Exercise on Creation

The origin(s) and goal(s) of the universe and its life have become one of the friction points of contemporary American culture. Lost in all the fighting, I think, is the note of majesty, praise, and trust in the creation texts I have read, as well as a significant degree of candor and self-criticism on every side of the debate. We can no longer afford to show one another the weaknesses in our own argument, because we know they will be seized on unfairly. In fact, we feel we can no longer afford to admit them even to ourselves, because it would make us vulnerable to the arguments of our enemies. Following William Stringfellow and Walter Wink, theology has learned to call this dynamic of dishonesty, coercion, and fear a 'power' or 'principality': a social structure in rebellion against the Kingdom that dominates and enslaves us. Your opinion may well differ, but I think American ideologies of origins have enslaved us to their social power, whether we are young-earth creation scientists, Intelligent Design theorists, or Neo-Darwinian secularists. And American Christians and secularists alike are suffering from that oppression. (In case you're curious, I myself am something of a Neo-Darwinian Trinitarian evolutionary creationist. There don't seem to be many of us in evangelical circles, though we seem to be well represented at Fuller and Westmont.)

You will be helping your communities of faith negotiate this cultural moment for the foreseeable future. In your pastoral toolboxes are exegetical skills and insights, historical perspectives, denominational wisdom, pastoral relationships, cultural literacies, scientific exposure — and theological tradition. I'd like you to practice exercising this last resource in this paper. So here is the scenario:

After the worship service in your church one Sunday, someone approaches you. She has heard that you are in seminary and assumes you are learning answers to tough questions of the Christian faith. She tells you she is a 2006 UCSB graduate who majored in the sciences. Her general education and major requirements have included courses in geology, biology, genetics, astronomy, psychology, and physics. Near the end of her time in college she became interested in "the Christian religion" (that's what she calls it) and started attending church last summer. She was warming up to the message of a loving God who has a good plan for her life and for the world, but two things are persistently getting in the way of the progress of her faith.

The first obstacle is general. Before she was interested in Christianity she was utterly turned off by the way she saw "fundamentalists" (again, her term) treating the scientific disciplines she was studying. She found many of them uninformed, unfair, and uninterested in the questions that invigorated her. However, as she has attended church she has been finding these so-called "fundamentalists" she was getting to know to be more intelligent, more rational, and more kind than the ones who had alienated her earlier. She is finding the discrepancy between these two characteristics hopeful, but also confusing and a little suspicious.

The second obstacle is specific (and for this you can thank Tina; if I remember correctly it was she who raised environmentalism as a potentially difficult application of the Trinitarian paradigm). As the debate over global climate change heated up (badabing!), she raised her concerns about climate change to a circle of acquaintances one Sunday in the coffee hour after church. Their responses struck her as not only uninformed, but apathetic and dismissive. This aroused some of the same old impressions she had grown up with — that Christians were uninterested in, and even callous about, the very world she always found so fascinating. Her ears pricked, she started listening in church for evidence either for or against this impression. She also scanned some Christian websites to get a more representative picture of Christian attitudes. Her casual Internet research has confused and worried her further. One cluster of attitudes looks pretty much like the Democratic party line, while another looks pretty much like the Republican party line. Both appeal to "God's creation," but those appeals strike her as shallow. She can't tell what effect Christian faith is having on any of their positions on environmentalism. Discovering all this has left her more than a little disappointed, and she is wondering whether Christian faith has anything helpful to say regarding this thing she cares so much about.

"Can you help me?" she asks. "I just don't know what to think about what God has to do with the universe. I'm not hearing much about it in church, and the answers I'm getting outside church are pushing me away. I keep hearing about 'God's good creation.' But frankly, it seems like a platitude. My non-Christian friends seem to find the universe a lot more interesting than you do." You notice in the way she uses the word 'you' and in her tone of voice that she really is putting distance between herself, your church, and the faith.

Aren't you glad you're in seminary?

It is obvious that you will have to think carefully through your answer, because she is a sympathetic but skeptical listener who has thought through the implications of what she has been hearing from all camps and sides, and has become stumped.

Write an open message to me and to your peer reviewers, as fellow learners in our course, on what you would hope to do and to say to her, and why your response would be theologically legitimate. This is a systematic theology class, so keep theology way in the foreground. We are not looking for a scientific treatise, an exegetical paper, or a public policy statement! (And here it may help you to keep in mind that while Christian doctrines of creation have always drawn on scientific theories concerning the universe, the exegesis of specific biblical passages, and political assumptions and arrangements, these doctrines have historically been far more stable than any of them.) We are looking for your pastoral wisdom in how systematic theology, and particularly the doctrine of creation, might help inform your response.

You will need to draw materially on the Oxford Companion, the WCC's Confessing the One Faith, and Barth, and you may find lectures helpful too. If you also find additional materials helpful, you may appeal to them as well, but do not go out of your way to do so.

Do you think this scenario is contrived? It happens every day, but in the minds of congregants and readers who rarely voice their objections. Instead, they just quietly check out, if not with their feet than at least with their minds.

Please keep your paper 3-4 pages, double-spaced, and follow the directions in my handout for writing papers. I want to see proper style, clear writing, a thorough answer to the question, and explicit citations of course materials.

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