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roundtable:science and faith Watch Show 7:
"What About God?"
on PBS
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Several people have written that they have thoroughly studied both creation and evolution and find that both are forms of faith in that they assume events that occurred before the time of man. They both have an element of trust needed to believe that either are correct or incorrect. Please comment.
Must we take the first several verses of Genesis literally in order to respect the spiritual authority of the rest of the Bible? Conversely, must the literal nature of the Genesis creation story be discounted in order to reconcile religion with evolution, astronomy, physics, and other sciences?
Please tell us specifically how you handle the question of original sin. If God chose to create organisms, specifically mankind, through millions of years of evolution, what happens to the theological underpinnings of original sin and redemption without a real, flesh-and-blood Adam and Eve?
If one accepts Darwinian evolution, how can one truly reconcile that theory with religion as practiced by most Americans? Even if evolution doesnŐt conflict with the existence of a God, it does seem to clearly refute the idea that God plays an active, day-to-day role in the course of earthly events.
Even if many people can reconcile religious and evolutionary world views, it seems that many evolutionary biologists cannot. Biologists seem much more likely to express hostility toward religion than practice it. Several persons have said that a religious person cannot be a true scientist. Does an evolutionary world view gradually drive a person toward atheism?


Q: Must we take the first several verses of Genesis literally in order to respect the spiritual authority of the rest of the Bible? Conversely, must the literal nature of the Genesis creation story be discounted in order to reconcile religion with evolution, astronomy, physics, and other sciences?
Panelist Responses: < back to intro page
We should take -- the believers, people who accept the Bible as a revealed book -- the chapters of Genesis in the Bible as literally true with respect to their religious content, not with respect to the examples or historical descriptions that are being used. There is nothing new in this. Let me quote from Saint Augustine. Augustine, one of the great theologians in the history of Christianity, writing about the year 400 in his commentary on the literal meaning of Genesis, said: "In the matter of the shape of heaven, the sacred writers did not want to teach man facts that would be of no avail for their salvation." Similarly, the Pope, to quote another religious authority -- and many could be quoted in many different traditions, Jewish or Christian and among different Christian denominations -- but to quote from a speech that Pope John Paul II made in 1981:
"The Bible speaks to us of the origins of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God. And in order to teach these truths, it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book, likewise, wishes to tell man that the world was created for the service of man and the glory of God."
So the point made by Saint Augustine and by the Pope is that it is a blunder to mistake the Bible for an elementary textbook of astronomy, geology, and biology. The sacred writer is using a description of the natural world which will be understandable and will be generally accepted by other people at the time when the sacred text was being written. Clearly, the writer could not have written in terms of science as we know it today.

But again, the important point is that, therefore, these descriptions of historical detail that are used by the Bible need not be taken literally. What has to be taken literally is the religious content of the teachings.
First of all, I would like to point out that the Bible is not just one book. It's a library of books over a very significant culture, namely the culture of the Hebrew people, the ancient Jewish people, and in the case of Christians which we tack onto that, the initial literature which the Christian Church generated as a result of its experience. And together, that's the Christian Bible. And of course, what we Christians call the Old Testament is the Hebrew Scriptures, which Jews still revere.

It is a library of books of very different kinds. Some is poetry, some is narrative, some is hymns, some is prayers. And some are what one can only call legends in the sense they are stories about what happened eons before anybody even wrote things down, and legends and stories passed on from word of mouth. Some of them are great poems, like the first chapter of Genesis. But the second and third chapters are kind of mythical stories which tell a story about Adam and Eve to convey a theological truth. So each kind of literature has got to be studied in its own way.

When people say they want a literal reading, they often mean they're ignoring what kind of literature it is and what the intentions of the author were. All of that has got to be taken on board when one's looking at the two accounts in Genesis. Remember, there are two different accounts, and they don't agree with each other. So one has to think what was the editor doing in putting two together? Well, he wasn't taking either of them literally. Since they didn't agree with each other, he wouldn't take them both literally. So I think that's got to be thought about in relation to how one interprets those very powerful and impressive statements at the beginning of the Bible.
In my tradition, the text of the five books of Moses -- which to the Christian is called the Old Testament and to me is called the Chumash or Five Books -- this text is understood to have been handed to Moses and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai as such.

But a moment's reflection suggests to me that it's unlikely that what was handed to all Jews then and in the future could possibly have been in any one language for everybody there to hear and understand it. And that what was in fact imparted was truth in some insightful, internal, religiously strong, emotionally stable, everlasting way. That sense of having an understanding of the Creator's intention was imparted. How it was imparted I don't understand.

But to look at this text and forego the 3,500 year -- or 2,500 year, depending on which scholar you believe -- period of discussion of this text by people, first orally and then in writing, and say of it that this text has one meaning because it has one set of letters is to miss the entire point, which is that you can often be given a clear, canonical, unchangeable set of words, letters, sounds, meanings, and never fully understand what they say.

So you can be given a truth which you cannot fully understand. And I believe, and I think many people of faith in the Abrahamic traditions believe, that we have a revelation from God, so to speak, in fact, but we don't fully understand it. And in the understanding of it, we are allowed, encouraged, in fact, commanded to use all the other tools at our disposal to understand it, the tools of science included.

So I understand the text to be saying something explicit and literal, and I try to understand it in the light of what I see through nature by science. I cannot see the need to pick one over the other. The text is telling me that this universe is created by a pre-existing, timeless Creator who infuses it with meaning and purpose -- and understandable meaning and purpose to human beings, that is, the meaning and purpose of mercy and justice. Without that presumption that the universe as we know it is wrapped by those expectations, then the mechanistic workings of the universe become, to me, extraordinarily depressing in their coldness and in their complete lack of interest in us as a species or as individuals.

So I am religious because I understand the data of science, not in spite of it. And in that sense, I accept the literal text but I don't understand the literal text without science.
This is a particularly important question for traditional Christian believers, including evangelical Protestants, because the historical character of the scriptural narrative is such an important matter for such traditional groups.

I would like, again, to complicate the question in two different ways. One is to query how the phrase "literal meaning" is used with respect to the Genesis account. When people talk about the literal meaning of Genesis, it's usually with the assumption that a straightforward reading of the text carried out in the 20th or 21st century is going to be like a text like we find in the newspaper or news magazine, in which there is an intended close connection between what's written on the page and what could be seen by a television camera.

I'm not at all sure that when this early Genesis was written, and whether that's 1,500 years B.C. (Before the Common Era), 1,000 B.C., 500, 300 B.C., I'm not at all sure that the literal meaning of this early Genesis was what people today think of as a literal meaning.

Just a little bit of study of the first book of Genesis shows, for example, that there is a very intriguing literary shape to this early Genesis. Day one is light; day four mentions the sun and the moon. Day two is the creation of sea and sky; day five is the creation of things to fill the sea and the sky, fish and birds. Day three is the creation of land; day six is the creation of animals and humans to live on the land.

What we seem obviously to have there is a literary shape pointing to the general affirmation that God exists over and above the material world and that God saw to the filling up of the material world. Now this, one could argue, is a literal meaning of the text of Genesis.

Similarly, in the ancient world, the way in which Genesis is set up is a convincing argument against polytheism; there's one God. There's a convincing argument against the evil of matter; matter is not evil, it's good. There's a convincing argument against the power of astrology. There's a convincing argument against the eternity of matter. These, I would suggest, are all literal meanings built into early Genesis that our modern conceptions probably do not reach. So that's the first thing I'd like to say.

The second thing is more, I think, responding to what the questioner had in mind. And it certainly was the case that most traditional Christians, and I think probably also many traditional Jews and Muslims, took the early verses of Genesis as pointing directly to a six day, literal creation of the world by God. This, as Francisco noted, was not the way in which the great Augustine in the fourth and early fifth century [interpreted it]; it was not the universal reading of the Christian Church in the past. But certainly in the modern era, from the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, this was a major reading.

What is involved once the discoveries of science begin to question a literal meaning is complicated. Many Protestant groups, most Catholic groups, Orthodox, and I think also some Jewish and Muslim groups always have held that God is the ruler of the material world and God is behind the written scriptures. And there have been, developed in many theistic traditions, notions of two books. God reveals himself to the world through what's written in the sacred text, and God reveals himself to the world in how people study nature.

Beginning in the late 18th century on to the 19th century there was a problem, because scientists came more and more to the conclusion that the Earth was very old, that there was, at the minimum, some kind of evolutionary transition between species, all of which spoke against the literal interpretation -- "literal" defined in modern terms -- of early Genesis.

At this point, I think many conservative Christians have a resource that is simply not exploited enough. And that resource is to realize the way in which what people learn from nature is as much a gift of God as what people learn from the scriptures. I'm a great fan of the conservative Presbyterian theologian in the 19th century, Charles Hodge, who in 1863 made, I think, a very important statement about this very circumstance. He wrote: "The proposition that the Bible must be interpreted by science is all but self-evident. Nature is as truly a revelation of God as the Bible and we only interpret the word of God by the word of God when we interpret the Bible by science."

Hodge went on to qualify this statement, of course. He wasn't saying that anything that any scientist says needs to become very important in interpreting the Bible. But what he said was that well-researched, responsible conclusions of science should come into the interpretation of the Bible.

And for many Christian believers, including many very traditional Christian believers, this influence of modern scientific discovery pushes an interpretation of Genesis to the conclusion that there is, of course, history in early Genesis. But there's also polemics, there's also preaching, there's also what we might call myth, there's also theological exhortation. So it's not at all a violation of the meaning of the Bible to reinterpret early Genesis in line with at least a modest accession to what's been discovered by scientists.

So that's a long way around to answering the question, that if the literal nature of the Genesis story -- and literal taken in the modern sense of the term -- is modified, that by no means entails a rejection of the authority of the Bible or a getting rid of the scriptures as a God-given book of guidance and direction for all of life.
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