The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.
What it says
Proposition 17 is that Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger, Not Weaker.
Walton brings out what he considers the theological advantages of his view.
Making less of a breach between natural and supernatural means that God is not involved only at the periphery. Everything that exists is pervaded by divine influence. His view does not confine God’s creation to the past. It requires us to understand that God takes part in every cell that divides now. His view also lets us talk about purpose. Physical structures and material stuff do not necessarily carry purpose. But if creation consists in giving these things functions, then creation concerns God’s purposes. To see the natural world as a “cosmic temple” makes sacred again what secular thought has treated as profane. This has implications for environmentalism and our responsibility for the world.
He says that his view also has implications for our view of the Sabbath. If the Sabbath rest in Genesis 1 means that God takes providential control of creation, then the Sabbath acknowledges that we can rest and trust God’s providence. Resting on the Sabbath is an implicit statement that God is in control and everything does not depend upon us.
He talks about the theological implications of the Genesis 1 statement that “it was good.” He believes that this does not impute moral goodness to the world. The world is morally neutral in that sun and rain fall on the just and the unjust. Gravity is not just. The laws of thermodynamics are not moral. Evolution does not unfold in a moral way.
What “it was good” means is that when functions have been assigned, the world works toward a purpose. It is good in contrast to the chaos and emptiness of Genesis 1:1.
Walton’s 18th and final proposition is that Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose.
Although Walton sees no contradiction between what science has discovered and theorized about natural history and evolution, he does see a contradiction between science as it is sometimes taught and his belief that the universe is infused with purpose.
So what he proposes is a compromise. Christians should not insist that science teachers in public schools teach that there is purpose to the cosmos. That would go beyond what science is equipped to know. But secular science teachers should also refrain from implying that there is no purpose. The shutting out of the possibility of purpose also goes beyond science.
One problem is that many evangelicals, especially those advocating Young Earth Creationism, insist on reading Genesis 1 as though it offered a description of the material origins of the universe. Another problem is that those who wrote the first draft of National Association of Biology Teachers “Statement on the Teaching of Evolution” used the terms “unsupervised” and “impersonal” to describe evolution. These were revised out of the statement as it was adopted.
Walton thinks that neither reading science into Genesis 1 nor going beyond empirical methods to adopt a non-teleological world view is appropriate.
Walton used a second quotation from a Orson Scott Card sci-fi novel. Both the quotations he used in this book fit what he was trying to say, so I see why he used them. But he is writing for evangelicals and Card is Mormon, so I wonder how these quotes played with his intended audience.
His chapter on the theological advantages of his view seemed to me more valuable for the spiritual implications than the theological. He says that when we contemplate the natural world we should not only get blown away by spectacular displays but also by the mundane operations of nature. God acts in it all.
His idea that the Sabbath allows us to rest from anxiety also has spiritual implications. And seeing the cosmos as a temple would indeed revolutionize our perspective and broaden our concept of worship.
Overall, my take on this book is that I find his approach very attractive, but at a number of points I am not quite convinced. He did not have to convince me that Genesis 1 is not a material account of creation. But his intended audience did need to be convinced, so he concentrated on that. This book takes a relatively popular approach. If I were to read some of his more academic works, I might find what I am looking for.
I do want to defend him against one criticism I saw in a review. The reviewer thought that denying that Genesis 1 is a material account smacked of gnosticism. Gnostics thought the material world was yucky. So they did not believe in a real incarnation or a bodily resurrection. But I do not think their problems with Christmas and Easter carry over into Walton’s view of Genesis 1. He is not denying or besmirching material creation. He believes God is the source of all things. He just thinks Genesis 1 is about assigning functions to material things.
Earlier this year the Animal Planet network got some of its highest ratings ever when it broadcast programs purporting to give evidence for the existence of mermaids. This is junk science, but apparently it entertained people. I think that is the way most people take Young Earth Creationism. That creation theme park in Kentucky is entertaining. And wouldn’t it be great if all the egghead scientists turned out to be wrong about mermaids and the age of the earth?
There is a sort of anti-elitism in this that I get. But do we really want to stake the credibility of Christianity on science that is on the level of Animal Planet’s tongue-in-cheek entertainment? It is just not necessary. I totally agree with John H. Walton that Genesis 1 is just not about what people who have a creation-science hobby think it is about.