Notes on The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder by William P. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
The challenge is always present—to find constructive ways to connect classic religious texts and their instructions with the ways that people think and live in a world that differs significantly from that in which the ancient texts emerged.
Many scholars in Protestant and Catholic traditions have sought to interpret the Bible in the light of the intellectual disciplines and cultural conditions. Some tend to restate the ancient text while making only the slightest accommodation to modern life. Others emphasize contemporary intellectual traditions with such vigor that the vitality of the ancient text is largely vacated.
A third course of action is to be fully immersed in and committed to both realities—the ancient religious text and the modern intellectual world—and to bring them together in constructive dialogue. In this dialogue, each partner speaks in such a way that its basic elements can be understood and responded to by the other partner.
The value of this method can easily be understood and appreciated. It allows tradition to live peaceable in modernity and for modernity to provide space for ways of life that have the strength that has sustained the human community from ancient times until now.
The title of William Brown’s book indicates that he is determined to work seriously at this task. He examines a topic—the origins and meaning of life on earth—that is fundamentally important both to the Bible and to the intellectual world of our time.
He tells the Bible’s accounts of creation, all seven of them, in careful, sympathetic detail, pointing out the distinctive accents of the biblical narrative. Then he presents his summary of the research, findings, and conclusions of scientists from various disciplines, making it clear that he is ready to embrace their understanding of the beginnings and later development of the world we know.
These seven creation accounts, by the way, are: “The Cosmic Temple,” Gen. 1:1–23; “The Ground of Being,” Gen. 2:4b–3:24; “Behemoth and the Beagle,” Job 38–41; “The Passion of the Creator,” Psalm 104; “Wisdom’s World,” Prov. 8:22–31; “The Dying Cosmos,” Eccl. 1:3–11 (plus 3:1–8; 12:1–8); and “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” Isaiah 40–55 (excerpts).
Brown has two more factors in his method. He shows how the two patterns of analysis support, challenge, contradict, and enrich each other. He doesn’t try to show that one is right and the other misguided. Instead, he is persuaded that within its own frame of reference each describes aspects of reality that can help readers today live intelligent, effective, and satisfying lives. A paragraph in his concluding chapter states this result very well:
In short, through its encounter with science, the text’s meaning undergoes change: it is extended, deepened, supplemented, narrowed, and transformed. But not willy-nilly. Textual meaning evolves in the act of interpretation, and as it evolves, the new emerges out of the old. Meaning is created ex vetere, not ex nililo; it remains textually based, and as such the text retains its constraints on the interpreter.
Science, too, places constraints upon the interpreter. But acknowledging the constraints is only a part of the process. Engaging biblical tradition and scientific understanding also opens doors. As new discoveries about the world are reached, new discoveries about the text are made, and a greater complexity of meaning emerges in the process. The hermeneutical quest, thus, plunges us more deeply into the world of the text and into the world around us” (226).
One final point is that Brown’s analysis provides an ethical framework for life today (234). He refers specifically to the environmental crisis of our time. Science, he writes can give us the full information we need about the world and how it functions. Science can describe the dangers and point to actions that could help us move to a new and better way of life.
Brown then writes: “Science can explain the crisis, identifying its root causes and projecting trends into the future; it can even suggest ways to mitigate it. But science cannot bring about the repentance, indeed conversion, necessary to chart a new way of life. Science alone cannot provide the impetus for changing human conduct” (235).
Continuing this line of thought, Brown writes: “If science excels in revealing the wonders of creation, then faith excels in responding to such wonders in praise, humility, and gratitude, out of which emerges the holy passion and sacred duty to ‘serve and preserve’ creation and to address anything that would threaten its integrity. Scientifically informed faith raises both consciousness and conviction” (236).
Brown then points to the seven creation accounts in the Bible and shows how each one can help us resolve the crisis of our time. The concluding paragraph in his book is a strong affirmation of how an ancient sacred text can function effectively in our scientific world.
To claim the world as creation is not to denounce evolution and debunk science. To the contrary, it is to join in covenant with science in acknowledging creation’s integrity, as well as its giftedness and worth. To see the world as creation is to recommit ourselves to its care, not as the fittest, most powerful creatures on the animal planet but as a species held uniquely responsible for creation’s flourishing”(240).
Among the most useful sections of this book are two tables printed in the appendix (241–4). Table 1 presents the main points of the biblical text in column one and the main points of scientific understanding in column two. Table 2 is described as a field guide to the seven creation stories, and it has three columns: God as Creator, Character of Creation, and Character of Humanity.