It all began with a police escort. Not the world, of course, but my understanding of just how important the question of origins had become to ordinary Americans. It was the spring of 1998, and the culture wars were heating up. In northern Alabama, they were sweltering.
My business partner and I had driven to the Dekalb County school district to provide court-ordered in-service training to about five hundred teachers on the subject of religion, including the teaching of creationism. Governor Fob James had declared war on the First Amendment, and we were caught in the cross fire. As I pulled to the curb, the police—and the protesters—were waiting for us.
“Wow,” I remember saying, “we should have worn our flak jackets.”
My partner smiled. “Yeah, it looks like there’re more protesters outside than teachers inside. Maybe we should just start the training out here.”
We should have seen it coming. A year earlier and two thousand miles to the west, we had strolled into a California gymnasium packed for a school board meeting on the same set of topics. The town had become so divided that the pro-creationism people sat on one side and the anticreationism people on the other. Writing school policy was becoming a blood sport.
Today the battle has spread to virtually all fifty states, and despite the court’s unequivocal decision to stymie a pro-creationist school board in Dover County, Pennsylvania, other cases are still pending. But before we get bogged down in the latest court decision, let’s take a step back and examine what our religious traditions actually teach us about the origin of life.
The Christian and Hebrew scriptures begin with a bang. Not the big one of twentieth-century notoriety, but a bang nonetheless. It’s a double bang, really, since the book of Genesis contains not one but two separate creation stories.
Bet you didn’t know that.
The first and more familiar story is contained in Genesis 1 and begins with these simple yet elegant words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The writer, most likely a priest, then proceeds with one of literature’s most familiar stories. It is cast in the form of a poem and may even have been sung in the early Hebrew community. And, like most poems, it was never intended to be taken literally.
Come to think of it, no one should be entrusted to interpret Scripture who doesn’t have a poet living inside him. Jesus sure did. How else could you talk about camels passing through the eye of a needle or God’s concern over the lost sheep of Israel? Those surely weren’t literal sheep. So, why, then, must it be a literal twenty-four-hour day?
The truth is that the word your Bible translates as day doesn’t always mean a twenty-four-hour time period in Hebrew. It is also used to describe time periods of undesignated duration. Epochs, even. There’s nothing to say that God couldn’t have put natural forces into effect that took millions of years to reach fruition.
Then, there’s the name given to the man in the story. Adam is the Hebrew word for all of mankind, not an individual’s name like Abraham or Ezekiel. If we’re supposed to be taking this story literally, why didn’t the writer give us a real name?
If you’re still not convinced, there are even more obvious cues that this is not to be taken literally. Light is created before the sun, moon, and stars. Think about that for a minute. The earth is flat with waters under it and over it. The waters over it are held out by a clear dome or “firmament.” (To a prescientific mind, what else could account for the sky’s blue color if not water?) Later, in the book of Malachi, we learn that this firmament has windows in it that God opens from time to time to let down the rain. (There must be water up there for it to rain!) The first creation story culminates with the creation of mankind, whom God creates “in his own image” (“Male and Female created he them.”)
The second creation story begins in Genesis 2:4. (Remember, the chapter and verse designations were added centuries later.) This writer lacks the poetic flair of his priestly counterpart. He shortens things and switches around the order but in the end gives us a new story that men couldn’t resist, so it gets grafted onto the first creation story as if it were part of the original. It is the story of woman being created from the rib of man and her subsequent role in introducing sin into the idyllic world God created. She does this by enticing the man to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. Handy stuff for a patriarchal society bent on keeping women in their place. It’s worked so well, in fact, that as recently as the 1980s, a Southern Baptist Convention resolution justified the denomination’s shabby treatment of women by referring to their being second in creation yet “first to sin.”
Both creation stories, though different in the detail, tell us two important things about how life came to be. First, God did it. We are not here by accident. There is a mysterious, creative force in the universe we call “God,” and all of creation—including man—stand under his dominion. Second, life is good. And if anything seems screwed up, it’s our fault, not his. (Note to self: The next time tragedy strikes, don’t ask why God allowed this. God allows everything. It doesn’t mean he approves.)
Some readers may be surprised to learn that these stories in the book of Genesis are not unique to ancient literature or to Judaism and Christianity. Several creation stories actually predate the Genesis accounts. In one of my favorites, a dragon literally vomits the world into existence. The great Hebrew prophet Isaiah, speaking centuries later, refers to the dragon in a passing slap, saying simply that the Hebrew God “cut him to pieces.”
If the creation stories of Genesis are not intended as literal scientific accounts, how do we use our twenty-first-century knowledge to make sense of what God is trying to tell us here? More specifically, how do Darwin, the big bang, and punctuated equilibrium fit into a worldview that says we are not here by accident?
First, to the extent it helps us understand how life came to be, scientific study should be encouraged, not feared. Healthy religion seeks the truth. Certainly Jesus encouraged truth seeking when he told his disciples, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free!” Rabbis across the ages have done likewise. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides put it like this, “One should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.”
Think about what Jesus and Maimonides are saying. Perhaps religion and science have nothing to fear from each other. At least if they are true to themselves.
Science and religion operate in different domains. Religion deals with what theologian Paul Tillich called “ultimate concerns”—abstract philosophical questions such as what the nature of life is and why we are here. Religion seeks meaning, purpose, and moral truth, not physical knowledge.
Science, on the other hand, seeks to understand the natural, observable world around us. Unlike religion or philosophy, the claims of science are falsifiable. That is to say, they are capable of being proven or disproven. Scientific progress is only made as its hypotheses are rigorously tested, analyzed, and refined.
While science asks us to accept nothing on faith, religion asks little else. No one can prove whether there is one God or many gods or whether God’s spirit is alive in a particular human being, but we can most certainly prove whether the earth is six thousand years old or six billion years old. In short, science is an essential tool to understanding the world in which we live. Science cannot, however, tell us how to live or answer our ultimate questions.
As dominant as science has become in our world, we might be tempted simply to discount anything that is impervious to its probing finger, including religion, but that would be a mistake. The truth is that the things we care about most deeply—starting with love—lie beyond the reach of science.
Consider again the question of origins. If, for example, scientists are able to take us back to a big bang, nagging questions remain. Why did it all happen in the first place? For what purpose? What does it all mean? How should we then live? Only the philosophers and theologians can help us here.
Occasionally scientists venture outside their discipline and into the realm of theology. Carl Sagan was guilty of this when he opined that the cosmos “is all there was, is, or ever will be.”
Says who? Or, better yet, prove it!
When scientists give in to the temptation to address ultimate concerns, the result is “scientism”—philosophy masquerading as science. Sagan’s statement is no more scientific than that of the fundamentalist preacher who claims that God created the universe in six twenty-four-hour days.
Similarly, religion can masquerade as science. Consider the Christians who ask public schools to give “balanced treatment” to creationism and evolution. Creationism is not an alternative scientific theory. It is a nonfalsifiable claim that a divine being intervened in the natural order to create life. Calling a cow a billy goat doesn’t make it one, and calling creationism “intelligent design” doesn’t make it any less religious. It’s still a nonfalsifiable claim that a supernatural force (which by definition is one coming from outside the natural order) accounts for life on earth. Intelligent design is just creationism in a suit.
Forcing science teachers to teach a particular theological view is like a judge instructing a witness to testify that the light was red whether the evidence supports it or not. Science teachers must be free to teach their discipline without the constraints imposed by one religious view or another. Hard, factual truth is the objective, not preconceived notions about how life came to be.
So, is there any common ground when it comes to what should be taught in the nation’s public schools? Yes. The answer seems to lie in simply teaching about the controversy. Tell kids the truth! Students should be taught the predominant scientific view, no doubt, but they should also be alerted to the fact that not everyone agrees. Not even all scientists agree! A small minority of scientists consider the evidence for evolution to be spotty and unpersuasive. We shouldn’t give them equal time, but a liberal education demands that students be alerted to their views and to the ongoing debate about how life began.
When science and religion stick to their respective realms, all of society benefits. Science helps us understand the world around us, and religion helps us make sense of it all.
In this case, good fences really do make good neighbors.
Copyright © 2007 by Rev. Oliver Thomas. All rights reserved.