- Book Review Index
The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, by William P. Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 334 pp. $29.95.
The conversation between science and theology is as lively as ever in our present situation. Creationists and apologists for intelligent design compete for the hearts and minds of believers and non-believers alike with a scientifically grounded secularism and its allies among aggressive atheists. Between these extremes are a vast number of thinkers in both science and religion who are convinced that dialogue between the two realms of discourse is important. People of this persuasion then face the ongoing challenge of framing that dialogue in a way that respects the integrity of both science and theology while yet serving a useful purpose. William P. Brown’s book is one such effort and a good one at that.
Brown’s approach is to bring science and theology into a rich conversation through the practice of interpretation. He wants us to appreciate how scientific knowledge can enrich our understanding of the biblical accounts of creation and how the biblical accounts of creation can enrich our understanding of scientific knowledge. The process of interaction involves both negative feedback he calls “collisions” and positive feedback he refers to as “virtual parallels.” However, what is presented is more than just a way to have an intelligent, respectful, and mutually edifying conversation between science and the Bible. Brown seeks an alliance between science and theology, a “cohort of wonder” that can serve to mitigate the destruction of the earth’s biodiversity. “For creation’s sake—for God’s sake—we need a new Great Awakening, a Green Awakening” (p. 20).
The “seven pillars of creation” in the title of the book refer to the seven creation traditions within the Bible: Genesis 1:1–2:3; Genesis 2: 4b–3:24; Job 38–41; Psalm 104; Proverbs 8: 22–31; Ecclesiastes 1:2–11 and 12:1–7, and excerpts from Isaiah 40–55. Taken together we discover the variety that is among them, giving us a fascinating mosaic of the Bible’s multifaceted understanding of creation. Each of these in turn is brought into an interpretative dialogue with relevant aspects of modern scientific understandings. Brown writes beautifully as he teases out of the texts sometimes surprising and wonderfully insightful messages about God’s creating. His ability to bring these insights into dialogue with scientific data with a consistent stylistic voice suggests that style as well as substance carry forward the interchange. Though Brown disqualifies himself as a true scientific mind, one cannot help but be impressed with the extent of his scientific knowledge.
Limitations of space prevent a truly adequate picture of his interpretative process, but a few examples of “virtual parallels” and “collisions” should at least give us a glimpse. In the Genesis 1 account we can discern a virtual parallel between Day 1 of God’s creating with the creation of light (“The Big Flash”) and the scientific theory of the “Big Bang,” which instantly expanded the universe, which was subsequently flooded with a brilliant light. However, that is not all. Astronomers note a dark age less than a million years after the Big Bang in which light ceased in the universe for hundreds of millions of years. “And then there was evening.” Brown observes. With the formation of the stars the universe was once again with light. Interestingly, then, it is on Day 4 in Genesis that God creates the celestial bodies, some time after the creation of light. “Usually considered a textual conundrum, the creation of light in Genesis on ‘Day 1’ and that of the celestial bodies on ‘Day 4’ find a clear, albeit virtual parallel in science” (p. 59).
The kinship of humanity—as one made from the dust of the earth—with all creation in the Genesis 2 account and the genetic and behavioral connections science has discovered between human beings and other animals offers another illustration of a virtual parallel.
However, when we move into the fall story of Genesis 3 there is a collision with scientific knowledge and the traditional interpretation that the fall is the origin of disordered nature as well as human sin. Since savage competition, suffering, horrible diseases, and extinction prevailed on the planet millions of years before humans appeared, one can no longer hold the traditional view. Nevertheless, the traditional view of human causation, though scientifically untenable, alerts us to the damage human beings have done to the environment and their responsibility for it.
Throughout Brown’s discussion of the seven pillars he seeks to use the interplay of biblical and scientific discourse to evoke in us a sense of joy and wonder at the grandeur of all creation and its stunning biodiversity and a corollary concern for its sustainability. From both science and biblical theology we draw the clear message that the fate of all things resides in a community of being and mutual interdependence. The ancient biblical traditions of creation depict a shared world of human community with all creatures and with God the creator. So also, evolutionary science shows us how symbiotic cooperation throughout our vast history has made the world we live in possible and remains necessary for its continued existence. Indeed, the theme of community extends to the interpreted community of biblical faith and scientific knowledge. Brown is careful to say that the discourse of science is empirical while that of Bible and theology is existential; the two cannot be conflated. But the two need each other in an alliance on behalf of the creation.
James M. Childs
Trinity Lutheran Seminary