by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. And his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has just been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
A favorite tactic of demagogues, political and religious, is reification. These dishonest rhetoricians objectify actual people and treat them as objects. As far back as Genesis, not naming a person was a way of claiming power over that person. No name has always meant powerlessness and voicelessness.
Ken Ham does exactly that in attacking me for this article. By refusing to even use my name, he shows his total lack of respect. Refusing to be erased, I want to say here that my name is Rodney Kennedy. I am a Baptist pastor and professor of homiletics. .
First of all, Mr. Ham makes the false assertion that I “can’t stand” that his organization exists. This is an absurd emotional argument. I am not bothered by the existence of Answers in Genesis or the Creation Museum. I do believe, however, that Ham & Company genuflects to a naïve misreading of the Scripture (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age), but I’m not emotionally invested in anything like the destruction of either the Creation Museum or Ark Encounter.
In the second place, I am not intolerant. I disagree with young-Earth creationists, but disagreement is not intolerance. I am convinced that a literal interpretation of the stories of creation in Genesis is unbiblical, unchristian, and dangerous, but that’s not intolerance. If Mr. Ham didn’t have such a thin skin, he could make his arguments without resorting to a blanket condemnation of “progressives.” Instead of being intolerant, I am passionate about offering readings that differ from those of young-Earth creationists. I have nothing against Ken Ham personally.
Look how quickly he insists that I want to control everyone and force everyone to accept my views. That sounds suspiciously like fundamentalism to me. Harry Emerson Fosdick asked a hundred years ago:
There is nothing new about the situation. It has happened again and again in history, as, for example, when the stationary earth suddenly began to move, and the universe that had been centered in this planet was centered in the sun around which the planets whirled. Whenever such a situation has arisen, there has been only one way out: the new knowledge and the old faith had to be blended in a new combination. Now the people in this generation who are trying to do this are the liberals, and the Fundamentalists are out on a campaign to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship. Shall they be allowed to succeed?
I am invested in not allowing the world view of Ham & company to be the dominant truth claim. Ham’s insistence that the world will never be right until the scientific community returns to a naïve age of supernaturalism simply suggests a fierce arrogance embedded in his certainty. Unfortunately, for Mr. Ham, “the cat is out of the bag,” and there’s no putting it back.
I practice the art of persuasion. I am not interested in controlling or forcing. Coercion is not my game. Persuasion is my purpose, and I am not responsible for how my readers respond to my argumentative claims. I am glad that Mr. Ham is reading my articles. Perhaps he can be persuaded to drop his absurd charges.
At no point have I said that Mr. Ham and his followers can’t think for themselves. He sits at the head of a multi-million dollar empire that speaks, prints, televises, and blogs across the world every thought that enters their minds. I have never said they didn’t think. As Raney says in the novel by the same name, “everybody thinks.”
Instead, I claim that Ham & company are in an epistemic crisis because they can’t accept that others have read the same Bible and reached different conclusions.
More broadly, evangelicals can’t stand to be told that they don’t have as much epistemic right as anyone else on any topic that they like to think they understand: “Who are you to tell me that I have to defer to some scientist?” Borrowing from the writing of philosopher Rupert Read, this then reaches the nub of the issue, and explains the truly-tragic spectacle of someone like Ken Ham – a garden-variety theologian, a non-scientist, thinking entrepreneur – who made his name and fortune as a hardline advocate of young-Earth creationism. He seems not to notice that he’s more of a libertarian than an evangelical, insofar as libertarianism is consumeristic, individualistic, and relativistic/subjectivistic.
No one has an automatic right to their own opinion. You have to earn that right, through knowledge or evidence or good reasoning or the like. I argue that Ham has not earned his right through scientific knowledge, evidence, or good reasoning. Instead, he has earned his fortune through sleight of hand that would impress Barnum and Bailey. His libertarianism has careened – crashed – right into and up against actual science, as he is driven to deny the most crucial truth about science today: “Evolution has never been on stronger scientific ground than it is today” (Kenneth Miller). Ham’s subjectivising of everything important leads him finally to destroy his love for truth itself.
Ham is truly a tragic spectacle. Or, perhaps we should say, farcical.
The remarkable irony here is that young-Earth creationism – allegedly congenitally against “liberals,” “biblical criticism,” and “political correctness,” allegedly warring against the forces of unreason – has itself become the most ‘Post-Modern’ of doctrines. A new, extreme form of individualized relativism, young-Earth creationism is one more con job among a plethora of prosperity gospel preachers, rapture believers, America-was-born-Christian adherents, and all those privileged white people who deny racism and even blame racism on – wait for it – evolution.
“Taking God at his Word” may be the most subjective statement in Ham’s criticism. In what way can this be reality when millions of other believers make the same truth claim but come to different conclusions? There’s no ambiguity in Ham. He’s certain that he and his followers take God at his word. He never says, “I believe that the Word of God teaches this or that.” He insists that the Word of God is the same as the Word of Ham in spite of his denials.
I do agree with Ham that we should all examine the Scriptures daily to see what is true. There is a sense of shock when someone accuses me of not taking Scripture seriously. I believe the Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world. Texts of Scripture do not have a single, literal meaning, but have complex, diverse possible readings across the centuries. Scripture calls us to ongoing discernment, to fresh re-readings of the text in the light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.
Each Sunday morning, before the Scripture lessons of the week are read and the Word is proclaimed, I lead my congregation in the Prayer for Illumination:
This is the Church’s Bible. The Bible tells the truth about God. The four Gospels tell the truth about Jesus. We read the Bible together as God’s people to hear God’s Word to us. We will engage in the faithful interpretation of the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We gladly hear the Word with open minds and full hearts. Together we will hear and do the Word from God as a faithful and obedient people. Amen.
Ken Ham mistakenly claims that, if I would only come to my senses and read the Bible as he reads it, I will conclude that he is right and that God did create the world in six literal days.
I hate to disappoint, but I am not persuaded by his creationism – it’s just another man-made “ism” and perhaps the worst of all the “-isms.”
Maybe the questions of God in Job need to be answered by Ham and Company, since all the answers are not in Genesis.:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
There were no eye-witnesses to creation other than the Holy Trinity, so Mr. Ham is speculating and his speculations are “just a theory – a theory with ‘no there there.’” In my view, Ham & company might as well be peddling honey-baked hams for Christmas because young-Earth creationism is a half-baked loaf of bread that refuses to rise to the level of epistemic confidence and truthfulness.