“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.


Study Science at a Great Books College?

When I tell people that I am a tutor at Gutenberg College and explain that it is a four-year Great Books college, invariably they ask about job prospects for its graduates. Many people assume that a liberal arts education is outmoded; it is not considered suited to the modern job market. I do not agree. Below are three reasons why.

  1. A Gutenberg education is the best choice for an undergraduate education for some students in science. As an ecologist, I would argue that it is among the best choices for a scientist.
  2. A Gutenberg education is an excellent choice if a student wants to be a good citizen.
  3. A Gutenberg education focuses on the important questions of life.

A competent scientist must make important decisions about the nature of science and its methods. Without this background, the individual is a mere technician. Gutenberg students are trained to make such decisions because, throughout their four years, they participate in science seminars in which they read large selections from the major scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, and Leopold to understand not only their theories but also to see what they thought science was and how it is done.


Science at Gutenberg College

Examining major questions like “What is a meaningful life?” or “How important is a particular career choice to my life?” are more important than job training. The core of the Gutenberg project seeks to examine these questions.

And, focusing on job training does not adequately prepare a citizen to help continue the American experiment. The founding fathers saw clearly that a republic not grounded in virtue would not long endure. Gutenberg students have seen the role of virtue in the rise and fall of ancient Greece and Rome. They are well aware of the role of virtue and morality in culture and, most importantly, in their own lives as well.

[This edited excerpt is from “Why Should Anyone Interested in Science Come to Gutenberg College?” by Charley Dewberry. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


Man’s Relationship to Nature

As a working scientist, I meet people who view all Christians as ultra right-wing conservatives. They believe that Christians view the environment through the lens of economic expediency; that Christians, like other conservatives, are working to gut existing environmental regulations on public and private land so that supply-and-demand market forces can work. Viewed this way, Christians have no morals with regard to man’s relationship to nature; Christians have no environmental ethic.

Conversely, when I am introduced to Christians as a person who works in salmon restoration, I am sometimes asked how I can be both a Christian and an environmentalist. To these Christians, anyone who does the kind of work I do must be an environmentalist, and an environmentalist means someone who worships the environment and cares more for nature than for people.

I propose a third environmental ethic—a biblical perspective on our relationship to nature distinct from the two perspectives mentioned above. The chart below will help illustrate the differences between the three.

 Question Free-market Environmentalist Biblical
Ultimate good for mankind? Material prosperity Moral/ethical man protects biosphere “Life”
Purpose of nature? Man’s material needs Spiritual and/or material Man’s material needs & context for working out faith in creation
Immediate good? Profit Protect integrity of ecosystems Faith & material needs
Mechanism for management? Supply & demand Government regulations in lieu of individual moral decisions Moral
Model of dominion? Absolute ruler No dominion Steward
Man’s responsibility? Maximize economic efficiency Protect biosphere Meet material needs & make moral decisions
Does nature have intrinsic worth? No Yes Yes
Is it necessary to protect all species? No Yes No


The biblical perspective of man’s relationship to nature is significantly different from either the free-market or the environmentalist perspective. The free-market perspective is an economic model devoid of moral dimension. The environmentalist perspective is an ethical model; it incorporates a moral dimension that rightly recognizes that man is morally culpable for his actions with regard to nature. However, the highest moral good and the ultimate goal of life are not those the Bible teaches. From the environmentalist perspective, the highest good is protecting and restoring the biosphere, and the ultimate goal is to protect all species by increasing the number of individuals committed to the goal.

The biblical perspective is a model uniquely different from the other two. It recognizes that a purpose of nature is to provide for man’s material needs, and yet it incorporates a moral dimension as well. The biblical view provides a means for balancing the material needs of man with man’s moral obligations to the rest of creation, and it provides adequate grounds for the established moral standards. Therefore, the biblical model is superior to either of the other two models.

Surprisingly, however, in the current national debate over environmental issues, no dominant voice propounds the biblical perspective. As a result, environmentalists lump Christians with those who hold a free-market perspective even though the biblical perspective differs significantly. And those who hold the free-market perspective believe that any Christian who speaks about moral obligations with regard to nature must hold the environmentalist perspective. In each case, the held assumption is in error and needs to be corrected. Unfortunately, no strong Christian voice is correcting them or proclaiming the biblical model of man’s relationship to nature, which is unique and superior to the dominant free-market and environmentalist models.

[This edited excerpt is from: “Is There a Christian Environmental Ethic?” by Dr. Charley Dewberry. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


Philosophy Will Never Be The Same After David Hume

A number of philosophers have observed that philosophy could never be the same after David Hume. There is little doubt that David Hume has greatly influenced philosophy over the last two hundred years or so. For instance, in philosophy of science, Hume’s works would certainly be considered within the top five most influential. Philosophy of science in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would not be understandable without Hume. But what is it in Hume’s perspective that has so enamored philosophers?

David Hume

David Hume (1711–1776) claimed that he was doing for the mind what Sir Isaac Newton did for our understanding of the universe. He started by asserting that he, like Newton, would confine himself to hypotheses that could be tested by experiments or experience. He asserted that all our ideas are derived from perceptions of the mind (impressions of sense or inner feelings). Hume understood that impressions and inner feelings come to us as simple impressions that we link and build into more complex ideas. If this is true, then Hume saw a powerful critique against philosophers who would believe in innate ideas—that is, necessary truths that God would have to give us because we could not discover them from experience, things such as necessary truths of mathematics, morals, and metaphysics. But this is only the beginning for Hume.

Hume then turns his critique toward a number of basic concepts in philosophy and religion: cause and effect, space, and time, miracles, and God. His critique is based on the fact that within his system there is no way to go beyond our experience of what usually happens. For instance, we believe that the sun will come up tomorrow because it is a habit or custom that we have formed from our experience. Miracles, for instance, are completely ruled out because they are contrary to natural occurrences. We can only know the attributes of God that we have directly experienced through God’s effects in the world. Nothing more.

Philosophers of science and philosophers that are naturalists are most enamored with Hume. First, his system gets rid of speculative metaphysics that has made no progress at all because, in the end, it is about nothing that we can know. Likewise, most of religion is ruled out. We are mostly left with empirical science as the way to knowledge. In about 1900, a view called “scientism” predominated. In this view, science is the only way to knowledge. It certainly drew considerably from Hume. Also, our current belief that scientists are the ultimate authorities concerning what is true can be partly attributed to Hume.

During the last couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to read David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding[i] with the juniors and seniors at Gutenberg College. Each time I read it I gain greater insight into Hume’s work. This time through two things struck me: First, Hume has seen deeper into the implications of the project Descartes started than anyone else. Second, Hume’s philosophy is fundamentally wrong.

Hume began his project by asserting that “…we may divide all the perceptions of the mind into two classes or species, which are distinguished by their different degrees of force and vivacity” (p98). If this is wrong—and I am convinced it is—then it will lead to errors throughout his system. He is not using Newton’s method. While it is true that philosophy will never be the same after Hume, it is also true that many of the implications that philosophers want to draw from Hume may in fact be fallacious.


[i] Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.


The End of Summer

The calendar says we only have a week before orientation week starts for the incoming freshman class at Gutenberg. It is hard to believe that summer is just about over. As usual, I only got a fraction of the things accomplished that I had hoped to over the summer.

While I have to admit that it is mostly by the calendar that I tell the passing of the summer, there are still a few natural events that mark the change of seasons for my family and me. One event marking the transition between summer and fall is the return of rain to the Oregon Coast Range. For many people, this is not a welcomed event. It means months of rain with little or no sunshine. For my family, it is an anticipated event: The return of the rain means chanterelles!

About a month ago, we got a thunderstorm that dumped a couple of inches of rain on the dry coastal hill slopes. That began the awakening. The last week or so we have gotten another couple of inches. Today was our first journey in search of these golden mushrooms. Even though it was raining, my sons, Andrew and Dylan, and I decided to have a look. Our anticipation level was high. Last September we got very little rain, and we were able to collect only a handful of Chanterelles during the entire fall. We headed out to a favorite spot, and within a few minutes we began to spot them.

In about an hour, we decided to call it quits because we were getting soaked through and we had enough for our first venture.

Most of the mushrooms are still small. They will get larger during the next few months.

On Sunday, my wife, Susie, prepared our first sautéed mushrooms of the year. This is an event that definitely marks the passing of summer. For us, fall is officially here, and with each of the coming rainstorms there will be more chanterelles to gather.


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