The Debate About Adam and Eve Has Nothing to do With Adam and Eve! (by Tad Delay)
In June, Christianity Today ran a cover story on the search for the historical Adam. Biologos picked up the story. Earlier this month, NPR picked up the story that was reposted by readers 25,000 times. Last week, a presidential candidate found himself in controversy when he announced he believed in evolution while running for a party wherein less than 1 in 3 believe. The debate has created quite a stir as of late. I don’t know why- maybe we just have too little going on in the news cycle. But here is all you need to know about a controversy over Adam and Eve: it doesn’t actually have anything to do with Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve are just the distraction from the real issue.
The NPR article, rightly calling this a Galileo moment, cites professor Karl Giberson: “When you ignore science, you end up with egg on your face… The Catholic Church has had an awful lot of egg on its face for centuries because of Galileo. And Protestants would do very well to look at that and to learn from it.”
The article goes on: “Asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, replies: ‘That would be against all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all.’”
Evolution isn’t the issue. Adam and Eve are not the issue. The science on origins is only becoming more solid- although there is an interestingly powerful myth that circulates in Christian subculture that there are tons of credible scientists that dispute the issue. Biblical scholarship isn’t the issue either- very few (any?) well-respected Biblical scholars take Genesis 1 and 2 as history (you can find creationists among biblical scholars at plenty of schools- but they have virtually no contribution to the field and trade credibility for tenure… it’s all about the money). The issue isn’t inerrancy or infallibility. Evolution is so contentious that most of my professors at seminary hesitate to admit to the class that they, along with pretty much everyone in the field of academic theology, believe in evolution (and it creates a firestorm when they occasionally do!). You won’t hear that in the pulpit either- because the study of the text is not the issue either. You also don’t generally hear that Genesis 1 and 2 are two different stories, written several hundred years apart in different parts of the world. You don’t hear that, even if you desperately want to take Genesis 1 and 2 literally, you cannot because of internal contradictions. That’s just a matter of reading the text, and when pointing that out is considered controversial and gets professors nervous about job security, we are reminded that the study of the text isn’t actually the issue.
I’ll consider taking creationism seriously when a creationist can tell me whether they descend from A) the man in Genesis 1 who is created after all the plants and animals, or B) Adam in Genesis 2 who is created before the plants and animals. But again that’s not the issue; that’s not why this subject gets people upset. It’s not the reason I receive emails with angry undertones one posts like this.
So what is the issue?
Fazale Rana, vice president of apologetics group Reason to Believe, opines: “From my viewpoint, a historical Adam and Eve is absolutely central to the truth claims of the Christian faith…But if the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you’ve got a problem,”
Exactly. She gets credit for honesty. What undergirds this controversy is not a disagreement about the text or science; instead, it’s the belief that faith crumbles once you admit that the text has an error, isn’t historically accurate, or else it says correctly exactly what it means to say and you’ve simply misunderstood it all this time.
Philosophers Imre Lakatos and Thomas Kuhn described this phenomenon as epistemological webs and paradigm shifts. Lakatos described all our knowledge as interconnecting in a web, with more important, reinforced ideas consisting an epistemic core. Experiences hit the boundary of this web and force you to decide whether to incorporate new data or reject it. The knowledge within the web need not all cohere- it is only most important that the core ideas cohere well. When the web’s integrity breaks down due to dissonant data points, it becomes more parsimonious to think with a different core set of beliefs. This results in what Kuhn calls a paradigm shift in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
The text of scripture is very, very rarely the issue in theological debates.
The real issue is that we’ve decided to believe something and are desperately grasping for any way we can use the text to backward-engineer justification for our beliefs. This isn’t controversial. It’s just how we are wired…by evolution.
Debates over Adam and Eve are not won through facts of science and the text. They are mutated by paradigm shifts. When someone tells me they don’t believe in evolution, I hear, “I can’t believe what you believe, because I will lose everything I believe.” That is what this is about- the epistemic homeostasis of a particular paradigm. It may be a discussion over who believes in reality and who rejects reality, but it’s a mistake to think of this as “smart people vs. stupid people.” The same part of your brain that controls the “fight or flight” mechanism also lights up when you hear something you disagree with- meaning your biological reaction to new, differing information is to run from it or kill someone. The body does everything it can to maintain homeostasis- the mind does the same thing. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all do this. But it will keep you back from admitting key facts about the world around you. And I would argue that, for the believer, it will hold you back from a more mature faith- because faith doesn’t always have room for epistemic stasis.
Tad DeLay is a student of theology and philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary. His writing, art, and music can be found at www.taddelay.com.