Saturday, March 27, 2010


Although I fully subscribe to the science of evolution and cosmology, my main interest in it – as a pastor, parent, and teacher – is the faith of our children, and this faith is threatened far more by a misguided and ignorance-based insistence on teaching certain parts of the Bible as science than it is by exposing our kids to the most rigorous and challenging scientific thinking. Even if some try to protect them from it, children will eventually be introduced – in high school or college or through their own reading or curiosity – to modern science. At that point, if they have been led to believe that they must choose between science and faith, they will either give up on science, or – more likely – they will leave their faith behind. Either of these choices is a tragedy, because it is a false choice, one that neither the Bible nor faith asks them to make.

Genesis, and, indeed, all the books of the Bible, stake a claim on the truth, yes, but literal scientific factualness was a non-issue for the ancient writers and readers of a pre-scientific age. The Bible is a multi-century collection of different kinds of books (poetry, hymns, history, love songs, letters, sermons, etc.), and people of faith have always used their capacity for thinking and reasoning to interpret them. If I tell my daughter that she is a gem, I am communicating something truthful to her, yet no one would even consider discussing whether or not she is really (“literally”) a gem. The Christian does not exist who does not use some kind of judgment to decide which aspects of scripture are to be interpreted literally and which are to be understood metaphorically, and Martin Luther reminded us that “plain reason” is a partner with Holy Scripture in understanding the word of God.

There are two distinct accounts of creation in Genesis (different authors, different styles). The first account ends and the second begins in the middle of what we call Chapter 2, verse 4. (Those helpful monks who outlined the text with chapters and verses a few hundred years ago didn’t always locate the most logical breaks.) In the first account, the method of creation is simply the spoken word: “Let there be….” In the second it is a hands-on process: God forms a mud-man and breathes life into him; God plants a garden. The first account has the sound and repetition of a liturgy; the second is a narrative, a story. To attempt to correlate either of these with the instruments of science is to miss the real questions the writers are addressing (For example, the main question addressed in the second Genesis account is, “If God meant the world to be good, how did it get so messed up?”)

And then there’s the book of Job. In the 38th chapter of this book we come upon yet another explanation of creation, in a narrative in which God himself tells the story. In this delightful and somewhat sarcastic exchange, God is saying, in effect, “Tell me about it if you think you know so much!” and the passage suggests still another method of creating: the builder’s arts of carpentry and construction:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Who stretched the measuring-line upon it?... Who laid its cornerstone?... Who shut in the sea with doors and made it fast with a bolted gate?... Who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens?”
Next time you hear someone say, “I believe literally in the creation story of Genesis,” I propose two questions; 1) “Which one?” and 2) “What about Job 38?” If a creationist reading of Genesis requires a literal Adam and Eve, for example, and is used to launch expeditions to seek Noah’s Ark, then shouldn’t this declaration to Job from the mouth of God cause us to develop science projects such as, “How big are the bolts on the doors which hold back the sea?” and “Where should we travel to find the cornerstone or the pillars of the earth?” I suspect that even literal creationists read these as metaphors, but why? Why is this passage less worthy of a literal interpretation than those in Genesis? And if there are no literal gates holding back the sea, then what is the writer trying to say? Do we look for a scientific meaning or a theological one?

We don’t need to protect our children (or the Bible) from scientific inquiry. We can “put the truth out on the street and let it take care of itself.” We can teach our children that there is no conflict between the theological world-view of Genesis and the discoveries of science.  We can be at least as open-minded as reformer John Calvin (hardly a flaming liberal), who, in 1557, wrote:
Genesis described in popular style what all ordinary men without training perceive with their ordinary senses. Scientists, on the other hand, investigate with great labor whatever the keenness of man’s intellect is able to discover. Such study is certainly not to be disapproved, nor science condemned with the insolence of some fanatics who habitually reject whatever is unknown to them.*
 With John Calvin, people of faith can see science (“whatever the keenness of intellect is able to discover”) as a kind of “third testament” to the creative will of God, and not as an enemy.

The Roman Catholic Church only recently (1992!) admitted that it was a mistake to try to silence Galileo and his theories over 300 years ago. Sadly various school boards and whole church bodies (this time influenced by a blinders-on fundamentalism) are making the same mistake regarding evolution. I don’t want them teaching my kids – in church or in school.

*Ironically, the Texas School Board just replaced Thomas Jefferson with John Calvin in its outline of the study of civilization's ideas. Thus, I propose that this quote be engraved over their office door.

1 comment:

Becky Hanson said...

Yes! And again, yes. You nailed it (with apologies to Job 38).