The Search for Common Ground on Genesis: "Present Truth" as Process

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Recently I authored an essay that was a debut on this forum. Now I have returned, for the simple reason that I sense that the Adventism is approaching a crossroad, the outcome of which could have repercussions for decades to come. This is because the way in which the Adventist understanding of Genesis is resolved will have a direct correlation with its ongoing credibility in the world. For this reason I thought it to be a worthy effort to analyze areas of common ground between those who seem mesmerized by tradition and those who respect tradition, but also are committed to since acquired data that modifies prior understandings. That will be the theme of this 10-part series. Some of the themes in this series will be amplifications of comments made in my earlier published piece, but we will also push out into several previously untouched areas of thought.

In the title to this article I have employed the term “Present Truth,” a term that was coined by the founders of Adventism who brought to the process of inquiry an attitude of openness. We will discuss this in more detail in the next installment, however, in this particular discussion I would like to review how it is that we acquire knowledge, and come to make sense of the world. I suggested in my first essay that it is at the root of our problems related to Genesis. One thing is for certain, if we approach life in an unreflective manner, and fail to give any thought to the processes by which we acquire knowledge, a proper grounding in reality is likely going to be more elusive.

My simple proposal is that we give respect to all sources of knowledge, and this would include everything we learn through our senses, that which is learned through a proper use of logic, and the important disclosures of revelation. I have actually found the thinking of Michael Polanyi very helpful in this regard. He was an interdisciplinary scholar in both philosophy and the sciences, and he observed that knowledge must be guided by antecedent beliefs (presuppositions). He noted that though “belief” has long been thought to be inferior in its validity to empiricism, for him it is the source of all knowledge (see generally Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, University of Chicago Press, 1962).

The basis for his view was that an individual could never get outside of self or culture to make objective judgments. He notes, for example, that evidence does not come labeled as such in nature, with it deriving its label only to the extent that it is defined that way by the observer. He made much of what he termed “local rootedness,” and by this he was referring to the presuppositions that a person commits to prior to thinking. “Behind all knowledge,” he observes, there is the “pre-logical and a-critical commitment” to certain implicit beliefs with there being no way to test or verify them, for as he says, “we live in the garment of our own skin.” In his view, these presuppositions are transmitted from one generation to another, and a child grows up committing to them quite unconsciously.

This approach has significance for both science and religion.

For those in the sciences who would limit the scientific umbrella exclusively to empirical data, it requires acknowledgement of the subjective element in all endeavors. Polanyi reminds us that not only do presuppositions come into play, but also they help define what gets labeled as evidence. Add to this the fact that science is continually pushing the edges of inquiry outside the bounds of the empirical. This creates a need for the theoretical—bringing us such things as the Big Bang theory, Superstring theory, and Loop Quantum Gravity, for starters. Arguments for design would also seem to fall into this general category.

While design arguments are not on the whole highly regarded within the scientific community, they do offer at least one major point of value, that being the contribution of a universal purpose that comes from the presuppositions of revelation—including the concept of a Creator. If we approach Genesis in this way, we are afforded an important beginning as we consider the sense data that speaks to us about beginnings.

One of the leading Process theologians, John Cobb, recently visited the Sabbath School class I attend, and he made the significant observation that some of the current troubles in physics stem from a bad metaphysics. This got me to thinking that perhaps both science and religion need each other if either discipline is to optimize its respective potentiality.

By beginning our thinking with revelation we give it primacy, providing a framework for thinking about reality in all its complex forms. But if we fail to move beyond revelation, I suggested previously that we essentially have committed an idolatrous act for if we are to take our God-endowed cognitive capacity seriously—as created, “akin to the Creator, to think and to do,” to use a familiar phrase—then we must take the presuppositions of revelation to their logical conclusion.

By giving primacy to revelation we are afforded a solution to one of the greatest of scientific enigmas—why there is something rather than nothing. Revelation provides us with an explanation for this enigma. By approaching Genesis as our starting point, we are provided with an overarching framework in our approach to cosmology, geology and biology.

The challenge for Adventists as they tinker with their Fundamental Belief on Genesis is to acknowledge God as creator in a way that does not deny the observable evidence. This should be the basis for finding common ground.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at