Last night, like many, I watched a debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. (Before we go any further, isn't it fun that “Bill Nye the Science Guy” from our childhood Saturday mornings remains a part of our adult lives? J ) You probably know Bill Nye; Ken Ham is the founder and CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum that sits in Petersburg, Kentucky. (If you want to watch the debate yourself, you can visit www.debatelive.org where they will be re-streaming it for the next few days, and where you can also purchase a downloadable copy or a DVD.)
I originally had a list of point by point arguments I have with Ken Ham and his way of looking at science and creation, specifically since I am also a Christian, and a fellow Christian leader. However I’m not so sure that is the most helpful response at this point. This conversation and disagreement continues to fester because we are getting too caught up in the minutia of each argument. Instead we need to start looking at the beginning of this “argument” in a new way, we need to start looking at our hermeneutic.
I had a unique perspective of watching this debate. One, I have a theological degree, which is more than Ken Ham can say, and two; I have also actually been to the Creation Museum. I know there are many others who have also visited this museum, but I also know there are many who have not. I also know there are many who have visited the Creation Museum with a different set of eyes, a different hermeneutic.
The Creation Museum is a shrine to Answers in Genesis and Ken Ham’s way of teaching, a theory that supposes the Bible (the Christian, American English, 20th-ish Century version of Genesis) to be a scientific text explaining the scientific creation of the earth. I was intrigued by the debate, but in the end, just disappointed by it. Ken Ham should have debated a Biblical scholar, or a theologian rather than a scientist, because he is NOT arguing science (bear with me), he is arguing hermeneutic, albeit an uninformed one.
Ken Ham is a scientist; he has a couple different scientific degrees. He has two HONORARY theological degrees, but he did not do any of the theological work to achieve those degrees, which is where his way of thinking is failing dramatically.
One Biblical scholar, Rev. Dr. Lisa W. Davison, wrote that “hermeneutics is a word often used within the walls of a seminary but rarely discussed outside of academia." Apparently, Ken Ham has also never heard of this word, as THIS is what he is actually arguing, and why it is simply inappropriate for him to debate a scientist.
“Simply put, hermeneutics is about interpretation. Whether we are reading the newspaper or watching a movie or listening to a conversation, we must always interpret what we read, see, or hear. In biblical studies, hermeneutics is about the interpretation of the Bible. More specifically, it is an interpretive framework through which biblical texts are understood.”
When I read a book for my book club, I generally know from the get-go that it is a piece of fiction, or it is non-fiction, or it is based on a true story. When I watch the news I have to discern some more because sometimes it is simply reporting the facts that are known and observable, but more often than not we are also seeing a lot of opinion and interpretation thrown in with reporting. Speculation as a way of getting to the “bottom of the story,” contributes opinion, and sometimes it gets confusing.
When I read a piece of poetry, or the lyrics to a song, I also know that it is not necessarily fact, but rather a piece of art. That piece of art can still speak some truth, but it is not trying to report fact or science.
“Some say love, it is a river, that drowns the tender reed. Some say love, it is a razor, that leaves your soul to bleed. Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need. I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed.” There may be truth to this lyrical verse, but I don’t read this lyric, this metaphor, as if it were science. I approach it with a certain hermeneutic, a certain understanding, knowing that is meant to speak in a certain (musical) way to a greater truth that cannot be understood only through measurable facts.
All that being said, Ken Ham’s hermeneutic, his way of approaching the Bible, is suspect. He is approaching the Bible as if it was science, but it simply WAS NOT meant to be read as science. (He might understand this more if he had a theological background rather than or in addition to a scientific one.) “The bible is a collection, a library, of different writings that span a variety of cultures and historical periods. It is not a 'history' book as we would define such writing today, nor is it a 'science' book, concerned with biology, earth sciences etc. Trying to read the bible as either science or history would be like navigating a ship based on a map created when humans believed the earth was flat. It will not get us very far and will keep us afraid of seeing what lies just beyond the horizon.”
The Bible is not a science book, but it is a theology book, and it speaks of truths that science cannot. It does not speak to science or scientific study, nor should it, but it can still speak to great truths about life.
It speaks to great truths, like we are not alone in our journey, but not in the sense of a scientific study of species and race that tells us how similar we are to one another and to our ancestors.
It speaks to great truths, like love is the most profound gift we will ever experience, but not in a way that has measurable scientific results gathered into data and charts comparing love to other gifts. (Has anyone actually ever figured out a way to measure love?)
The Bible speaks to great truths, like human beings have the tendency to be awful toward one another, but it does not identify physiological reasons our brains act the way they do based on certain triggers.
The Bible speaks to great truths, like the radical inclusivity of a God who invites us all to commune with, and to be in community with, the Divine, but not by identifying any actual number of invitations.
I appreciate Ken Ham’s point that children, kids, teens (and adults) need to be taught to think more critically. But that does not mean we have to pit science and faith against one another in a battle of intelligence. We all need to think more critically, and on that point I think Ken and Bill would agree. We need to think more critically, ask questions, celebrate doubt and inquiry and rejoice in the constant drive to wonder about more. Why we are here? How we are here? Scientific study should be celebrated in that it can help us understand “how” we got here, and we should continue with that determination that drives us to figure out and seek more. But we should leave it to the theological writings to help us with the “why,” and celebrate what they can bring to the conversation. But they are not bringing science to the conversation.
Ken Ham is arguing for a way of interpreting the Bible in a way that it was never meant to be interpreted. That is the crack (that leads to a gaping hole) in his argument. Bill Nye never said that you cannot believe in something(s) supernatural, he was simply saying that we cannot use the Bible as science. He missed out by failing to say that it’s because the Bible was never meant to be interpreted that way.
They both failed because they were set up to fail. Both of these men are scientists and neither of them are theologians, yet in this debate they were asked to wrestle with theological questions.
The “whys” of the world and the hard questions that science cannot answer are not to be ignored, but they are also not to be taught in a public school science classroom. If you are so insistent (which I am) that your children (or any children) be able to struggle with these questions, then send them to church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or some other faith community that will wrestle with these questions with them, and lead them through their questions and inquiry. Many faith communities will wrestle with these questions, together with one another, well into adult-hood, as it should be.
I’m thankful to have received an education that taught me to think critically, and a faith community that helps me wrestle with tough questions that don’t have scientific answers. We would do well to respect the benefits of both a scientific education and a theological education (formal or informal), but to leave them as mostly separate disciplines as they were meant to be.