Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Conversation about Creation.

Recently, I have been enjoying a coversation over facebook with my cousin Steve, who directs a Christian campground ( here in Illinois. He believes that the scientific theory of evolution contradicts the first two chapters of Genesis. I, on the other hand, believe that the theory of evolution can co-exist with a less literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2. I thought it would be worth reproducing my rather lengthy response here on my blog. I thought about posting our smaller exchanges within this conversation to give more context to this discussion but I didn't want it to become overwhelming. (This is already pretty long as it is.) I think what I've wriitten here can more or less stand on its own and represents well why i read Genesis 1 and 2 the way that I do.
I, too, am glad that as you mentioned in your response and as I mentioned in our previous discussion that we are in much more agreement than disagreement here. We both agree that God created which is the important affirmation as far as our faith is concerned. However, as we’ve already seen in the discussion so far this question is connected to other important ones such as how we interpret scripture and the nature of God. So while I don’t think we have to ultimately agree on the issue, I think it is worthy of the discussion.
First, I want to address what may be a difference in the way that we are using the term “literal”. For example, in your opening line you say that there are “poetic books in the Bible that have very literal application to our lives.” By that, I assume you mean that the Bible has a very real or true application for us which we are really meant to live out. Obviously, I agree wholeheartedly but I don’t think I am using the word in the same way. In other words, I’d have to assume that by your use of the word that the less literal something is then the less true or real it is. We often use the word that way in common parlance. For example, I might say “After such a difficult week of work, I was literally spent.” Of course, what we mean in such an instance is to say that we were really tired and so we add the word literally as a way of emphasizing that. However, in reality we were not actually spent as some kind of currency which is what “literally” would really mean in this instance. On the other hand, when we are being very technically specific and we use the word “literal” in reference to language or literature, it is in no way an indication of how true we think something is. You can see this in the example above. To recognize that being “spent” is not a literal designation of us as a commodity which can be traded but that it is a metaphor for how tired we are does not make it any less true. It only says something about how we have chosen to communicate that truth. To say that we are “spent” communicates the same thing but in a more vivid and meaningful way than simply saying “I’m really tired.”

I believe that the same is true when we come to the creation narratives. To say that I don’t take the creation stories literally does not mean that I regard them as somehow less true than if I did take them literally. It is actually a statement about the kind of truth I believe is being communicated in those stories. I don’t think that those stories were intended to communicate the “how” of creation. I believe it is the purpose of science to answer the “how” question. I believe the purpose of the creation narratives is to answer the infinitely more important questions of “why were we created?”, by whom were we created?” and “what does it all mean?” (This, by the way, is what the writers of the article meant when they said that the Bible is sometimes treated like a science book. They mean that some look to the Bible for the answer to the how questions when that is not a question that God or the Biblical authors intended to address within Scripture.)

You might ask then why I get to decide which kinds of questions the Bible can answer and which it can’t. The answer, of course, is that I don’t. However, what I believe that I can and must do as a faithful reader of Scripture is to pay attention to the cues that the Bible itself gives as to what kinds of questions it is trying to answer. One of those cues is the fact that the Bible is always concerned with who God is and what God is doing. Even the books of the Bible that we normally call historical are not history in the sense of simply keeping records of human actions. No, they unapologetically make God and what God is doing through human beings the center of the story at all times. I think that by it’s own contents Scripture shows us that it’s primary purpose is not to describe what happened (history) as much as it is to say what those happenings communicate about who God is (theology). The Bible suggests itself first and foremost as a book of theology before it is anything else. As such, we should look to it for theological answers rather than scientific and historical ones.

However, this by no means settles the question. This is because more so than many other religions, Christianity’s theology is connected to its history. In other words, God often reveals himself to us through historical events, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ being the primary example. In those places, the “how” question of history becomes inseparable from the theological question of what it all means. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins”. This is an example of history and theology being inseparable. Jesus’ resurrection can not simply be a metaphor for new life in Paul’s theology. If Jesus has not been bodily raised in a very literal and historical sense, then we are all hopelessly lost in the power of sin because the new age in which the Spirit of God has been poured out on all believers has not actually begun as Jesus’ resurrection indicated in Paul’s thought.

So then, the question becomes this: “Why would I interpret this passage in 1 Corinthians so literally while interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 more metaphorically?” My answer is that hopefully the only reason I would do this is because a careful reading of scripture taking into consideration all of its literary, cultural, and historical complexities urges me to do so. It is NOT because I believe that science demands that I believe something other than what the Bible says. It is very important to me that in my own personal journey and growth in faith, I did not begin to read Genesis 1 and 2 metaphorically because I felt I had to do so in order to be considered intellectually respectable in light of scientific evidence. I did so because I believed and still believe that a faithful reading of Scripture pushed me in that direction.

So why did I feel that Scripture itself pushed in that direction? Again, it is important to go back to the distinction I made above concerning how we use the word “literally”. All good Christians read the Bible literally in the colloquial sense of the word. That is, every committed Christian believes that the Bible is really, genuinely true and that it has very real meaning for our lives today. That much is non-negotiable. However, we’ve already noted in our previous conversations that no one reads the whole Bible literally in the technical sense of that word. For example, it would simply be foolish to think that when Jesus says in John that he is the bread of life or a vine (and the disciples the branches) or a shepherd that Jesus meant for us to take any of these things literally. They are obviously metaphors. The point that Jesus is making with those metaphors are really genuinely true but they are not literally true, that is, they are not communicated in a literal way. I hope that simple example is enough to illustrate that no one reads the whole Bible literally and that everyone who has ever read the Bible has made decisions about what to take literally and what to take metaphorically.

So then, how do we decide what should be taken literally and what should be read in some other way? Of course, most of the time this comes to us intuitively, as it does in the examples from John’s gospel. It just makes very little sense to read the text any other way. But what do we do when it’s not so obvious? How do we decide in places where there are often disagreements such as in Genesis 1 and 2? Again, my hope is that we pay attention to the text itself and try to hear it as clearly as we can through all the years of history and the cultural and linguistic differences that divide us from its original writing. After all, history, culture, and language are exceedingly important factors when it comes to our ability to discern metaphorical language. If someone from your mom and dad’s neck of the woods said to a person in my town who is not a sports fan “I bleed orange.” they may simply wonder if that person has some kind of blood disorder rather than recognizing that they are indicating their loyalty to the Clemson Tigers. How much more difficult is it for us then reading a text written in a vastly different language and culture thousands of years ago? With that in mind, I think the following factors are significant in how we decide to read the Genesis story.

Adam is the Hebrew word for humanity. I think that if we were reading any other story and in the story there was a character named “humanity” we would immediately assume that we were not supposed to understand this story as a historical account but instead as an observation about the plight of all humankind, wouldn’t we?

There are actually two creation stories. The first story is Genesis 1:1-2:3. The second is from 2:4-2:25. Notice how 2:4 starts the story over again. (This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created…Wait, I thought we just heard that account?) The stories do no contradict each other but they certainly tell it differently. In my opinion, this pushes us toward the conclusion that neither account was focused on the “how” of the creation. Instead, each was focusing on a different aspect of its significance.

These stories are not unique in the literature of the Ancient Near East. Most of the cultures that surrounded Israel told somewhat similar creation stories. The theology of Israel’s creation story is obviously very different from those of these other cultures. However, the way the stories are told, the images and literary devices that are used are not too dissimilar to those of the pagan cultures that surrounded Israel. It seems to me that God used the literary conventions of the day to express through Israel his role as creator. If this is the case, then again it seems that the “how” is not as important as the “who” and the “why” since that is what would set this story off from other stories of its kind.
Of course, this does not make it an open and shut case by any means. But I think these kinds of things at least urge us to seriously consider whether we are missing something if we read these passages literally.

I want to address one last important question you brought up in your note. You wrote “IF the Genesis accounting of creation is meant to be poetic, but Evolution is really how man was created then it’s very deceiving.” If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is “If God used evolution, why not just come out and say that plainly and clearly in scripture? Why bother using metaphorical language when it runs the risk of being so unclear or even misleading?” I think there are a couple important things to address here. First, I think that God reveals himself to humanity in ways that make sense in the culture and time he is speaking. For example, when God revealed himself in Jesus he did not come as some eternal, angelic being. He came as a 1st century Jew to speak to 1st century Jews. Similarly, I don’t think it would have made much sense for God to speak to ancient Israelites about creation in the terms and categories of thought that were only developed in recent centuries. God spoke through the literary conventions of the day.

Second, I think it is very unlikely that the ancient Israelites who first told and heard these stories found their metaphorical quality to be as misleading as we might. I hope that I’ve already shown that some of the reasons that the metaphorical quality of the text might seem misleading are only because of the language, culture, and history that stand between us and it. I suspect that if we were ancient Israelites hearing this story we would intuitively “get it” much as we get the metaphorical language of our own day which is so common that we forget it is even metaphorical.

Third and most importantly, I think that God would reveal himself through metaphorical language and therefore take the chance of it being misunderstood because metaphorical language expresses something deeper and more meaningful that plain, literal language can not. Just as “I’m completely spent” communicates something a little more than its literal meaning of “I’m really tired” and “I am the bread of life” is so much richer and deeper in meaning than whatever literal meaning to which we might try to narrow it down. So also “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” says something more profound in that single sentence about the relationship between God, humanity, and the earth than could be said in thousands of words of plain, literal writing. Metaphorical, poetic, narrative language has the power to express something that technical or literal language can not.

So there are some of the reasons that I read Genesis 1 and 2 the way that I do. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about all that. Hope all goes well during your camp this weekend.

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