Skip to main content

Today’s post is an interview with Ronald E. Osborn, author of Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, a critique “scientific creationism” and wrestles with questions of divine goodness in the light of harrowing realities of animal suffering. 

In my opinion, this is one of the more perplexing, and even unsettling, issues for any person of any faith who believes in a Higher Power, regardless of where they are on the evolution-spectrum.

Osborn is an adjunct professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Southern California. His articles have appeared in a variety of popular as well as scholarly publications including Commonweal, First Things, Sojourners, Review of International Studies, and Politics and Religion. Osborn’s writing has been shaped in important ways by his experiences growing up in Thailand, Taiwan, and Zimbabwe to missionary parents. His first book, Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy (2010), defends a distinctive form of nonviolent nonconformity with power or Christian anarchism.

Tell us what your book is about?

Death Before the Fall is a theological critique of literalistic or fundamentalist readings of Genesis and the related project of “scientific creationism.”

After laying out a broad analysis of the roots of literalism and its discontents, I wrestle with some of the challenges posed by animal suffering for young earth creationists and theistic evolutionists alike.

More than an attempt to win any argument, however, this book is a critical intervention that seeks to change the character and quality of the debate itself.  I am concerned with a very practical and pastoral question: How can we be honest yet at the same time gracious dialogue partners across deep divisions over what to make of Scripture and the evidence of natural science?

Who is your intended audience?  Christian “liberals” (for lack of a better term) already agree with your views.  “Fundamentalists” (again for lack of a better designation) are bound to disagree.  Who are you writing for?

Creationism and biblical literalism continue to play a powerful role in American culture, not only in the conflicts that play out within many evangelical communities but also in the public square as the site of perennial battles over science education.

The recent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye offers a case in point.  This book will hopefully be valuable to persons of all beliefs or none–whether students, pastors, or others–trying to make sense of these struggles.  I have tried to offer a trenchant critique of what I believe are immensely damaging ideas about the relationship between faith and science but to do so in a way that opens pathways to conversation rather than closing them.

For “liberals,” Death Before the Fall might provide some occasions for self examination as well as resources for engaging with their literalist friends and family members since there are enough challenges to go around for all of us.

For traditionalists who read Genesis quite literally but who are not “fundamentalists” and so remain open to authentic dialogue with others, this book might help them to better understand the intellectual and religious perils of their position–and how one can be a committed Christian and embrace evolution without contradiction.

The title of your book and the subtitle suggest that it is devoted to the question of animal suffering. But two-thirds of it is actually about literalism.  Why did you devote so much space to the question of how to read the bible?

The “biblical literalism” in the subtitle will hopefully signal to readers that this is not a conventional response to the problem of natural evil.  It is certainly not a work of apologetics leading to any confident answer to the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering, which I take to be insoluble for literalists and theistic evolutionists alike.

Even if there are no tidy answers, though, there are more and less helpful ways of exploring the questions. Death Before the Fall is an attempt to help believers ask the right kinds of questions of the text and of each other in the light of perplexing realities.

Yet this requires that we first do some serious brush clearing work and identify the conscious as well as unconscious philosophical assumptions, theological beliefs, cultural values, and historical anxieties we might be bringing with us to the problem.

Is the theological problem of animal suffering any less severe for young earth creationists than it is for someone like yourself who accepts an evolutionary account of natural history?  

The problem of animal suffering is not less severe for literalists or young earth creationists but in fact more severe.

This discovery was decisive in my own coming to terms with evolutionary biology, although I have no stake in defending an unqualified or “ultra” Darwinism.  Where theistic evolutionists see animal suffering as arising from principles of indeterminacy and freedom within a very good but untamed creation, literalists generally attribute the same realities to a divine “curse” after Adam and Eve’s fall.

This supernatural “zapping” explanation makes God directly and disturbingly responsible for animal suffering in ways that theistic evolution does not.  Whatever else they might be, Christians should not be zappists.

What about Intelligent Design theory?  Do you also engage with ID in your book

ID theory makes only a few brief appearances in the book.  The ID movement is, I realize, a very broad church and I cannot present myself as an expert on ID literature, although I have benefited from some ID critiques of evolutionary “just so” stories and of methodological materialism whenever it evolves into a metaphysical prejudice.

But as Nancey Murphy (see her essay “Philip Johnson on Trial” in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics), Conor Cunningham, and others have pointed out, grave theological problems arise whenever believers invoke supernaturalism or an Intelligent Designer to explain empirical facts that at present appear to be “irreducibly complex.”

What do these distinctions between allegedly “designed” and allegedly “natural” phenomena actually say about God as Creator?  If we can observe and carefully trace a natural process, does this mean it is less “miraculous”, less “created”, or less filled with meaning and purpose than whatever remains a scientific mystery?  Religious critiques of philosophical naturalism and scientism should never be made on scientific rationalism’s own dualistic terms.

Faith is not something that can be pinned beneath a microscope.  It is a way of seeing even the microscope itself for reasons that are not a matter of empirical proof or disproof.  By analogy, Christians accept by faith that God is present and at work in human history, even in the face of tremendous suffering, evil, and waste.

But this does not lead us to demand that our historians produce very different accounts of the fall of Rome or World War II than secular scholars attending to the same evidence.  It does not lead us to fight for the insertion of miracles into high school history textbooks.

What most of us would immediately see as deeply misguided in the realm of historiography is no less misguided, it seems to me, in the study of biology or physics.

You write forthrightly as a Seventh-day Adventist.  How has your Adventism shaped your thinking about creation and evolution?

I was raised by Adventist missionary parents in Asia and Africa.  In my final chapter I offer some reflections on animal ethics and Sabbath rest, drawing on biblical resources that I would undoubtedly be less attuned to without this distinct heritage and life experience.

An Adventist sensibility might help to enrich conversations in the larger Christian world about the centrality of peacemaking, ecological concern, and social justice to any vibrant theology of Sabbath-keeping (themes reflected, for example, in Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now).

Unfortunately, many Adventists are far more likely to mount strident denunciations of evolutionists than they are to engage in constructive dialogue across differences or in concrete actions to actually care for God’s creation.  Adventists played an important role in the rise of “scientific creationism” via the work of George McCready Price (see the chapter on Price in Ronald Numbers’s The Creationists) and theistic evolutionists in the Adventist community today find themselves under unrelenting and often venomous attack from some quarters.

This book is therefore in certain ways an act of loyal dissent that is both shaped by, and critically engaged with, the troubled literalist-leaning tradition to which I myself belong. I am less interested in fighting for a label or an identity marker, though, than I am in simply being intellectually honest in my work without forgetting where I come from.

Besides the moral and political implications of the theology in the book, what do you suppose the political impact of the book might be within Christian circles?  Will politics have an impact on who reads and is influenced by the book?

As a “lay theologian” whose primary training is in the field of political science I should perhaps be more concerned with the political questions than I am.  It is simply not something I have given much thought to or have any way of predicting.

If there are individuals or groups who would like to turn what I have written into grist for their own purely political or ideological agendas, I think it will only amplify for serious readers the problems with fundamentalism and literalism that I have tried to help excavate in this book.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.