Death Before the Fall: Osborn Takes on The Problem of Animal Suffering

I have written about my transition over the years from being a thorough-going Young Earth Creationist (YEC) to a gradual adoption of theistic evolution (TE). The process for me started with the absolutizing of a particular literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1-2 but ended with a deep passion to allow science and reason to take root as major theological interpretive tools in my life. I lucidly remember coming to a point in crisis where I made a critical decision: I would simply be unwilling to allow my interpretation of a specific passage to go unchecked–and uncorrected–by overwhelming data. If I said I would be reasonable, I would partake in reason. If I claimed to be rationale, I would engage in rationale discussion. Indeed, it is a growing conviction of mine that a great deal of Christian apologists who suggest a Socratic method of learning (“follow the evidence where it leads”) do so only so far as it feels comfortable. That was a mistake I fell into and have had to increasingly work myself out of. But my transition from YEC to TE was a deep personal struggle, riddled with discomfort and it is one that I wish upon no one unnecessarily. For the second time in my life, it nearly cost me my faith. I am, to be sure, grateful for that struggle for it has allowed me and encouraged me to deal with some more recent penetrating struggles in an honest and forthright way. If I had abandoned my faith on such shaky grounds as “creation vs. evolution” there would have been no hope for me in losing her. The struggle, then, helped build me–perhaps even callous me in some beneficial ways. In that vein, I am grateful not to have received the easy out but, rather, allow theological mystery and questions to sincerely hang alongside conviction.osborn

It would be false to say that little hangs on a transition from YEC to other models of origins (including OEC, ID, etc.). They do change a lot and, indeed, encourage a great deal of reflection on questions of meaning, providence, freedom, and evil. It is with this recognition that I am grateful for Ronald Osborn’s new book,  Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP: 2014) and the fresh set of insights–graciously, though pointedly–it brings. The book was one I was desperately excited about reviewing, in part because of my recent struggles with the question of evil and in other part because of my own back story. The book is divided into two sections. Part 1, which is the bulk of the book, deals with the issues of literalism. The second part deals specifically with the problem of animal suffering. I will cover the highlights of Part 1 in this review and will turn to Part 2 in another post.

First, Osborn’s story is much like mine: he comes from a theological heritage that saw God and evolution as antithetical and, in that vain, he had embraced–and argued for fervently for–a literalistic reading of Genesis. It’s funny, actually, for Osborn’s story (like my own) is one you hear routinely. One comes out the other side or one does not. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine have abandoned Christianity because they bought into the lie that “If evolution is true, God does not exist.” Whatever intent there is in that conviction (no doubt, to keep people in the faith), those casualties should be sobering to us. But, at the same time, there are some that hold on and struggle through the interpretive and evidential issues, unwilling–or perhaps lucky enough–to not lose their faith in transition. Osborn, then, is not a frustrated and disgruntled “evolutionist” trying to dismantle the faith of YECers but, rather, one who dealt with the transition first hand and wants to provide some safe passage for others to ask the deep questions.

Secondly, Osborn’s critique of literalism is a critique of epistemological foundationalism. That is, foundationalism is the claim that all truth claims “must be stacked atop another like the bricks to a house, beginning from an indubitable ‘firm foundation'” (41-42).

Osborn deals with the hard questions reflected in the text in a way which is honest and scholarly. Whereas traditional Christians have adopted the notion of Adam and Eve being created in a garden amidst a perfect world without death, Osborn notes that this is not at all what the text says. Adam is “placed” within the garden from an outside world, one in which he is instructed to “conquer” (military language). This then leads to some implications about what the world was truly like outside of the garden. Ultimately, it meant that Adam was to play a ‘redemptive’ role, a role–as made in the Image of God–of co-creator, conquering the chaos. Of course, as the story turns out, people rejected this invitation and thus fell back into the chaos where we needed God himself to get back into the dirty work of conquering the chaos through redeeming it. We fell back into the natural world. This is, of course, quite a different picture than what is often presented in creationist literature, for in the biblical text there is actually a presumption that the world is not deathless but, rather, that chaos still looms large outside of the garden God placed Adam in.

Osborn, of course, goes further as a sociologist and a “lay-theologian” (though, to his credit I am not sure ‘lay’ is applicable considering his substance) and describes what he sees as the mindset and presuppositions of creationists. He describes the movement, as others have, as still within the framework of the modernism they so desperately wish to bury: “Strict literalism on the creation is therefore a rejection of modern science by individuals who have already drunken deeply (even if unconsciously) from scientism’s wells” (47). Indeed, he goes so far as to insist that creationism is “scientism’s reactionary doppelganger and pale mimetic rival, enraptured by the very think it seeks to resist” (58). For Osborn, there is a great irony in the fact that creationists–though appealing to a specific interpretation of Genesis–play the same Enlightenment game of positivism that many modern scientists played (and some still play). Or, as Ken Ham put it recently in the Ham vs. Nye debate, “Nothing could change my mind.”

Osborn goes onto tackle the question of ‘What is the scientific status of ‘scientific creationism’ (59). Here he brings into discussion Imre Lakatos’ notion of a degenerating research program, a program in which “all or almost all auxilary hypotheses are purely ad hoc in nature, offered simply to protect the hard core in defensive reaction to challenging new data” (63). I recall years ago hearing one of the top leading YEC scientists remark, “Well, if you really want to go with the data, the data overwhelmingly supports evolutionary theory. It just does. But I am a [Young Earth] Creationist because that’s what the Bible says.” Ham, as noted above, pretty much said the same thing and Osborn notes the same confessions by many leading YEC advocates. But whereas some find this to be a noble act of fidelity, Osborn is right to note that first of all this ignores any sense of interpretation (again, that modernist mindset). But further, Osborn warns, “can we honestly embrace young earth or young life creationism as the most rigorous, richly theory-generating scientific research program available, able to account for the current weight of scientific data as well as (if not better than) standard evolutionary approaches..” (64). The answer from most–really for the past sixty years–has been….Wait for it……………no, really….wait for it.

The last part I want to mention is Osborn’s conviction that fundamentalism is more or less an expression of faithlessness rather than faithfulness. Having grown up in certain near-fundamentalist communities and entering into the apologetics game myself, I can testify to this very fact. Sometimes we retreat into our ‘answers’ instead of wading out into the murky waters of uncertainty and what happens when we do this is we turn, as Osborn notes, certain doctrines into dogmas. Think of Bryan College’s recent ammendation to their Statement of Faith or John MacArthur’s insistence that charismaticism and a rejection of biblical inerrancy are both offensive to God and destroy the very foundations of Christian belief.  As they have for many years, evolution and higher biblical studies have been seen as a threat by many Christians (certainly, with some reason given the way some non-Christians have equally misunderstood them). But the retreat to a degenerating research program does not signify one’s faith but rather one’s fear, one’s doubt that something somewhere will make the whole foundation of foundationalism shatter. It is not as much an insistence to get at truth, for that would lead us to programs which believed that science and faith will point in the same direction, not opposite ones.

There is much more to Osborn’s first section, including an analysis of four views of Genesis (Barth, Calvin, Augustine, and Mainomides), a chapter on the parallels between Gnosticism and Creationism, and a solid closing chapter on the benefits of postfoundationalist thought, in which the truth of Christianity is less like a house built on a shaky bricks but rather like a web or a net, where the strength of the whole system does not depend on any particular string but upon the entire field (120). I will deal with Osborn’s theodicy of animal suffering in a following blog, but the book is highly recommended simply for its thorough analysis of creationism in Part 1.