Human psychology and the irony of concordism
A futile attempt at bridging the natural-supernatural divide
This article is motivated by my study of John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis 1. Read the study notes.
Concordism in theory helps bridge the natural-supernatural divide that we experience in our lives today. Ironically, it not only fails, but actually increases that separation. Concordism itself is a hotly debated subjected, due in part to its many varying definitions, such that proponents and opponents actually often agree more than they realize. So let’s start with some definitions lest we make that mistake.
BioLogos has an excellent article listing several definitions along the spectrum of debate. We extract three of them from the article here:
[I]n the Jewish tradition David Shatz distinguishes between a “modest” concordism in which Jewish philosophers seek to reconcile the Bible with “accurate science and accurate metaphysics” (equivalent to Ramm’s “modest concordism”), and contrasts this with a “bold” concordism which claims that “the Bible teaches science and metaphysics in a positive fashion” … Here we will label Shatz’s “bold” concordism as Type A.
Concordism Type B makes no attempt to extract science from Biblical passages, but instead seeks to interpret texts in the light of modern science.
Type C concordism emphasizes that all truth is God’s truth and that it’s therefore healthy and good for science and Biblical theology to engage in active dialogue, seeking where possible to allow both disciplines to complement each other.
I found the article well-balanced. Here’s BioLogo’s mission statement to provide more context on their position:
BioLogos invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.
Let’s adopt “Type A”, or the “bold” definition of concordism, for the purpose of this article. We’ll use this working definition:
Concordism is an effort to bring the content of the Bible in alignment with modern science, presupposing that Biblical text contains both spiritual and scientific truth.
Let’s also generalize the term science to refer to naturalism. Especially in modern times, the concepts significantly overlap.
Beyond apologetics — Human psychology
Many argue that a key function of concordism is apologetics, defending the faith, as it were, citing 1 Peter 3:15 as a proof text. I contend concordism strikes at a much deeper human psychology. Societies have become increasingly naturalistic throughout human history, to the degree that atheism or at least agnosticism is now the cultural norm in many modern places. Of course, vestiges of religion are still extremely prevalent in societies today. But therein lies the strong contradiction. We go to work, walk the dog, and take family vacations, within the natural world. But once a week, or a few times a year, we meet with many strangers in a big room and sing songs directed at invisible deity in a seemingly contrived setting.
It is within this increasingly sharp dissonance that honest people continually try to rationalize away this natural-supernatural dichotomy. They try to resolve “science facts” that apparently contradict their faith, in order to recover a sliver of personal sanity. Concordism is thus a very attractive mechanism by which to solve the problems raised by cosmology (in particular, the origin of the cosmos and life, as well as human evolution).
The irony — Concordism increases the divide
It turns out that concordism not only fails to bridge the natural-supernatural divide, it actually increases the separation. Quite simply, it is futile to use a concordist lens to study the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) or even the New Testament for that matter, for the purpose of bringing the so-called physical realities described in the text in accord with what we experience in the science-based world today. The exercise is doomed to fail, and thus useless if the goal is to bridge the gap. But I don’t make a value judgement regarding the approach or the attempt itself. (That’s already evaluated and discussed at length in the many other linked articles.)
For example, in the past, theologians used Bible verses such as Genesis 1:14–18 as evidence for geocentrism. They attempted to read into the Bible a commonly accepted model of the universe in astronomy and cosmology, with proponents stretching back all the way to the ancient Greeks. When heliocentrism started to come into vogue, the spiritual authorities of the day (the Catholic church) was staunchly against the idea, labeling it as heresy.
Today, the debate has moved to creationism versus evolution by natural selection (and by extension age of the Earth discussions). Hardline creationists (as often, there’s a spectrum) reject macroevolution outright, seeing it as an affront to the traditional creation account interpretation of Genesis. I predict that creationism will end up being a blip in human history, just as geocentrism is no longer accepted by even the most conservative of Christians today. (The internet shows of course there’s still a long tail of hold outs.)
It’s interesting to note that theologians in the past rejected heliocentrism because based on their Biblical worldview, it only made sense that Earth and humans, the pinnacle of God’s creation, was at the center of the universe. Anything less was heretical. Similarly today, claiming that humans evolved from primates is also heretical since we are supposedly created in the image of God.
Thus we see that with concordism, every generation needs to re-do their work in order to best align with the naturalistic interpretations of the day. Concordists are forced to:
- Continue refuting science, even as science charges ahead with new discoveries about the natural world.
- Increasingly relax the “literalness” of their reading of the Bible to fit the new narrative, and thus lose ground in the battle, as it were.
Proponents of geocentrism fought hard to refute science, even persecuting a heliocentric scientist along the way. But faced with overwhelming evidence, they were forced to re-write their theology to cope later on. Similarly, creationists today refute accepted “truths” in the fields of geology and biology. I do fear the detrimental effects of creationism on our society today. But I’m not worried in the least in the long term as I observe the examples in the long arc of history. Creationism, like geocentrism, will become a footnote in history.
I appreciate and understand the motivations of modern day concordists to bridge the natural-supernatural divide. But ironically, they only accelerate the division in today’s age of increasingly democratized information and spiritual authority. I do believe we are in the middle of a step jump in education and information dissemination. Fake news notwithstanding (it’s a solvable problem, don’t worry), science and “naturalistic facts” are quickly accelerating and spreading through our now super-connected world, made possible through digital technologies. Concordists attempting to close the gap unfortunately not only fail, but also inadvertently bring the significant problem to the fore. For example, consider the field of modern biology. Everything in the field is taught with an evolutionary bent. Any serious scholar cannot advance in the field outside the framework of natural selection. Now suppose an aspiring biology graduate student goes to their weekly Sunday school class in church. The topic of the week is creation in Genesis 1 and the well-intentioned teacher shows pictures of dinosaurs beside Adam and Eve, not as a caricature, but as part of an apologetics discussion. The teacher than uses verses in Genesis 1 to explain biology and geology in the the early years of Earth, which by the way, is only less than 10,000 years old. Imagine what’s going on across the mind of the student. The mental dissonance is spell-binding, since inside that church environment, that is reality and truth. Not surprisingly, many have abandoned their faith in the midst of these glaring contradictions. Today, the problem is further compounded since the general education level across societies over the world is quickly increasing. We access unprecedented levels of deep scientific understanding without even having to pay for it in the form of formal education. Just as geocentric thought in the general public transitioned to heliocentric, we are now in the midst of a shift toward accepting biological evolution as fact in the general population. And as a result, church congregations are shrinking because in part they are ill-equipped to address these questions, and if they try, they often take a concordist approach, only exacerbating the problem.
Sidestepping the problem
Fortunately, scholarly efforts such as Walton’s at least alleviate the natural-supernatural dissonance. He argues for non-concordism, and in particular, that ancient Near Eastern cultures didn’t even experience this dichotomy in their reality at all. So from a literary perspective it is unfair to impose today’s cultural imperialism onto the reading of the text. It is incorrect to read our modern science into the text, since the original author and audience did not participate in our context at all. Scientific truth was a nonconcern for the original audience. So why should it be when we read it? (There’s a lot of assumptions we just made here, such as who are valid authors and audiences of the text. But that’s outside the scope for this article.) With one fell swoop, Walton and his proponents totally sidestep the issue. Pretty much a cop out at first glance. Nonetheless, it does help the aspiring biology graduate student. Walton would say that the student is free to choose to study and believe how God created the material universe, with human evolution being a totally valid possibility, since the Biblical text doesn’t comment on that at all.
Unfortunately, Walton does not solve the natural-supernatural dissonance we still experience today. (It’s not on his agenda, after all.) Concordists have tried to do so, but they have failed. We definitely can’t return to the world of the ancients, living in a reality where the the natural-supernatural chasm doesn’t exist. And so today we need a fresh approach to resolve the dissonance. I don’t know what it is or how it should look like. But further analysis and discovery is definitely a part of why this site exists.