Is Genesis Myth?

Thankyou to Tony for his comment on my last post in which he brings up the approach taught by most Catholic Schools in Australia to the first 11 chapters of Genesis. I have come across these ideas before, and I think they are becoming so widespread in the Catholic Church they deserve some attention. In some circles, this approach is called the New Theology and basically jettisons any claim that any of the events in the first 11 chapters of Genesis ever actually happened. That’s everything up to and including the Tower of Babel, so for them, the real history begins with Abraham, and all that came before is called a ‘myth’, which, as Tony points out, may not necessarily mean what you think it means!

The concept of a myth is a very fluid one it seems. CS Lewis has much to say on the subject of ‘true myths’ in some of his essays (can’t remember exactly which ones) in which he more or less concludes that the purpose of a ‘myth’ is the moral or message, and that whether the myth actually happened or not, or whether it happened a little differenty is really of no great importance. I suppose you can think of the parables of Jesus which clearly were fiction, but intended to convey a lesson. Lewis of course was talking generally, but I think that the Catholics are applying a similar approach to the first 11 chapters of Genesis.

I think there are problems with this sort of approach. Once you start categorising bits of the Bible as possibly not having an historic basis, where might this not lead you? I wonder if an extension of this kind of thinking is responsible for people like Episcopalian retired Bishop John Shelby Spong rejecting any historical miracles of Jesus, together with the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and Ascension and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum you have stubborn fundamentalists who insist that every word of the Bible must be taken as absolute literal truth (LITERAL being the crucial word here) and thus, for example, deny any possibility that the universe is older than about 6,000 years, in contradiction to lots of pretty solid evidence and to the fact that the language of Genesis in no way insists upon this kind of interpretation.

We have to learn from the mistakes of the past. The medieval Church in the West had no business decreeing that the earth was the centre of the universe – what right did they have to do that? The Church is responsible for spiritual knowledge and teachings. The people look to the Church for guidance and wisdom about far more than just spiritual life, but the Church must always resist the temptation that such respect brings and never go outside its limits of competency. On a smaller scale, a parish priest is often asked whether to take this job or that, or to invest in this project, or send the kids to this school. He has a responsibility to make it clear to those who ask for such advice that any advice given is that of a friend, not that of a mouthpiece of God … unless, of course, God has told him otherwise đŸ˜‰

Sure, one can draw inferences from the Bible about the laws of nature, but they will always be nothing more than guesses, and we must beware of giving them the status of Infallible Truths or putting them on a par with the doctrine and dogma of the Church. Science is always changing. If we as a Church throw our lot in with evolution, or the Big Bang, or even quantum physics, there is bound to come a time perhaps centuries later when these things will be superceded and the Church will be left with egg on its face, much as happened in the great crisis over Gallileo and Copernicus. There is no need for this, especially given that the Bible does not seem terribly interested in giving humanity the natural secrets of the cosmos – rather, it is occupied with the spiritual secrets of truth and love and holiness. We must accept that just because we are a Church, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to know everything and have the answer to every question! There are times when the only honest thing to do is to admit we don’t know. Which brings to mind a nice proverb: “He is wisest who knows himself for a fool”.

So, yes, my favoured approach would be to say simply something along these lines:

“The science, as far as it goes, can be comfortably accomodated within the Bible’s framework. But that’s all we can say. Whether the science of today describes reality fully and accurately is not a question for the Church to answer – it is for time to answer.”

Fr Ant

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4 Replies to “Is Genesis Myth?”

  1. Liked the summary at the end. I think it was a really good point that “time” is usually the test for all scientific models, laws, hypotheses etc. etc.Even Newtonian physics have been superseded by Relativity etc.

    I think Augustine argued similar things.

    I looked up “Myth” by Lewis, because I was interested in what you said about the concept of the word ‘myth’ as fluid and it was in his book ‘The Problem of Pain’. Obviously you were right; but just wanted to quote for those who are reading in (I don’t know, but I find it interesting, because I always thought ‘myth’ as unhistorical).

    He was talking about our tendency towards sin, and I am really glad you mentioned this because it is a nice passage:

    “Thoughts undertaken…are continued as if they were an end in themselves, and then as if our pleasure…our pride or celebrity were the end. Thus all day long…we are sliding, slipping, falling away- as if God were, to our present consciousness, a smooth inclined plane on which there is no resting. And indeed we are now of such nature that we must slip off…it is unavoidable, may be venial. But God cannot have made us so. The gravitation away from God, ‘the journey homeward to habitual self’, must, we think, be a product of the Fall. What exactly happened when Man fell, we do not know; but it it is legitimate to guess, I offer the following picture, a ‘myth’ in the Socratic sense, a not unlikely tale.”

    Sorry the quote was huge. The note for Socratic sense, was what you said Abouna, “an account of what may have been historical fact. Not to be confused with ‘myth’ in Dr Niebuhr’s sense (i.e., a symbolical representation of non-historical truth).

    Thanks for answering, Abouna. I really appreciate it.

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  2. Abouna, I am in need of your blessings.

    I have been struggling with how us Orthodox revere icons. I have read things like “it is Theology in colour”, “it is our personal Photo Album of our Family in which we have been adopted”. etc.

    But, then I read this description of the famous picture, those that follow the Eleousa pattern, by Archbishop Rowan Williams (who is non-Orthodox!):

    “The child Christ embraces Mary, cheek to cheek, his arm encircles her neck, one foot is thrust toward us as if he is pushing himself up against her body with great energy, and his right hand grasps the corner of her veil. In some later versions…he has one hand fondling her chin….This is a child who cannot bear to be separated from his mother. We have seen that God is not ashamed to be our God, to be identified as the one who is involved with us; here, though it is as if he is not merely unashamed but positively shameless in his eagerness, longing to embrace and to be embraced. It is not simply that God will deign not to mind our company; rather he is passionate for it. The image of God’s action we are presented with here is of a hungry love.”

    This description completely changed the way I look at icons. I now try to look at the details and meditate on it. Just thought that some day I wish to hear from you (haha sorry Abouna!) about the message behind icons, because I feel many people like me have missed opportunities for spiritual reflection. I mean the icons are all around us, but the spirituality is often neglected or taken in face value. I am sure you have some blessed words to share about the spirituality of icons.

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  3. And we see God is not ashamed to be our God, this is interesting, he won’t be ashamed for in his will we were made.

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  4. As men, we have the tendency to sin but God had a purpose for us and so had to make another plan to redeem us. True that time defines the actual motion of things and we are glad you quoted this. Let season reveal the myths for understanding. Blessings from God to you for sharing.

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