The Sad(?) Case of Dr. Kurt Wise

In The Irrationality of Richard Dawkins, by Francis J. Beckwith, published in First Things, Beckwith discusses the story of Dr. Kurt Wise, an accomplished geologist who has chosen to teach geology at a small Christian college because he accepts young-earth creationism ("YEC")rather than seek to teach at a larger college where his YEC beliefs make him persona non grata. Dr. Wise chose this road because, as a Christian who reads the Bible literally (which is different than a belief in an inerrant Bible) he found "his reading of Scripture was inconsistent with the dominant scientific understanding of the age of the earth and the cosmos."

Richard Dawkins, one of the present day poster children of the new atheists and author of The God Delusion, found Dr. Wise's choice to be pathetic. According to Beckwith's article:

I find that terribly sad . . . the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic—pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. . . . I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise. And if it did that to a Harvard educated geologist, just think what it can do to others less gifted and less well armed.

First, I disagree with Dawkins that Dr. Wise's story is contemptible and pathetic. I think that while Dr. Wise has taken a position with which I disagree, his decision shows the courage of conviction and I applaud him. I do not believe that Christianity presents the choice that Dr. Wise felt it presented based upon his Biblical literalism. The early chapters of Genesis are, in my opinion, a mix of fact and poetry. The idea that the earth was created in six 24-hour days, while avidly held in some circles, seems to me to be required neither by a reading of the Biblical texts nor by scientific evidence. I agree with Dr. Beckwith when he notes in his article, "It [YEC] is not a position I hold, and for that reason I am sympathetic to Dawkins’ bewilderment at why Wise has embraced what appears to many Christians to be a false choice between one controversial interpretation of Scripture (young-earth creationism) and abandoning Christianity altogether."

However, having elected to read the Bible in a very literal fashion, I think Dr. Wise was correct in determining that science appears to contradict the YEC position. Thus, Dr. Wise, and many others like him, are left with a rather interesting question: from where does my base of knowledge come? Everyone has to make that choice at some point if they think deeply at all about existence and epistemology. The choice is the same choice that has been being debated throughout history. Do we derive truth from studying nature or do we derive truth from revelation?

For many of us who follow in the Reformation tradition, the answer does not involve a choice. The Bible is the inerrant Word of God. This inerrant Word teaches that man and all of nature were created by God. Thus, nature is real and has a real significance since God thought highly enough of it to create it. The Bible's knowledge, understood correctly, gives the answer to many questions, but it is not exhaustive in its explanations. It tells us the ultimate "hows" and "whys" of creation, but it doesn't gives us every step of "how" and "why" involved. Therefore, we know "how" the universe came into existence (God created it), but we don't know the specifics of "how" God did the creating without the scientific study of the cosmos. We know "why" God created animals and plants, but we don't know "why" animals act the way they do without the study of biology.

Dr. Wise, because of what I view to be an overly-literal reading of the Bible, is left an extremely difficult choice: If the Bible (read literally) requires a universe of no more than 10,000 years, then how can that be consistent with scientific teaching that the universe is around 13 billion years old? The answer appears to be that they cannot be read consistently. Thus, the Christian is left with the choice of determining which of the two options is true. And, unfortunately, this becomes an "all or nothing proposition" because under the literalistic view of the Bible if the entire Word of God is not true then none of it is true.

Yet, why should the findings of science be given more authority than the accounts of God? After all, as God says in Job 38:4-13:

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell {Me,} if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together And all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or {who} enclosed the sea with doors When, bursting forth, it went out from the womb; when I made a cloud its garment And thick darkness its swaddling band, and I placed boundaries on it And set a bolt and doors, and I said, 'Thus far you shall come, but no farther; And here shall your proud waves stop'? Have you ever in your life commanded the morning, {And} caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the ends of the earth, And the wicked be shaken out of it?

In my non-literal interpretation, this is saying (at least in part) that God was there when the world was created and did the creating. Thus, if one takes the Bible both seriously and literally, then the speculations of scientists measuring the universe as it exists today and trying to work backwards to how it all began is interesting conjecture, but cannot trump the truth of what happened as related by the One who was there and did it all. (Exactly how a YEC literalist interprets the language about the foundations of the earth and its cornerstone and stars singing together is not something that I have ever read.)

So, having chosen to follow the Word of God over the teachings of men, no matter how learned those teachings may appear, Dr. Wise deserves applause -- not scorn. He recognized that his convictions were more important that a highly placed post at a prestigious university. He recognized that he must follow God in truth and in his whole life. While I disagree that the Bible presents that choice he felt it presented, I wholeheartedly applaud him for his decision. And unlike Dawkins, I doubt sincerely that this decision has led Dr. Wise to a wound in "life's happiness." Having examined his heart and chosen to follow God as his conscience leads him, I expect that Dr. Wise is happier than Dawkins can ever expect. After all, joy comes from the Lord.

Which segues nicely into one final comment by Dawkins that needs to be pointed out. Note that he said, "I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise." Nonsense. Dawkins is hostile to religion for a lot of reasons -- most of them bad. Many of these bad reasons are detailed in his book. But it seems to me that Dawkins is wrong to hostile to religion because of Kurt Wise's story. And to a large extent I am in the same seat as Dawkins here: I agree that Dr. Wise's religious views are causing him to waste his talents. After all, I would personally like to have seen Dr. Wise come to an old-earth creationism viewpoint and use his obvious intellect and gifts to further what I think is clearly true. So, both Dawkins and I agree that Dr. Wise is, to a degree, wasting his talents by pursuing the study of YEC. Yet, that doesn't make me hostile to YEC. Why would it make Dawkins hostile?

I expect that it is because Dawkins is a hostile individual to start with. At least, that's what his writings communicate to me.


Jason Pratt said…
{{Having examined his heart and chosen to follow God as his conscience leads him, I expect that Dr. Wise is happier than Dawkins can ever expect. After all, joy comes from the Lord.}}

That was an excellent way to put it Bill. {bow}{s!}

darragh said…
I've just finished reading Dawkins book and came across his comments on Kurt Wise. I'd never heard of Kurt before and was interested in seeing if he had responded to Dawkins expession of bewilderment and regret. Instead I found the article by Dr. Francis J. Beckwitt.
I think there is serious logical fallacy in Dr. Beckwitt's argument (or I've misunderstood him). Dr. Beckwit says that because Dawkins views nature, and especially evolution, as unguided and purpose free he therefore is not free to ascribe purpose and meaning to other arenas, such as Kurt Wise's career choices. Isn't this disingenuous? I certainly didn't get that impression from reading Dawkins' passage.
My understanding of what Dawkins wrote was that he regretted Wise's purposeful and deliberate choice of literal bibical truth over the scientific approach. Humans are able, uniquely, Dawkins has argued frequently, to frustrate and disobey our genes (contraception and celibacy are the examples used). Dawkins would say that Kurt was free to determine his "purpose" in his career; and chose foolishly.

Finally Dawkins' reasons for being hostile to religon INCLUDE the waste of talent that he perceives in Wise's story. It is a huge waste when you consider the investment by the state in his education; the time, care and expertise of his teachers; his own commitment in time and material and the opportunity to excel, denied to someone else. No-one contemplating that list of squandered resources could take much comfort in the fact that Wise is happier as a YEC.

Take care, Darragh
BK said…
I agree that Beckwith's argument is not particularly good which is why I didn't adopt his argument.

Meanwhile, I understand where Dawkins is coming from when he speaks of Wise wasting his talent. I think Dawkins is wasting his talent in this current effort to turn religion into an effront to the modern world. I (and many, many other Christians) think Dawknis has chosen foolishly. So, would it be fair to say that Dawkins is squandering his resources? Can I make the same argument?
BK said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
darragh said…
You can make the same argument that Dawkins' effort to confront the "problem" of organised religion is a waste of his time. I doubt that anyone who reads his latest book will be swayed by the reasons he offers to reject religion. Not simply because those reasons are bad or weakly argued, as some claim, but that reason alone is unlikely to move anyone to embrace or reject religion. Ironically, Dawkins first two books offer a more compelling and exciting view of life, governed by nature's pitiless indifference.

Perhaps, if we are feeling generous, we can attribute Dawkins motives in writing "The God Delusion" to altruism, a subject he writes a lot about. Seeing fellow humans suffering under a mass delusion, he seeks to enlighten them. The same concern for fellow man prompts some Christians to call to my door at the most inconveient times, asking if I have "let Jesus into my life". It might not be an analogy that Dawkins would appreciate.

Dawkins respects Dr. Wise's intellectual struggle to reconcile the two different "magisteria", he calls him "the honest creationist", even if ultimately he makes a choice that Dawkins finds pathetic.

Can you explain how "The Bible is the inerrant Word of God" and then believe that Dr. Wise mistakenly takes it too literally? I recall, during my education, priests interpreting the Bible saying "What God meant to say here was...". Surely an omniscient and omnipotent creator can find a way around the translation, transcription and interpretation problem.

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