February 26, 2006
More thoughts on Genesis
The responses I have had from various commentators on the subject of understanding Genesis have made interesting and lively reading. I doubt we will ever agree on everything, but I think we certainly have some common ground on some of it.
There are two things that I always keep in mind when I am reading the Bible. First, that I am reading a translation, and, while I am not a Hebrew or Greek scholar, I do speak, read and write two other languages besides English and can make some progress in at least one more with the help of a dictionary, a patient speaker or a written text to read from. So I have some understanding of the difficulty of conveying the actual meaning of something from one language to another. Secondly, I am conscious of the need to understand the society and the people who wrote the original. All to often we try to associate the written word with our own understanding of society, rather than the society from whence it came. This is perhaps especially true of the Pentateuch, but it applies equally to the rest of the Bible. To truly understand it you need to understand the culture, the people and the events that wrote it, create it and gave rise to it. This is why the Islamic Faith regards any translation of the Quran as "informative, but not authentic!"
I think that what has brought this home to me more clearly than anything else, is having grown up in Africa, and having had the opportunity to observe the tribal cultures at first hand. Seeing that, and then seeing the desert tribes and cultures of the Near and Middle East certainly brought home to me the need to see much of what is written in our version of the Bible in the context of the peoples who lived it and wrote it. That is not to say that it is not God inspired, for that it certainly is, but I do say that it is interpretted and written down in the imperfect understanding of humanity and therefore may not be the entire story - after all, our lifespan is but a second in the endless time span available to God.
Does it matter to me whether a word means literally "a day" or some span of time measured in millions of years? Does it matter to me whether "Adama" - literally "Men" - and "Eva" - literally "women" - were created in one movement or at the end of a long evolutionary chain. No, it matters not one jot, because what does matter is that we are, through Jesus Christ, the adopted Children of God, redeemed through His death and Resurrection and living today in the full and glorious hope of the life everlasting.
The arguments over the apparent conflict between the geological and fossil records and the story in Genesis are an irrelevance if we believe that God tells us what is true and correct, since to argue that the fossils and the geological evidence were "created to mislead us" suggests that God is capable of lying and deceit. If that were to be true, then all of the Bible could be nothing more than an elaborate deceit - and that is not a God I am prepared to contemplate - much less worship. Scientific advances are, after all, yet another gift of God, He made us to be His companions according to Genesis and so would want us to strive to expand our horizons. Even the most arrogant among us should be prepared to admit that the more we learn, the more we discover that we have to learn. Therein, surely, lies the real purpose of science.
It is only by seeing the links between the evidnce, the scriptural accounts and by bridging the gaps with great leaps of faith that we can begin to understand the whole. To do otherwise is to remain, forever, locked in ignorance.
Posted by The Gray Monk at February 26, 2006 09:25 PM
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I think you are right to suggest that we should accept scientific evidence at face value. However, I would suggest that there are distinctions between personal experience, scientific data, and scientific hypotheses.
Personal experience, for a normal person, occurs within a broader context that includes not only particular observed phenomena, but also numerous peripheral facts. Peripheral facts may include historical knowledge, theoretical knowledge, knowledge from other observers, or personal feelings. Deciding what it means entails prioritizing and categorizing, and maybe filtering out some things, and probably never reaches a firm conclusion. This, I would say, makes up most of what a normal person takes to be "true." I think this is the process you describe.
Scientific data, on the other hand, deliberately exclude peripheral observations in order to control results. Too much contextualizing leads to unscientific speculation and unprovable theories. Data have no particular meaning in themselves.
Scientific hypotheses follow rigid logic in order to ensure that all independent variables are accounted for. This necessarily limits their scope, because it is hard to account for more than a few independent variables at a time. Hypotheses are not "facts"; they are explanations. Hypotheses are also not "true" or "false"; they are either tentative or they are disproven.
I submit that a hypothesis about what happened in the past is merely a story that should be accepted at face value. It is a provisional explanation propounded by fallible men, based on an imperfect understanding of a limited number of independent variables. Placing undue stress on the need to accept it is, I think, to ascribe too much wisdom to the thinking of men.
Posted by: David at February 28, 2006 09:32 PM