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The two-year-old speech “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” by Al Mohler has been thoroughly praised and criticized point by point since it was first given at the 2010 Ligonier Conference, and I have no intention of arguing against the particulars here. But having read and listened to it for the first time today, I was struck by how much of a misnomer it is and nauseated by what this mismatch between speech title and speech content reveals about the viewpoint Mohler is espousing.

In a conference about difficult questions that Christians face, Mohler was assigned to answer the query “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” (You can read it abridged here or listen to it here.) Astonishingly, his sixty-six minute speech spent only the final four minutes truly addressing his topic, offering the standard two woefully inadequate answers of appearance of age and catastrophism. The first sixty-two minutes addressed an entirely different issue, namely why belief in an ancient universe and evolution wrecks the doctrine of biblical authority and demolishes essential theological issues like Adam’s role in the fall of mankind. This topic has its place, and many people have disagreed strenuously with every point Mohler made, but to me, the very approach of answering the question in this way is startling. Imagine a Q & A at your church and someone asking the preacher the question given to Mohler. Now picture your pastor beginning his response with, “Well, first off, we cannot believe in an old earth because too much is at stake to essential Christian beliefs.” This is essentially Mohler’s approach.

It Messes Up Our System and Therefore Can’t Be True

At one point, he states, “[…] the exegetical cost…is just too high. […] The theological cost is actually far higher.” In other words, it cannot be true because if it were, it would wreck everything we believe to be true about God. It cannot be true because the Bible says it is not true. This answer shows a surprising disregard for objective truth. Mohler is effectively (albeit, unconsciously) saying, we cannot consider the idea of an ancient earth to be true because it would mean that what I believe is not true. It would complicate things too much. “Galileo, your theory cannot be true because it would mess up our whole system that we have labored so hard to build.” No one will be convinced by a faith that says this; no Christian struggling to reconcile faith and science will remain in a faith that says this. In order for there to be rational dialogue on the veracity of any position, there must be an understanding that it is possible for that position to be untrue. I am sure that Mohler would concede this, but the answer he gave does not.

There Are Two Books of Revelation, But One of Them Is Illegible

Mohler acknowledges that truth comes from nature as well as from scripture. However, he lowers the volume on nature’s voice so much that not much can be heard from her. “There is a book of nature. We do learn much from it. […] God has revealed nature to be intelligible.” But, as he ponts out, Paul teaches that “given the cloudiness of our vision and the corruption of our sight, we can no longer see what is clearly there.” I would need a lot more convincing before I accepted the notion that Paul really taught such a skeptical view of the comprehensibility of nature. About our knowledge of God from nature, yes, but not about our knowledge of nature from nature. Make as many qualifications as you like about the instrusion of Ptolemaic thinking into Christian dogma, the fact still remains that it was nature’s witness, not the Bible’s, that showed us clearly that the earth revolves around the sun. The fact also remains that if the descriptions of the Bible receive nary a one “Amen” from Mother Earth, that if she responds with nothing but dissent to Mohler’s understanding of Genesis 1, then the future congregations of this earth will not believe the claims of Christianity. “Disaster ensues when the book of […] general revelation is used […] to trump scripture.” Disaster also ensues when we are told to believe only the book of books and to stop up our ears to resounding calls of general revelation, as if nature were a brood of Sirens enticing us to the rocks of shipwreck.

“We would not be having this discussion today,” said Mohler, “[…] if these questions were not being posed to us by those who assume that general revelation […] is presenting to us something in terms of compelling evidence […] so forceful and credible that we are going to have to reconstruct and reenvision our understanding of the biblical text.” This is a statement of the obvious, and I am not sure what Mohler is driving at, since the fact is that people are posing these questions as well as assuming that the evidence is compelling. The operational word in this statement, I suppose, is “assume,” and I imagine that the implication is that there IS no “compelling evidence.” But to say this is to bury one’s head in the sand.

Don’t Look Too Closely, or It Might Be Compelling After All

The mountains of compelling evidence are out there, if one will only be humble enough to survey their heights. I do not think Mohler has given much more than a cursory glance in their direction, judging from the final minutes of his speech, in which he finally turns his attention to why the earth appears so old:  “In the limitations of time, it is impossible that we walk through every alternative and answer every sub-question,” but the two basic principles for understanding the illusion, he says, are that God makes things whole (i.e., they have an appearance of old age) and that creation has suffered from the consequences of sin (the flood, e.g.). These two answers can only be satisfying from a great distance, but the moment that you begin to look more closely, the moment that you do consider a sub-question or two, the more you see just how unsatsifying and inept these responses are. It’s one thing, for instance, to say that God created light to appear as if it had traveled millions of light years to get here, but quite another when you consider that those rays that were supposedly created en route tell stories of stars that exploded a billion years ago. This is just one of many “sub-questions” that have to be considered instead of being brushed aside in the concluding minutes of a speech. Most infuriating of all, Mohler says that really, the ultimate answer we have to why the universe is so old is that it is telling the story of the glory of God. “Any more elaborate answer, is known only to the Ancient of Days, and that is where we are left. And it is safe.” No, it is not safe. Mr. Mohler is effectively saying that if data pointing to an ancient earth cannot be explained by the appearance of age or the catastrophism arguments, then we should just trust that the earth is young regardless and that the answer lies with God. We should just not worry about it.

With all due respect to Mr. Mohler whom I consider a sincere Christian brother, I urge him to consider that we cannot reject the veracity of the belief in an ancient earth based on what is at stake. It does complicate our theological systems. It does cause us to reconsider how we read scripture. But what ultimately matters is whether or not it is true. It does no good to ignore the mounds of reasons why scientists believe that age to be 4.5 billion years (or why all life shares a common descent). Nor do we get off the hook by saying that our judgment is clouded by sin. We have to acknowledge the evidence and engage it. Please, Mr. Mohler, take some time to hear a scientist out on what that evidence is before you answer this question again.

I love my church. She has a real heart for building God’s kingdom across racial and social lines. There is good teaching, encouragement, fellowship, and ministry opportunities. The gospel is going out through her.

Often, though, I find myself complaining. I know that the Church is not perfect and will alway fail in many ways, but I want to give voice to three recurring thoughts I have when I go to worship on Sundays. Maybe you can offer some insight. I wish that we:

1.  observed communion every Sunday. I find myself needing and longing for the simple physical symbols of Christ’s blood and body. He is preached from our pulpit for forty minutes every Lord’s Day, but he is presented in the elements only once a month. Is there a reason why we shouldn’t be feasting every time we meet together?

2.  we drank wine instead of grape juice during communion. I understand the objections, but I find them wanting. At least offer the wine. I want to feel the burn of the alcohol down my throat as I reflect on the cleansing power of Jesus’s blood.

3.  our tithe was enough to cover missions. Every year our congregation is asked to commit to giving beyond the ten percent offering so that we can support missionaries at home and abroad. Every year I have a violent internal reaction. I’m a teacher, I think. Tithe is already a sacrifice. Why isn’t the tithe covering missions at my church? Shouldn’t we be trying to operate on the congregation’s ten percent? Let me see that budget! What if I want to make an offering to something else of my choosing? This is hard for me. On the one hand, I understand that the building has to be paid for, the employees paid, the bills handled. My church is not irresponsible. We are not a super spending mega-church. God is doing a lot of good through us. On the other hand, I hate that my money is not going into something that feels like it has more of a direct impact on the church. I want my money to go to the poor and to sending out missionaries. My church is not the only Presbyterian church that handles missions in this way. How does yours handle the budget?

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This has been the year of the church calendar for me. I have been encouraged as I remembered the lives of former believers on All Saints Day, and I have rejoiced as I remembered the coming of our Lord. Now the season of fasting is quickly coming, and though I am not one for giving up food, I am actually looking forward to it. My first Lent. Most of my fellow Protestant friends do not observe this season of the year, and I grew up thinking that it was something only Catholics did, not Presbyterians. This year, it’s for me.

So I am learning about Lent, a forty-day (excluding Sundays) season of fasting, reflection, and repentance in preparation for the observation of Easter. The practice of fasting before Easter is apparently very old, for Irenaeus (late 2nd century, early 3rd) indicated that a one to two day fast had been going on since “the time of our forefathers” (Catholic Education Resource Center). In the fourth century, the forty-day fast was becoming regularized, and in the fifth, Pope St. Leo insisted upon it.

ChurchYear.Net has a nice summary of the purpose of Lenten season:

The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, Christian growth, penitence, conversion, and simplicity. Lent […] can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. Thus it is fitting that the season of Lent begin with a symbol of repentance: placing ashes mixed with oil on one’s head or forehead. However, we must remember that our Lenten disciplines are supposed to ultimately transform our entire person: body, soul, and spirit. Our Lenten disciplines are supposed to help us become more like Christ. Eastern Christians call this process theosis, which St. Athanasius aptly describes as “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”

So what am I going to do? I plan on fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, spending more time in prayer and scripture reading, reflecting on the crucifiction and resurrection, and giving up something that I tend to overdo–sugar. I know it sounds trite to give up sweets, but as my wife can testify, it really is something that I value and look forward to. Maybe I will give up eating meat on Friday, but perhaps I should take it easy on my first Lent. The main goal, of course, is spiritual reflection on self and on Christ.

What about you? Do you have any particular Lenten experiences or traditions that you would like to share?

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