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“I wish he would explain his explanation,” wrote Lord Byron in response to the obscurantist poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like Byron, we often find ourselves unsure of why people provide the explanations they do; an explanation of the explanation is needed.

A prime example is the recent controversy that has erupted over Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s response to a GQ interviewer’s question about the age of the Earth.

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?

Marco Rubio: I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

Sen. Rubio correctly realized that the question was not really about the age of the Earth but a polite way of determining, “Are you one of those young-earth creationists?” My friend Ross Douthat says the question has a “gotcha” edge:

It drops out of the blue in the midst of the interview, and it’s clearly designed to get Rubio to either take a swipe at the 40-plus percent of Americans and majority of Republican voters who doubt the evolutionary narrative about human origins (though some percentage of those doubters, it should be said, probably believe in an older-than-10,000-years Earth) or look like an anti-science rube. Rubio tries to be simultaneously deferential to the authority of scientists, the authority of scripture, and the authority of parents to teach their kids as they see fit.

But Douthat also adds, ” . . . the fact that this kind of question is a ‘gotcha’ at all is a much bigger problem for American Christianity than for Republican politicians.”

Another friend, Rod Dreher, agrees, “[C]ould we please have a rising GOP star who would, for once, defend both science and religion on this question?”

Peter Wehner has a similar take, “It can be discrediting to a political party—-as well as religious institutions—-to stand against (or deny) overwhelming empirical evidence on any subject.”

Douthat is Catholic, Dreher is Eastern Orthodox, and Wehner is Evangelical. Yet all three Christians think that Rubio’s mild support for Young-Earth Creationism is somewhat embarrassing.

Even though I myself believe that that the Earth is about 4 billion years old (give or take a decade), I wish these gentlemen—-and others who are criticizing Rubio—-would explain why their—-or, I should say, our—-beliefs are preferable to our fellow Christians who believe the Earth is 10,000 years old

If you pressed us to give an explanation for our explanation (without the aid of Wikipedia) we could probably say that it has something to do with radiometric dating. But even though each of these men are highly educated, I doubt they could give a sufficient explanation for how the process works, much less how it can be reliable enough to make a measurement of billions of years (I certainly could not).

In fact, I suspect that if you ask most scientists, they would be similarly stymied. Their answers—-like the ones Douthat, Dreher, Wehner, and I would give—-is that we have faith that the people who understand that sort of thing and have taken the measurements know what they are talking about. We may not know these people personally or even know people who know them. But we have great faith in the presumed knowledge of these people we don’t know because other people also have faith in them. Our epistemic warrant—-our justification for reasonably holding such a belief—-is based on our faith in what other people know.

There is nothing wrong with this type of faith-based belief. But why do we assume it is inherently superior to other types of faith-based beliefs?

In his book Why? Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly attempts to illuminate why we explain the way we do, or as reviewer Malcolm Gladwell says, to “make sense of our reasons for giving reasons.” In his intriguing review for The New Yorker, Gladwell outlines Tilly’s four general categories of reasons:

1. Conventions—conventionally accepted explanations.
2. Stories—specific accounts of cause and effect that limit the number of actors and actions and elevate the personal over the institutional.
3. Codes—high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes abstruse procedural rules and categories.
4. Technical accounts—stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority.

Tilly contends that we tend to make two common errors when it comes to understanding reasons. The first is the assumption that some kinds of reasons are always better than others—that there is a hierarchy of reasons, with conventions (the least sophisticated) at the bottom and technical accounts at the top. The reasons people give aren’t a function of their character—that is, there aren’t people who always favor technical accounts and people who always favor stories. Rather, reasons arise out of situations and roles.

Oftentimes Christians find themselves in situations in which their beliefs could be mocked by secularists and the role we want to play is that of defender of “faith and science.” But what usually happens is that we resort to special pleading in claiming that YEC is more “anti-science” than other widely held beliefs. Dreher provides a great example:

Can a person who refuses to believe the verdict of science in this matter really be trusted to have sound judgment on anything else? After all, it takes a geologist to tell us that the Earth is older than 7,000 years, but anybody who receives communion in a Catholic parish on Sunday can tell he is eating bread and drinking wine.

And yet, people who do not believe in God vote for Catholics all the time. Ask Catholic Joe Biden if he believes that the Eucharist becomes in some real, not just symbolic, sense the body and blood of Jesus Christ. He might say yes, or at most he’ll equivocate, a la Rubio on Young Earth Creationism. Despite this, tens of millions of secular liberals and liberal religious believers voted for such an anti-science troglodyte to continue on a mere one heartbeat away from the presidency.

However, it is not only miraculous phenomena like the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist that is viewed by secularists as anti-science. Many Christians (especially Catholics, but a lot of evangelicals too) believe that “theistic evolution” is somehow compatible with the consensus view of evolution (i.e., modern evolutionary synthesis). But I know of no secular scientists who think theistic evolution is anything other than an unnecessary supernatural layer added on to a naturalistic process. Whether theistic evolution is true is debatable; but it is certainly not compatible with consensus secular science.

We should therefore be cautious about assuming our technical account (which is often nothing more than a convention) is intellectually superior to stories or codes.

Indeed more examination of our own “situations and roles” could lead us to a broader understanding of an issue we thought we had understood. An Scriptural example of this is found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). When confronted by a religious expert who asks what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus turns the question back on his interlocutor by asking, “What is written in the law?” The theologian replies with a convention (“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”). When Jesus agrees, the expert asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

At this point, Jesus could have responded by offering a code, convention, or technical account as an explanation. Each of these would have appealed to the legalistic mind of his questioner. But in an artful move, Jesus replies by way of a narrative. He tells a story of a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan and ends it with a question rooted in his parable: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (v.36). When the legal expert replies (“The one who had mercy on him’) he finds that the narrative explanation has illuminated and expanded his understanding of a previous convention (“‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”).

Like the Jewish theologian in this story, we often expect explanations to take a form that we find most palatable. In debates and discussions we have a tendency to elevate our particular favorite, denigrate other categorical forms, or make stereotypical assumptions about the people who use them.

Examine, for instance, the popular perception of the way in which Christians compare our understanding of Scripture: Post-evangelicals/emergents prefer stories (i.e., narratives, testimony), Reformed theologians prefer codes (e.g., creeds), Baptist laymen opt for technical accounts (e.g., doctrinal statements). All of these styles have their place and can have valid uses. But we tend to latch onto one mode and feel most comfortable with others who subscribe to our preferred explanatory style.

Examples can be found for almost every subject on which humans offer reasons and take sides. Proponents of abortion, Gladwell points out, often rely on a convention (a woman’s choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester) while abortion opponents turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Immigration offers another pattern, with some people giving more weight to convention (Illegal aliens are breaking the law) and others relying on story (“But my nanny is a hard-working”).

Once we become aware of our preferences, though, we can make an effort to be more open to understanding what roles and situations shape the reasons of those with whom we disagree. Reason-giving, says Tilly, reflects, establishes, repairs, and negotiates relationships. By being more receptive to our neighbor’s reasons for giving reasons, we could all become better Samaritans.

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