Here’s a wonderfully revealing quote from the National Academy of Sciences:
Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.
This is interesting; this is good.
When I read it, though, it dawned upon me that I don’t remember taking the time to see what the Jews to whom the Genesis creation stories were originally given are thinking about this debate between those who support a rather literal interpretation of Genesis and who see themselves as creationists and those who do not buy into biblical literalism and who, in contrast, affirm evolutionary theories. The Jews are not in agreement on
this issue! I was shocked!
The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents rabbis from the Orthodox end of Judaism--the most conservative Jews aside from Hasidic Judaism--said as far back as four years ago that evolutionary theory is not compatible with the teachings of ancient Hebrew scripture, notably the creation accounts in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis. Eager, generally, to affirm the work and the findings of science, Orthodox Judaism tries to go the distance in affirming and benefitting from scientific findings. In this case, however, no can do. Evolution makes no place for a divine Creator. Evidently, none of these Orthodox rabbis spoke with the National Academy of Sciences.
Reform Judaism, the liberal end of Judaism, spoke to the issue too:
Objective scientific processes and theories must never be subverted to serve religious, political, or ideological goals. As people of faith have long known, science and God are complementary. Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and physician, taught that an individual’s ability to learn was a key element of spirituality....Evolution deals with how life on earth has changed over millions of years; it does not address theological questions such as how the universe was formed nor does it deal with the issue of personal morality and faith. It is important to note that the Reform Movement is not completely opposed to the teaching of intelligent design in public schools – rather, we believe there is a place for this concept in courses that deal with religion, theology, etc. We simply to do not believe it belongs in science class.
Karen Armstrong is one of the most highly respected and widely published scholars of religion, in its broadest sense, in the world. She is British and a former nun. She is a tireless student of humanity’s search for God, and while her own convictions about just who God is, from human perspective, put her clearly with the liberal crowd affirming that God is, she is not someone whom Christian conservatives embrace. Her most famous book very well may be A History of God. Armstrong’s view of God is that God is the wonder or mystery at the heart of life--that amazing core to which the only human response can be, “Ah,” or, “Wow!” If anyone has completely let go of an anthropomorphic God, it’s Karen Armstrong.
Richard Dawkins is also a Brit. He is an evolutionary biologist who was Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. Dawkins gave us the word, “meme.” He is an outspoken atheist and a zealous advocate for evolutionary theories. In his home country he has been called “Darwin’s Rottweiler.” Widely published as is Armstrong, Dawkins’s most popular book is The God Delusion. His most recent book is titled, The Greatest Show on Earth: Evidence for Evolution; it is presently a best settler in Britain, Australia, and Ireland. Dawkins’s personal website is called “a clear-thinking oasis.”
Just over a week ago, the Wall Street Journal published the fascinating results of a little journalistic experiment. The “Journal” asked Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to a respond to a question with no idea whatsoever of what the other would say. The question was this: where does evolution leave God?
It wasn’t that Armstrong and Dawkins were or would be worlds apart on the issue. If they had wanted that, they could have asked that intellectual giant, theologically sophisticated Dr. Laura, to spar with Dawkins.
While Armstrong believes that God is, in the way that I’ve described, her view of God hardly makes her the sweetheart of the religious right. In fact, they may hate her more than they hate Dawkins. At least with Dawkins, atheist that he is, no one can deny that he is hell-bound. Convincing everyone that someone who believes in God in any kind of way is also hell-bound takes sooooo much more work.
Here’s a little taste of what this brilliant ex-nun wrote in the Wall Street Journal, and don’t you know her former order will never come forth and claim that it is what she once left?
Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.
For Karen Armstrong, there is no real connection between God, who is something like mystery at the heart of life, and how life in all its forms evolved. She doesn’t make God the Creator so there is no contradiction between a divine Creator and the ups and downs of how evolution has adapted life--and continues to adapt life.
Dawkins makes no place for God at all. Here’s a flavor of what he wrote late last week in the Wall Street Journal:
Evolution is the universe’s greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguably the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated....Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must be at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.
Since the creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis are at the heart of the controversy, I think some greater understanding of those passages is in order, and the first issue that I must acknowledge is that literalists generally don’t see, or don’t admit to seeing, two separate creation stories. Ignoring the fact that there are two stories in Genesis, each with its own take on both the order of creation and the length of time it took God to complete the work of creation, literalists claim that nothing more than restatement is going on in the second story. This demonstrates that few of those who appeal to Genesis 1 and 2 as the basis for their views on creation and evolution have read Genesis 1 and 2 for themselves.
The first account of creation in Genesis chapter one and the first few verses of chapter two is a poem or a hymn. The second account is prose. The first account of creation describes creation as having taken place in six days with a little bit left over to do early on the sabbath before God the Creator took most of the day for rest. In the second account of creation, the whole thing happens in a one day. By the way, the word translated as “day” in English there can mean an unspecified period of time, an era perhaps, just as easily as it can mean day.
I do believe both creation stories in Genesis affirm that God is the Creator who was involved in bringing the world into being. As far as having to believe literally, therefore, that God directly tended to every tiny detail of bringing the various aspects of the world into being toward the end of full functionality, no. That is absolutely not necessary in the interpretive process. The idea that God created can just as easily mean that God set in motion a process that led to the creation of stars and fish and vegetation as well as a heating and cooling system.
Here is how the second account, the prose account, of creation begins in the book of Genesis:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Woman would be created later, after God saw how lonely the man was with only animal and plant companionship. In the poetic account, however, man and woman are created at exactly same time, through a single divine act. Not so in this second account of creation.
Those who insist that these two creation stories must be affirmed as true by anyone who wants to have a personal connection to God also believe that none of the ancient Hebrews had any skill with understanding symbolism, poetry, and figurative language. In fact, the ancient Hebrews were masters at devising poetry and metaphor and symbols. This is very important because aside from affirming that God was behind the process, which is what conservative and liberal Jews affirm and what many Protestant and Catholic persons of faith also affirm, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that all ancient Hebrews believed God whipped up this vast complex world order is six days with just a little more to take care of on the morning of what became sabbath. If the ancients who created the literature had no necessary compulsion to read it literally then those who use the same scripture today are not under obligation to do so.
I want to stress that there are numerous legitimate reasons for not reading these parts of ancient Hebrew scripture literally. The fact that those who preserved the stories orally for hundreds of years probably didn’t think of them as literal recountings of precisely how the world had come into being is just one of those.
I find it interesting to keep in mind that these celebrations of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 were pulled into relatively final form not as the earliest reflections that would eventually become “scripture,” but some 600 years before Jesus was born while the Hebrews who told these stories and preserved them were at a very low point. They were in exile imposed by Babylon--torn from their homes and their means of working to provide for themselves and their families; torn from their places of worship, their freedom, and the way of living with which they were comfortable. In that sad state of hopelessness, someone pushed, as an antidote to despair, remembering that they were the people of the God who had so carefully created it all. From the get go, the poetic and the prose creation celebrations were theological reflection--not a handbook or a historian’s timeline.
It’s worth noting that the book of Job has a completely different structural conceptualization of the universe than either of the Genesis accounts--not to mention a sense that creation was essentially an instantaneous process. These words are presented by one of the writers of Job as the words of God Godself:
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? (Job 38:3-7 NRSV).
This is quite a different plan than Genesis offers us isn’t it? A cornerstone is laid somewhere in the foundation of the universe. Job thought of the fact that there had to be bases somewhere on which the earth sat. Furthermore, everything came together on a single morning while the stars were singing, and while the heavenly beings--those who, among other things, did the grunt work for God--were shouting for joy. Now, which is the correct description of how it happened? So far, we have two differing accounts in Genesis, and here’s a third from Job. And there are more.
The debate between those who believe in creationism and intelligent design over against those who are one hundred percent evolutionists is a great waste. Even if the claims of the biblical literalists could be affirmed by some set of tools yet to be devised, most of those who affirm evolution would keep on affirming evolution. Conversely, if there could be a set of evolutionary principles affirmed by all or almost all scientists across the board, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the biblical texts are wrong in terms of details, those who believed in literal interpretation of scripture might make an exception for how they read Genesis but would go right along interpreting the Bible literally everywhere else.
Framing these differences as a debate, therefore, is a worthless undertaking. What is more worthwhile is finding people in both camps, as the National Academy of Sciences did, and finding informed people confirming aspects of the claims made by those who embrace the teaching of scripture properly interpreted and those who embrace scientific discoveries. Extremists might listen to the middle of the roaders--which is no promise or guarantee that the centrist positions are true or are correct, but there are more possibilities of getting a broader hearing that way.
I am in the group that believes that God had some role in creation though I think it’s absolutely impossible to know which one or ones. I also think evolution is undeniable, but to affirm with science that evolution is verifiable as to function--even though its initiation can’t, without doubt, be traced back to God--isn’t necessarily a faith statement. The facts, as Karen Armstrong pointed out, that often evolution is untidy is for me no deal breaker. I still think God was and is involved in creation. The title of the hymn by Jane Huber Parker gets my attention: “Creator God, Creating Still.”
Having said that, I must also confess to the fact that how God existed if and when there was ever nothingness in the cosmos makes no sense to me. If God is somehow connected to whatever life is, then did God show up on the scene when there was life, when there was somethingness rather than nothingness? One Christian preacher wrestled with all of this and came up with his assessment: “There is little or no reason to believe that this universe we all know and live within was created by some forces beyond the universe itself.”
No forces beyond the universe itself. Wow.
This month’s online issue of the newsletter for the Center for Progressive Christianity deals with, of all things, evolution versus creation. Their timing couldn’t have been better for us!
In the introductory words to this e-journal, there is the worthwhile reminder that progressive Christianity openly professes an affirmation of other faith traditions, multiple possible spiritual pathways, and scientific inquiry. Without the clear and unmistakable affirmation of science, it’s safe to say that there would be no formal movement known as progressive Christianity. I like very much the reminder there that progressive Christians see religion as a path and not as a dwelling place. Then, the question is asked, “As progressive Christians can we delight in the possibility of an amicable cohabitation of religion and science, an integration and interrelationship of the two, so that both paths are able to resonate with each other, challenge each other, rejuvenate and revitalize each other in ways that have never happened before?” The Center for Progressive Christianity insists that science is more open to religion than ever. How ready is religion across the board ready to embrace science?
A literal reading of any prescientific passage of scripture from any religion will not prepare anyone to embrace what is known and provable about this cosmos as it is. There is no way, for example, that the writers of Genesis could have any notion that our universe is composed of vibrating strings of energy. Many moderns don’t even know that. Yet, everything from the smallest particle to the largest formation in the universe is made from the same kind of ingredient. Energy strings, piles of them, can create a multitude of forms and sounds too.
Here’s an interesting twist: energy strings are related to all other energy strings, even those that define the makeup of some other kind of object or energy with which you thought you had absolutely nothing in common. Those who have been telling us about the circle of life and the interconnectedness of all of life have been correct all along--though they may not have and likely didn’t know the full extent of what they were attempting to describe.
Biblical literalists who deny evolutionary theories because they say the Bible refutes the possibilities may also be in that group who believes that the Earth and its inhabitants are all very young and, therefore, that evolution WAY overestimates the age of our planet. There are those who believe that they can, with Bible in hand, compute the precise age the world was created.
Perhaps the most famous of all efforts to establish an exact date for the creation of the world was one computed by an Anglican biblical literalist, the Reverend James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, which is in Northern Ireland. Ussher's work, Annals of the Old Testament, Deduced from the First Origins of the World, was his contribution to the long-running debate on the age of the Earth. The Christians were no different than others of many faiths and no faith who wondered just how long the planet had been around; it was just that many biblical literalists thought they had the answer right in the Bible if they just took the time to read it diligently and thoroughly enough.
Aristotle had said the Earth had always been, that there was never a time when the Earth wasn’t. There once was a group of Chinese scientists who believed that the Earth was always less than 23 billion years old, since every 23 billion years it is destroyed and then recreated. Some ancient Hindu holy writ proposes a big bang theory a little less than 2 billion years ago and a little more than 2 billion years to go before “Kalpa,” the eternal day that will bring the big crunch.
The Right Reverend Ussher said that God began God’s work on the first day of creation, which actually began at dusk on Saturday October 22, 4004 BCE. He came to his conclusion by carefully dating every major biblical event, which is actually absolutely impossible to do. An English churchman, John Lightfoot, disagreed with Ussher and thought Ussher overshot. The time of year at which God began creating the world was about right according to Ussher, but the year was off; the correct year according to the Reverend Lightfoot was 3929 BCE. Many Jewish scholars going back hundreds of years dated creation in the year 3761, and the Jewish calendar is based on this estimate. The ancient Mayan culture, which is getting big press these days because of what seems to be a predicted end of the world in 2012, dated creation on February 10 in the year 3641 BCE.
Many scientists today date Planet Earth back about 4.5 billion years. Parts of the universe, however, are much older--going back about 15 billion years. Human-like beings existed some 4 billion years ago, but homo sapiens first showed up on the scene about 200,000 years ago. These dates suit evolutionists, but not creationists. Even so, there you have the scientific data.
The Bible dates some events accurately, but it is not reliable as a history book precisely because it isn’t and doesn’t set out to be. For most of the biblical writers who are trying to establish dates, approximations are good enough. If those who put the stories of creation into final form, let’s say the two in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 specifically, had had any concerns about dating creation, don’t you think they’d have included that data in the telling of the stories, in what they passed down to their children as a great story of faith in the God who created the skies and the land, the heavens and the earth? The beautiful creation stories are not, however, concerned with dates at all. They are theological reflections. They are confessions of faith. They are gentle polemics--I think I heard that designation used by Karen Armstrong; this is to say that while affirming God as the Creator, these stories were, at the same time, denying the stories of creation propagated by polytheistic cultures. And there were as many theories of creation as there were cultures. We know this because tons of these creation stories or myths have survived. Those that involve the gods and the goddesses, and not all do, tend to have the world being created in happenstance manner or as an outgrowth of violence among the deities.
One of the beautiful aspects to the Genesis stories is that they credit their God with the will and the power and the creativity to bring such a beautiful world into being. They reject randomness or violence, and instead see God has having planned every orderly detail of creation. Nothing happened by chance; rather, everything came to be as a result of God’s careful planning.
As important as these stories are theologically, they are of no value whatsoever in terms of either history or science. If we try to make them primary sources for either historic or scientific purposes, we turn these beautiful theological reflections and affirmations and celebrations into utter nonsense.
One more thing. It isn’t necessary to have the Genesis accounts of creation or any other parts of the Bible that teach that God is the Creator of our world in order to believe that God was involved. Literalists insist that they can only believe in God as Creator because this is what the Bible teaches. I want to stress that long before there were either widely known or published stories about God as Creator, long before there was scripture of any sort, there were people who believed that the world in which they lived had been created by God, the one God. Similarly, there are those who believe in a purely natural creation of the world--that is without the involvement of any deity or deities--apart from the support of modern scientific theories. There is no reason to try to knock either God or modern science out of the picture; though you should have the freedom to go with one or both or neither in deciding what you believe about the creation of humanity and our habitat. What does not make sense in this discussion is trying to make any part of the Bible a science book. It cannot be that.
So may science and healthy religion be friends and not enemies. Science can never disprove the existence of God and can never squelch the drive in many a human heart to seek its source. Religion can never disprove what science has proven, even if science discovers something unfavorable to dogma and wishful thinking. We do not want a world where religionists of any type or stripe have either the audacity or the power to try to make science, or history for that matter, exist to serve the ends of religion.