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“The Rocks Don’t Lie”: A Review

I recently finished reading a colleague’s book, The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012). As Dave (David R. Montgomery) tells it, he started out to write a straightforward refutation of “Creationism” (i.e., “Young Earth Creationism” with the topography of the modern world shaped by Noah’s Flood). Through the reading of old books, he learned how stories of ancient floods shaped both scientific and religious views through history, coming away with “an appreciation for the rich and engaging interplay between biblical interpretation and the development of geology” (p. xiv). He also came to a different conclusion about the nature of faith (p. xii).

 

 

This book should be on the reading list of everyone interested in the interaction of science and religion, especially in the context of geology. You will find it well written by a world-class geologist and MacArthur Fellow. While I highly recommend the book, I disagree with Montgomery on a number of fundamental points.

I share the love of reading landscapes with David Montgomery. Without question, my best university class was a field physical geography class that I took from Harold “Duke” Winters at Michigan State University. We spent a quarter in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin looking at the deglaciation history of the upper Midwest. Winters would drop us at a site for the day, and we had to figure out what was significant about the site and how it helped us put together the story of the deglaciation history. We were graded on our observations, clarity of field notes, and how well we reconstructed the deglaciation history of the upper Midwest. This skill of reading landscapes has helped me understand what salmon habitat looked like prior to the arrival of Europeans, which is an essential step for me in understanding how to recover salmon populations. While I share Dave’s enthusiasm for reading landscapes, I must admit I am nowhere near as skilled as he is. To spend a day in the field with Dave Montgomery is an experience. To watch him discover clues and build a story is to observe a virtuoso.

Because I believe that the skills of observing the clues and building a story are the heart of good science, I also believe that good science is high art conducted by virtuosos. But that is not what we are told today. We are told that science is a method of testing hypotheses; that it is objective, and any practitioner will get the same results by following the method. We are told that by following this objective method, we get more certain results than we can through other endeavors, like the arts. In his book, Dave Montgomery seems to hold a view of science closer to science as a method rather than science as an art form. I hold the later view.

Similarly, I believe that interpreting the Bible—biblical exegesis—is high art. For over thirty years, I have had the pleasure of apprenticing biblical exegesis with a number of virtuosos in our community. Just as I am not a landscape-reading virtuoso, so I am not an exegesis virtuoso, but I enjoy the opportunity to watch them in action, and I appreciate their skill.

Through the last thirty years, I have come to see that doing science and doing biblical exegesis are similar processes; the subject matter is the primary difference. In doing science, we start with everything that we believe to be true (our pre-understanding). As we acquire new information, we incorporate it with our pre-understanding and refine our existing theories. There is fundamentally nothing different here from how we navigate our everyday lives. The difference is that virtuosos hone their skills into high art. However, sometimes new information comes along that cannot be made coherent with our existing theories and pre-understanding; it resists our attempts to incorporate it into our theories and pre-understanding. At this point, I would argue that integrity and pursuit of truth do not necessarily demand that we abandon our theories and pre-understanding that have served us well. (I disagree with philosopher of science Karl Popper on this point.) We would be wrong to jettison everything that we have built just because a piece of information is contrary to what we expect.

The best example of this I know comes from the experience of physicist D. C. Miller as reported by Michael Polanyi in his book, Personal Knowledge (p. 12-13). Over a period of twenty-four years, D. C. Miller and collaborators repeated the Michelson-Morley speed-of-light experiments many thousands of times with increasingly more sophisticated equipment. Miller presented his results in his presidential address to the American Physical Society in 1925. Never once did he get the results predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Polanyi argues that the scientists were right to set the experiments aside, at least for a period of time, because there were many good reasons for retaining the theory; there must have been a source of error in the measurements. However, there does come a point where the information that will not fit the existing theory becomes the focus of the search for a new theory. The new theory then becomes part of our pre-understanding. The history of geology presented by David Montgomery represents just such an endeavor by geologists.

Just as when doing science, when doing biblical exegesis the individual starts with his pre-understanding. The exegete will interpret the text according to his pre-understanding as long as he is “tracking” with the text—that is, as long as the words and meaning flow coherently. A problem occurs when a word resists being understood in the flow and appears incoherent. At that point, the exegete will stop and try to understand the word within his existing pre-understanding and the flow of the ideas. If a sentence cannot be understood, then, like the Michelson-Morley example above, the exegete does not have to abandon his pre-understanding or theory of the flow of ideas; he can, with integrity, hold the section as a problem to be solved later. But just like the science example, sometimes the word or phrase requires a search for a whole new line of understanding. If the exegete accepts a new understanding, it not only affects the flow of the argument but also is incorporated into the exegete’s pre-understanding. (The Language of God: A Commonsense Approach to Understanding and Applying the Bible, a book by three of my Gutenberg colleagues, provides a good understanding of the role of pre-understanding in biblical exegesis.)

My disagreements with Dave Montgomery derive from our differing views on philosophy of science, biblical exegesis, and the nature of faith. As I read his book, Dave is more on the side of science being an objective method than I am. Also, he sees more differences between doing science and doing biblical exegesis than I do. He rejects the idea that science and exegesis are both high-art forms. For instance, he believes that the development of “scientific” or literary criticism with regards to biblical exegesis is a positive step, while I view it as a giant step backwards. I do not believe that skills can ever be reduced to methodologies in science or in exegesis.

I agree with Dave Montgomery that doing biblical exegesis is more difficult than doing geology. More of the questions in geology are probably answerable, although some obviously are not answerable at this point. I also agree that geologists had an easier time agreeing on the methods than have interpreters of the Bible. However, what is at stake in the study of geology and the study of the Bible is profoundly different. Little is at stake if my geological theory is wrong. At stake with regard to studying the Bible and understanding the biblical worldview are the most fundamentally important questions in a person’s life: life and death issues.

This brings me to another substantive disagreement that I have with Montgomery’s book. When I became a Christian in my thirties, I was confronted with the issues of how to interpret the Bible and what kind of authority it ought to play in my life. To help me answer those basic questions, I joined the Gutenberg community and was a student in the Biblical Exegesis Program. I became convinced that the method of how to interpret the Bible is similar to how we understand any form of communication. We are trying to ascertain what the author is trying to communicate. In order to do that, we need to try to recover as much of an author’s pre-understanding as possible. The more we share with or understand about an author, the greater likelihood that communication can succeed. Again, I see this endeavor as high art, whereas Dave does not.

As far as the authority of the Bible is concerned, it seems to me that to claim to be a Christian is to claim to accept the teachings of Jesus Christ. First and foremost, a Christian ought to acknowledge that Jesus is who He says He is. Second, when it comes to the authority of the Bible, a Christian should examine what kind of authority Jesus gives to the Bible. It seems to me that He grants the Bible absolute authority, accepting it as the word of God—that is, if a belief He holds does not agree with the biblical perspective, He will change his view. He accepts the Bible as the word of God. (This of course assumes that He has arrived at the right interpretation).

Lastly, Dave Montgomery argues for two different ways of viewing faith (p.248). One way of viewing faith is a trust in a method (like the scientific method); while the second way of viewing faith is trust in a particular idea, view, or conclusion (like scientific theories or religious ideas). In his view, faith and reason offer different lenses through which people seek to understand the world and our place in it (p. 256). I do not agree that these are two legitimate ways of viewing faith. In a recent Gutenberg College “News and Views” article (October 2013), philosopher Jack Crabtree made an important distinction between intellectual and religious commitment:

An intellectual commitment to a belief (or value) is a personal commitment that one makes to embrace that belief so long (and to the extent that) one is rationally and intellectually justified in doing so. A religious commitment is a personal commitment that one makes to hold and embrace that particular belief no matter what.

Jack then proceeded to argue that a believer in the teaching of Jesus Christ ought never to make a “religious commitment” to his belief. It seems to me that the second way of faith articulated by Dave Montgomery entails such a religious commitment. I do not agree that a definition of faith grounded in a religious commitment is ever justified in religion or in any other field of knowledge.

In summary, I highly recommend Dave’s book. However, that is not to say that I agree with everything in it.

 

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