Chapter 8 is entitled A Scientist Reads the Bible: How Science Enlarges Scripture. Wallace begins the chapter with the account of “Mad” Mike Hughes the California limo driver who launched himself with a homemade rocket to “see” that the Earth was curved, or not- as he was a flat-earther. Apparently, the Flat-Earth movement is growing, especially in America, and especially among millennials, but also around the world. Here is a basic summary of flat-earth beliefs.
Both Wallace and I cannot adequately express our dismay at this trend. My grandson brought a friend of his, who is a fan of the rapper “B.o.B.” over to the house. My grandson wanted his friend to speak to a geologist/scientist about his flat-earth beliefs. I patiently explained that he could verify the Earth’s curvature for himself by taking a pair of binoculars to any large body of water and watch a boat sail away from the shore. Through the binoculars, he would see the ship disappear hull first with the highest part of ship disappearing last. He replied that it was simply a matter of “perspective”. I explained, no, perspective is railroad tracks converging at a distance into a point, but because the ship was disappearing from bottom to top; that could only occur on a curved surface. On a flat surface the boat would shrink proportionally to a dot. He shrugged his shoulders and repeated it was all a matter of perspective, clearly not wanting to disrespect his friend’s grandfather, but remained convinced the Earth was flat. Sigh… did I mention how dismaying this trend is.
In my opinion, flat-earthers have no excuse. The phenomenon seems mostly psychological to me and generally related to conspiracy-theory psychology. But you know who had a good excuse? The writers of Genesis, that’s who. The first book of the Bible describes the cosmos as envisioned by ancient Israel, a cosmos centered on a flat earth. Because that’s what they observed, and they didn’t really have evidence to the contrary. Wallace notes that the difference between the biblical cosmos and the modern cosmos, with its black holes, quasars, fusion powered stars, galaxy upon galaxy, cosmic microwave background, radiation and billions of years cannot be overstated. And that also makes it hard to see why science matters at all when we read the Bible, and in a certain narrow sense, it doesn’t matter. Wallace says:
No matter what theory scientists come up with, if God ever loved us, God will love us still; if Jesus ever mattered, he will matter still; and if justice and reconciliation were ever our calling, they will be our calling still. It seems that the shape of the universe has nothing to do with our daily human experience of God and one another.
But we live in a scientific age. We read our Bibles not on a flat Earth under a transparent dome but on a spherical planet orbiting a star revolving about the center of a vast galactic pinwheel, turning among black holes and quasars. These are the things God has made.
We cannot set aside what we know and what we love when we sit down with Scripture, nor are we asked to. Jesus commands us to love God with all our mind as well as with our heart, soul, and strength. There is such a thing as the scientific love of God. Those who wish to take both faith and science seriously must hold the Bible in one hand and Scientific American in the other.
So he says science, in its proper context, deepens and enlarges everything it touches. Anyone can look up at the night sky and admire the beauty. But the astronomer sees the beauty and more. Something similar happens when a biblical scholar reads the Bible. Like the stars on a clear night, the words sit there on the page, freely available to all. But depth beyond depth is revealed to those who have read it closely for years, learned the original languages, studied the history and culture of the ancient Near East, and become acquainted with biblical theology and the history of biblical interpretation. The more you know, the more you see, the more questions occur to you, and the less satisfied you are with simplistic answers.
Wallace asks what happens when a scientist reads the Bible. Of course, it depends on the scientist. Some dismiss it outright, for Scripture has little to say about science as we know it today. But for the believing scientist there are a lively hosts of scientific extras. They aren’t essential to the core understanding but are bonuses, supplements, new and fun ideas neither demanded nor contradicted by his basic view of Scripture as a human record of Israel’s encounter with a real and loving God.
Wallace gives as an example Genesis 1:20-21, 24-25:
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
He says we should notice that “the waters” and “the earth” bring forth living creatures. These verses suggest that God creates indirectly, using what was previously made. Wallace thinks this passage invites us to imagine evolution in all its weirdness and beauty. We are free to visualize life being brought forth deep in the waters, perhaps microorganisms thriving on hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor four billion years ago. We may envision euthycarciniods, distant ancestors of centipedes who left the sea 530 million years ago, beating even plants in life’s slow landward creep. The Middle Cambrian oddball Opabinia provides a colorful side note. This five-eyed, backward-mouthed, limbless, long-nosed, sea dwelling arthropod was one of the first and strangest animals to ever live.
But of course, Wallace notes, the authors of Genesis knew nothing of evolution or hydrothermal vents or euthycarciniods or Opabinia. God did not whisper these verses into their ears, knowing we would eventually figure out evolution and discover the secret truth of Scripture. Instead, they observed nature, saw that God had given it capacity to generate new things, and wove this insight into their creation story. Wallace concludes:
You may disagree with what I am doing here. You may think that it’s wrongheaded to drag evolution in to a discussion of Genesis because the book is really about relationships between God, humanity, and creation…
But I do not intend to replace standard understandings of Scripture with scientific ones. These examples show how science deepens, sharpens, or expands traditional meanings. Christians who love science are free to imagine new things when they come to Scripture, to create a king of scientific commentary on the Bible. These examples show how Scripture might be enlarged, and not reduced or replaced, by science.