Absolute Objective Certainties
There was as series of "letters to the editor" following an article that I wrote in February about "The Spirituality
of Evolution." One letter in particular seemed helpful in expressing what seems to be at stake for those who object
to the scientific consensus about evolution. It was written by Johnny Tuttle of Elkins, who said succinctly, "A literalist
embraces a God of substance and consistency. The Bible states that God is the same yesterday, today and forever."
Mr. Tuttle articulates nicely the human desire for certainty and for truth that is absolute and unchanging in a changing
and mysterious universe. Biblical literalism is an assertion that the Bible is an infallible divine authority that can be
trusted to be true, not only in spiritual matters, but also in its description of creation, the events of world history, and
its literary origins under God. In an ambiguous world of change, a literalist says you can trust the Bible, and only the
Bible. Or as Bob Jones, Jr. put it, "The Bible doesn't contain the Word of God; the Bible is the Word of God."
Thus the free and mysterious God revealed in scripture can be bound safely between the covers of Moroccan leather, caught
and objectified in words narrowly interpreted "in their plain, most obvious sense," as the Elwell Evangelical Dictionary
defines literalism. Unchanging certainty that fits securely on a shelf. Literalism is the fulfillment of the desire of the
original temptation "to be like God, knowing good and evil." But absolute certainty is the original forbidden fruit.
The God known to Moses at the burning bush is revealed to be a God of radical freedom, impossible to define or even to
name. The various renderings of the divine Name YHWH point to God's essential character as mysterious: "I am who I
am." "I am who I will become." "I will be who I will be."
The God of the Bible refuses to be objectified. God is not a substance or a thing. To make God into a thing is idolatry.
The God of the Bible changes his mind. The God of the Bible is utterly free and will not be bound by our expectations
Mr. Tuttle's need for "a God of substance and consistency" will not be answered by the God revealed in our scriptures.
But if you replace God with a book... A book looks like something of substance and consistency. To substitute the words
written about the living God for the living God domesticates and tames God within some words that will be the same yesterday,
today and forever. We can feel safe with a book.
Literalism and fundamentalism appeal to a deep human insecurity. We want to know for certain. We want things to be consistent
One of the reasons there is such conflict between science and literalism is because they are both trying to do the same
thing. The scientific method intends to find truth by creating objective experiments that will reveal consistent information
and predict future events. Using that methodology, science has wonderfully expanded our understanding of reality.
Literalism seems to be a religious capitulation to the scientific worldview. It posits objective truth as the highest
form of truth -- Jonah really was swallowed by a whale -- and then spends great energy trying to "prove" everything
from creationism to the rapture with scientific looking jargon, documentation and footnotes. Even museums. That's why the
Schofield Bible is so full of fine print and cross references. It looks scientific. It must be true.
But life and God are far richer and more mysterious than literal, objective truths and predictable consistencies. Maybe
here is a place where the literalists could learn from the scientists whom they imitate. As science pushes more frontiers
of the macro and micro universe, the language becomes more awe filled and open. To read some scientific essays today is like
reading from the classic of the mystical traditions. Today's science tells us that reality is alive, free and continually
creative. The mystics and the enduring religious traditions have been saying the same of God for centuries.
The Bible is poetry plus; not history minus. Its truths are not just objective absolutes but symbolic, metaphorical,
poetic, creative, mythical, spiritual and human in the deepest sense. God is bigger than the Bible and more expansive than
Christianity. God cannot be contained in a book or in human doctrine. Too many people have already been killed in the names
of the gods of absolute certainty.
Sure, it's a little more insecure and dangerous to live with a freely creative loving God. But that is the God that the
Book directs us toward. It's like the finger that points toward the moon. Don't just look at the finger. Look through the
Bible toward the God that the scriptures point us to. That God is alive and free.