Last week the big religion news, at least as far as the secular press is concerned, was the debate between Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” and Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum. Part theory and part theater, the debate was between a man who seems not to have enough appreciation for modern science in its varied forms, and one who seems not to have enough appreciation for modern Christianity in its varied forms.
Whether or not one believes in evolution, any cursory study shows that both science and theology themselves are constantly evolving.
I’m no scientist, but I have kept up a bit with science news over the last few decades, especially as it relates to origins of the universe. Big Bang, string theory, colliders—all look for categories and pathways to understand cosmology. Will scientists 100 years from now still cling to the exact same theories their predecessors now hold? Maybe, but I doubt it.
It’s the same with religion, a field in which I have a higher comfort level of understanding. Since we’re discussing Christianity’s view of ancient themes, we have to come to terms with the fact that those thoughts don’t often translate exactly into modern times. Galileo’s contemporaries in the church had to decide whether or not they could accept his findings that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Many decided they couldn’t. Today, one would find few people, even those with the most conservative views of biblical interpretation, who don’t believe this “modern” fact from the 17th century, despite the reality that a so-called literal reading of Genesis clearly says that the earth was created before the sun, moon and stars. You have to do a lot of creative theological and scientific choreography to make those two concepts (a “literal” reading of the Genesis poem and the astronomical evidence) dance together.
A clearer and more responsible biblical theology is to admit a few things up front.
• The books of the Bible were written in a particular time, for the people of that time. Ultra conservatives complain that scientists focus too much on modern thought, when they ought to be focused on ancient history and tradition. But it seems to me the worst kind of modernism insists that the ancients had us in mind when they spoke and wrote down their traditions. No, they were writing for their own communities, and perhaps for a generation or two down the line. They wouldn’t have cared a whit about writing something that today’s scientists could hang their hats on.
• Even if they had been interested in science, they were writing theology. Not the how of the origins of everything, but the how come. The beauty and depth of the writings come alive only when one reads the texts as they were intended: expressions of faith.
• Literalism isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. We should redefine biblical literalism to mean “reading each section of the Bible according to its particular genre of literature.” Since the opening chapters of Genesis were written in poetic form in their original Hebrew, we do far better to read them as such, rather than as God’s DIY manual for how to make a universe. Even in the most clunky English translation, the poetic movement finds its way through if we let it.
The Apostle Paul is not considered (by anyone) to be a bastion of 21st century thinking. Nevertheless, he was modern enough for his time. I thought of him last week and what he might say to the “followers of Nye” or the “disciples of Ham.” I think he would have told them to calm down, to listen with both grace and critique, and to remember that neither has all the answers.
For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Let’s leave behind a false dichotomy between science and religion. It’s a creation itself. Moving into the future, we can allow science and religion to join hands and shed their perceived differences. A faith informed by science is a more rational endeavor, and a science informed by faith is a more moral enterprise.
Galileo himself said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” [Brainy Quotes]
And as the writer of Genesis imagined it, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
© 2014, Melissa Bane Sevier