.

While I’m certainly not Gordon’s target audience, reading the book helped me clarify my own stance and begin to understand people who believe in both evolution and theism. It solidified my self perception that I am a materialist. I therefore took several issues with his casting of materialism as empty, meaningless, having no place in philosophy, and that the universe requires God’s sustenance. It also made me realize us materialists can have our cake and eat it too. Meaning must have a physical basis so philosophy and the religion-of-materialism can coexist with material science. Yes, that may corrupt material science or promote strange, detrimental philosophies, but they are not incompatible with natural sciences like philosophies that incorporate a supernatural. And why not merrily choose to have material science and materialist philosophies coexist? All we have to work with is what we know about the material world! (Other posts to follow on these issues).

So what are we to make of the Genesis account? Gordon argues that the creation story presented in Genesis was for the Hebrews who understood nature in terms of the creation myths of their near eastern contemporaries, not so much saying that God spoke this, that, and the other into existence and performed the first surgery to get a rib from Adam to create Eve, but that the simple message of creation was that God was behind it all --- not several gods, but just the one singular God to be worshipped. In this way, the Bible was culturally relevant at the time, but the timeless message remains intact keeping the Bible inerrant. Convenient.

Gordon provides the fundamentals of logic, cosmology, physics, geology, and evolution through accessible language, humor, and metaphor. He gently, clearly, and empathetically implores Christians to face the music with the facts presented in the natural sciences. This is a tall order. It’s not easy to get somebody to up-end their model of their world and the way their God operates. The reader is left with the realization that they have tough decisions to make, an understanding of what doesn’t work in responding to scientific knowledge, and a sympathetic author, but that’s it. In the end, the reader is not given any positive options other than to avoid evil materialism. There is no inkling of why God uses evolution and what that could possibly mean in terms of "God’s image", salvation, and God’s relationship to man. Gordon simply acknowledges that evolution raises extremely difficult questions for the theist, but if we can accept the three-in-one God, a virgin birth, and resurrection, then we should be able to simply accept evolution as God’s mode of creation, leaving his sovereignty intact.

I guess the difference between Gordon and me is that my faith and model of the world were not so independent. I could never (and still can’t) build a God that makes sense when evolution is part of the mix, but materialism gives it to me. Christians’ accepting of evolution should cause a lot of discussion to be dealt with immediately and without reverting to the "all will be revealed someday" excuse for not getting to the meat of tough issues. Hopefully that’s coming in the next book!

9 comments:

Gordon J. Glover said...

Thanks Tom. You're right about a lot of things, which is why I like visiting your blog. As you noted, I warn readers up front that BTF will open more festering wounds than it heals, raise more questions than it answers, and shake Christians from their comfortable mental fortress that enable to avoid the tough questions. My reviews on Amazon are evidence of this...

So it is a little ironic that I avoided so many of these "tough questions" in the book - but I simply couldn't make the book any longer. So it's meant to be more of a starting point rather than the last word on anything. Hell, I'm still working out a lot of these things for myself!

You know from our previous conversations that my treatment of materialism was probably too general. There are many subtle nuances to how materialistic philosopies approach morality and ethics, and like Christians - atheists come many different flavors.

But I look forward to hashing out some of these things with you and your readers!

GJG

Tom said...

GJG,

Your reviews on Amazon, and my experience from reading your book, is that you have a distinct voice to rattle your readers while keeping them appreciative and listening to the ideas you deliver. As your reviewers state, your voice is honest, humble, and knowledgeable. It is a voice I hope to emulate. Your negative casting of materialism is probably due to the condescending, unsympathetic voice many of us use.

You are right that the book was ready to end where it did because the tough issues can probably fill several books. At the same time, I can empathize with your predicament of what God is/means in the context of evolution and that's what we can discuss on our blogs. We all need appropriate rattling. I think we can do that for each other.

7K said...

"Gordon argues that the creation story presented in Genesis was for the Hebrews who understood nature in terms of the creation myths of their near eastern contemporaries..."

That is nice. He is absolutely right about the ancient mindset. I also ran into the problem of taking the early chapters of Genesis literally once I realized that evolution is the better model for prehistory. The story must become an allegory, something that is tantamount to blasphemy among many fundamentalists. Been there, done that. Also, those stories were passed on orally, at least until Moses, and then not committed to parchment until the latter Jewish era. I say that for literalist theists who forget how stories change as they're passed on from generation to generation.

Some would say Moses received it by revelation not tradition. Even so, God is big on stories. We all know that even fiction can carry great meaning. So, in that sense, it doesn't matter so much if it is fiction or fact. What matters is what does it mean? I don't see anything in early Genesis that disqualifies evolution.

What literalists do here is erect a barrier to understanding evolution because they must consider a day as a literal 24-hours. But what is a "day" to God? What would a day be to us if we were standing on Saturn? It's all relative, as Einstein would say.

"This is a tall order. It’s not easy to get somebody to up-end their model of their world and the way their God operates."

Even the Pope doesn't wrestle with evolution. The up-ending difficulty is mostly among fundamentalist evangelicals. This group is losing this battle, whether they know it or not. They just don't want to be confused by the facts. But, you know, we could say God revealed the light bulb to Edison and evolution to Darwin.

This begs the question, Why would this become necessary this late in history? Because evolution tells us that the material world is progressive, that it was under development. This means that God is involved in something orderly here. Evolution has some goal. In my book, that goal was Jesus Christ. He is the next quantum leap.

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

One quick comment. I don't think Gordon or myself would agree that "theistic evolutionist" is an "oxymoron". It is not that the term in inherently contradictory. Rather, I think Gordon's point was that it is silly. Sort of like "theistic chemistry", or the example Gordon has used, "theistic meteorology".

Beyond that, your view seems to be that there is an unbridgeable gulf between theism and evolutionary science. It is interesting to me that the opposition I find among my Christian friends reveals that they share the same bias. And those Christians come out of the same “camp” that you abandoned. My point is simply this: your inability to coalesce Christian theism with evolution might be rooted more in the brand of Christianity you knew than in your new-found materialism. Is that possible?

For me, coming to understand evolution has been an amazing revelation in terms of my faith. It has helped me to put into perspective many otherwise troubling questions to which I’ve sought answers most of my Christian life. Evolution simply makes more sense to me than the various schemes of special creation that Christians usually espouse. If we frame it as “God’s idea”, there is an elegance in evoltutionary process that lights up my theistic imaginations!

Anonymous said...

interesting...
www.doesgodexist.org

brian

Tom said...

Cliff,

Welcome back! As you can see, you didn't miss too much. My blogging has taken last chair to my work, holiday goings on, reading, family, and friends....

...Beyond that, your view seems to be that there is an unbridgeable gulf between theism and evolutionary science.

Bingo!

It is interesting to me that the opposition I find among my Christian friends reveals that they share the same bias. And those Christians come out of the same “camp” that you abandoned. My point is simply this: your inability to coalesce Christian theism with evolution might be rooted more in the brand of Christianity you knew than in your new-found materialism. Is that possible?

Indeed. As opposed to your other friends, you may find from me, hopefully, that I'm not resistant to talking about it. You may find what it is about my ol' camp's psychology that makes evolutionary science and theism either-or. I've been looking from you, Gordon, 7K, Steve Martin's, and other theists how it is bridgeable. Believe me, I've tried, so I'd be extremely surprised if you came up with something that I haven't thought of before, but I'm curious to hear your approaches.

7K said...

Tom,
Odd, to me also, that I didn't come on board these discussions to convert you back to faith. You and I are alike in that we see evolution as the likeliest truth. This realization freaks me out a little bit.

At one time, as a one-time biblical literalist, I saw Genesis as some kind of litmus test of faith. As ridiculous as it might seem, a 7-day creation was the only explanation because "the Bible says so." How ignoramus is that? To me, at that point in my own faith development, my confidence was more in the Bible perhaps than in God. And he couldn't have influenced me otherwise.

For me to talk like this among some of my Christian friends is to invite trouble (which is sometimes fun). To me, now, Creationism is a dead issue, though. It proves nothing and means perhaps less. It will end up as a passing fad.

What is awesome is that there is very surely a message coming to us in the notion that God used evolution as his modus operandi. How revolutionary that might be to those evangelicals mired in an overzealous literalism. How healing that might be to atheists and theists gnashing at each other over these issues.

Perhaps you are on a faith journey yourself, and just unaware of it. Just because you are in an atheist cosmos at the moment may be as irrelevant as it is that I am seeing it all through my theist lenses. When we talk about it we are sharing differing perspectives on the same material world.

Atheism may have become more functional for you than the theism of the camp you came from, something forced on you from without that you had no means to control. If there is a God, there is no one more aware of your circumstance than he. And if Christ is God revealed as a homo sapien, then he is actually non-judgmental toward you. His prayer to himself for you would be the same as for me, "Forgive them."

I once looked down, as a young believer, on atheists (which I once was) and anyone else not like me. And it was all wrapped up in being "uncompromising" with faith. But that seems to me now to be a poison, and one which liberally inflicts the church. (I'm not dissing the church, by the way; I love the church, with all its myriad flaws. But I don't have to love the flaws.) My cognitive powers tell me, though, that we are all the same, whether we are in or out of whatever loop is in fashion at the moment.

It has obviously been difficult for some in the church to process the increasing evidence of truth in evolution. But the phase that will interest me is how those theists who are perhaps advancing in this will ingest that into how they operate. What does it mean to the church that has been humbled by science before? I'm real hopeful about it. I see great potential in it, suddenly. I'm stoked.

Matthew DeMeritt said...

Even after I left Christianity, the aftermath of YEC/anti-evolution superstition stayed with me. I began writing for a geospatial hardware firm about a year into my apostasy, and I distinctly remember STILL being incredulous about the deep time references geologists made when I interviewed them for articles. It took weeks before the reality of geomorphology and the intersecting lines of interdisciplinary evidence compelled me to accept the rock record was real (how's that for unintentional alliteration?). The incredulity was subconscious, as I had no legit reason to doubt it, but it was still profound and hard to shake. Teleology-based apologetics leave that indelible a mark. =)

I think the evangelical community has to realize the profound distrust teleology-based apologists and theologians sew in believers. My apostasy was effected by shallow Christian education and lame epistemology. Apparently, I knew in the back of my mind that the Christian infrastructure that maintained my faith was as cultish and delusional Scientology. Whatever zeal that R.C. Sproul declares for Christ is nullified by his YEC regression. Like Sproul's faith, my faith hinged on a fig-leafed Adam. OF COURSE it was doomed to fail.

This is what the church fails to understand, to its own detriment. I believe it is one of the main reasons for unbelief and apostasy today.

Tom said...

Thanks for the comment, Matthew.

While evangelical (if not all sects of) religion may present shallow arguments for their beliefs, they also breed suspicion of other stances. I am a late-comer to science and often feel ripped off by what I was taught as science even all the way through college. I am now days from finishing my PhD, and I feel fortunate for the opportunity to have jumped on the science bandwagon. I've come to realize that while my upbringing did not provide me with the specific knowledge to conduct science, in its promotion of suspicion of other beliefs, it ironically did provide me with the ability to be skeptical. That's not to validate the motives and pessimistic messages that Christianity promotes, but we apostates have to make lemons into lemonade where we can.