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 😉

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

The Evolution Enigma

Last Night’s CCP Meeting was on the question of evolution. An intriguing and often highly emotional topic, it is one of those areas where, supposedly, science and fatih clash.

I’ve been doing a little bit of reading on the topic lately, and I have found there are a few conclusions that I think one is safe to draw about the current state of affairs. Please allow me to share them with you.

1. Evolution as a scientific theory is elegant, relatively simple, and in many ways quite a beautiful concept, if you look at it from a purely scientific point of view.

2. Looked at against the wider background of our existence, it can be a very ugly concept. I have no doubt whatsoever that some of the worst atrocities committed by humans in the past century were justified, whether consciously or subconsciously, by an evolutionary world view. Hitler’s purification of the German race is an attempt to take control of evolution. What gave him the right to do so? Because he was the “Fittest” and it is the fittest who should survive. The deaths of millions in the gas chambers is no more than the necessary by product of this law of nature, and we should not weep over it. Or so he thought.

3. Evolution still has many gaping holes. We started to look at some last night but time constraints meant we had to leave the rest for another session. Chief among the unresolved issues are the incredible probabilities against putting together DNA in the right sequence merely by chance, the vexed question of how the first life could possibly have arisen, and the lack of any sensible mechanism for the introduction of new genes into an organism’s genome. There are more, but these are my favorites.

4. Even if one day it should become apparent that evolution is the true cause of life on Earth beyond a shadow of a doubt, I cannot see how this would affect our faith. The Bible is interested in telling us what God did. How He did it is really His concern, and although we get a glimpse, we must not expect to be able to understand His ways. I still can’t understand how my mechanic diagnoses and fixes problems in my car, much less the mechanism of the Creation of the whole Cosmos! But to me, if the universe really can produce life all by itself, naturally and without any supernatural input, that would be an even greater miracle. I might be able to get some wood together and build a chair. Sure it would take some time, and it would probably wobble, but I think I could do it. What I don’t think I could do is build a machine that builds chairs without any help from me. Now that’s hard! So if God built a universe that can produce life without any supernatural input from Him, that would be a far greater miracle than if He had built each species individually.

5. There is, however, the case of microevolution as opposed to macroevolution. Macroevolution involves one species evolving into another species, and as such requires whole new genes to be inserted into the organism’s genetic code. There simply is no known mechanism for this to happen in most cases, and there does not seem to be any possibility for us finding one. But Microevolution involves the slightest fiddling with the existing genetic code, such as that which produces a tall or a short person, the colour of your eyes, or the resistance of bacteria against an antibiotic. Microevolution is implied in the Bible since all the different races of humans in the world are descended from just one family of eight people (Noah’s family). Clearly, all the variations between races must have arisen by a mechanism such as microevolution. But there is no evidence that I can see that can overcome the need for whole new genes in macroevolution.

6. Many people accept or reject evolution for reasons other than the actual science. If you want there not to be a God, you can use evolution as way of supporting your case that He didn’t have to be around to make us. And equally, if you want there to be a God, you can find the many, many holes there are in the theory of evolution. So how can one come to a genuinely objective Truth? I’m not sure anyone can. I admit freely that I am biased. I believe in God, for many other reason, and so I come to the evolution question expecting God to be a part of the true answer. And I find more than enough evidence to fulfil that expectation. But the fact is that the jury still out. Evolution is not fact, not macroevolution, anyway. So until we find unavoidably compelling evidence one way or the other, I suppose people will continue to choose their side on the basis of other factors.

7. I don’t think we should be ‘afraid’ of evolution. Sometimes Christians speak as though there was a demon called evolution, and we must not dabble with evil spirits, so stay right away! But evolution is not a demon, it is an idea, and ideas have no personalities or motivations. They can be right or wrong, they can tend towards causing evil or good, but in the end, they are just ideas. I think it is good for a Christian to understand the concept of evolution well, and to also be aware of all its shortcomings.

In the final analysis, our understanding of our universe is constantly changing, constantly being updated as new information becomes available. Personally, I suspect that in a few hundred years’ time the theory of evolution will have been replaced by some other explanation that we cannot even imagine today, much as Gallileo could not possibly have anticipated quantum physics.

But I don’t think I’ll be around to see it. Then again, by then I will be occupied with far more important things…

Fr Ant

www.stbishoy.org.au

Thoughts on Evolution and Creation

Thankyou to those who have sent in such interesting and thought provoking comments to my last post. Here is my two-cents worth…

The Catholic Church and some varieties of Protestant Churches (non-evangelical ones) have moved officially towards accepting the Theory of Evolution as the process God used to create life on the Earth. I would note that even if this turned out to be true, it would still have no effect whatsoever on either the accuracy of the Bible or on our Christian faith, for as Tony points out, the Old Testament has been interpreted allegorically since the time of Origen in the 3rd century BC.

However, there remain some fatally serious problems with the Theory of Macro Evolution as an explanation for life on earth. Among these are:

1. How did life begin?

2. How can huge chunks of very organised information be spliced into an existing genome by mere chance?

3. How can incredibly complex systems, such as the mammalian eye or the clotting cascade in the blood, evolve gradually when in fact the absence of any one component of that system renders the whole system useless? (This is the basic premise of the “Intelligent Design” movement.)

And there are others. A recent court case in the USA ruled that Intelligent Design was not science. I believe that ruling was flawed, though, since the case was not really about whether ID is science or not, but about whether it should be allowed to be taught in Science classes in schools. Clearly, there is a much deeper political agenda involved in the second form of the question, since there is a strong backlash against the “Christian Right” raging in the US at the moment. Most people saw this as just one more way that the Christian Right was trying to impose its standards on the very government of the land, and fought bitterly because of that reason. I read the judgment (you can google it easily) and it seems to me quite biased, though framed in perfect legalese of course.

Atheists in the US have made quite a fuss over this judgement, which they see as some kind of proof that ID is fantasy. Personally, I would not go to a Judge to tell me whether God created the world. Why should he know anymore about it than anyone else? As someone pointed out to me recently, scientists have no more knowledge of philosophy or the laws of logic than anyone else, yet those like Dawkins present themselves as being authorities on questions of religion, which are not scientific question at all, but philosophical ones.

There are different forms of Creationism, and yes, our Church does not subscribe to the literal form that says the world was created in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago. I would firstly note that any dogmatic assertions about the creation are not to be trusted – none of us was there! And the only One who was there did not give us a modern scientific account of events, but an account intended to help us understand who we owe our existence to. Anything beyond the actual words of the Bible is interpretation, and you will find good interpretation and bad interpretation, but it is in the end, on this matter, nothing more than interpretation.

Personally, I have no trouble fitting any current scientific theory into what Genesis tells us. There are some discarded theories that I would have certainly had trouble with, such as the Steady State Theory of the universe, that said that the universe has no beginning and no end, but that it has simply existed forever. This would be in direct contradiction to what Genesis plainly tells us: “In the beginning, God created…” The fact that scientists were literally forced by the facts to accept that the universe did have a beginning (rather than existing forever) is to me one of the greatest vindications of the truth of Genesis and of the Bible as a whole.

All comments welcomed!

Fr Ant

Skin Story

Helping my son in Year 10 with his Science homework can be a bit of a brain strain for an ageing parent! But he recently pointed something out to me I thought was quite beautiful. It has to do with the way our skin protects us from the dangerous radiation of the sun.

The pigment that gives your skin its colour is a chemical called melanin. The cells in your skin that make melanin are called melanocytes or pigment cells. Built in to this system is a parable of our salvation…

You see, when you are exposed to ultraviolet light, when you spend a day at the beach without sunscreen for example, the ultraviolet radiation damages your skin cells. Especially, it breaks down the DNA inside them, the genetic “machinery” that runs every cell in our bodies. Now DNA is made up of number of smaller molecules, the ‘bricks’ as it were from which it is constructed. When the UV radiation breaks it down, the bricks get scattered about. One of those bricks is a chemical called Thymine (this is different to the vitamin called Thiamine).

There are many things that can stimulate a pigment cell to make more melanin, and guess what? One of them is Thymine! So when the scattered Thymine meets the pigment cell, it switches on the melanin factory, and melanin production is speeded up. This melanin is transported up nearer the surface of the skin where it acts as a shield against UV light (that’s why dark skinned people hardly ever get sunburnt – they have heaps of melanin in their skin). The skin gets darker, you get a suntan, and the rest of the skin cells are protected from the lethal UV radiation.

So in essence, the dying skin cell, the one destroyed by the UV radiation, gave its life in order to save the rest of its fellows from suffering the same fate.

Isn’t that a beautiful parable of the love that Jesus showed us in dying for us that we might not suffer eternal death? Isn’t it a beautiful illustration of the kind of love that the Christian should live every day, sacrificing him/herself for others? And it’s built right into us.

Dare I say … it is a message that really gets under your skin

(sorry)

Fr Ant

Roof Ruminations

Those of you who know me might know that I am interested in the stars.

The sky at night has always fascinated me, ever since I was little. I could lie for hours on my back on the ground just gazing up at that velvet dark blue canvas with the multitude of delicate sparkles of light and occasional faint wisp of silvery mist. I can totally agree with the Psalmist who wrote The heavens declare the glory of God …

I find many things to think about when I look at the stars. Their distance astounds me and humbles me. The closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, a little over 4 light years away. That means that the light we see from it today left the star over four years ago, in 2003, and has been shooting towards us all that time a tthe speed of light (300,000km/hr). The furthest objects visible in the most powerful telescopes, quasars, are 12,000,000,000 light years away. How big is the universe? Unbelievabley, mind-blowingly, unimaginabley HUGE!!! So how big are we, the great human race? We are nothing. We could blow up our whole planet and the universe wouldn’t even notice – we’d be no more than mosquito’s sneeze in the grand tale of time.

That’s a good thing to remember, for we sometimes think we are the centre of the universe. Sometimes we even think that of ourselves individually, not even as a human race. That’s just not true. The greatest among us is still no more than a little blip in this cosmos. Again, the Psalmist asks God What is man, that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You visit him? We could extend that to ask, What are the problems of man, that You should care for them? Yet God does care. The God who made this big, big universe shows me His love by caring for my tiny little problems in the midst of this huge cosmos, and I find comfort in the fact that He who moves the galaxies can solve my little problem pretty easily.

Lying on the ground at night, gazing into the depths of space, you can sometimes convince yourself that you are indeed on the surface of a planet hurtling through the void. Yet night after night, as the sun hides his shining face and the little specks of light begin to peek from behind their veil of light, you find they have not moved. In our lifetimes, the stars do not move. Planets do, and the moon does, and perhaps the odd comet or so, but the vast multitude of the heavens is there, day after day, unchanging, unmoving, fixed in their places, it seems eternally. No power hungry dictator, no mad scientist, no crazed anarchist can ever change them, or even touch them. It makes you realise just how feeble we are on this little planet, but I also find it a greatly comforting thought, for it reflects the unchanging steady nature of God Himself. I find the stars reassuring every night, in their regular places, and so also God reassures me every day, as I move through my human phases while He remains always a solid rock to navigate by.

Next time you happen to be outdoors at night, take a look up at the sky, and remember the One who created it for us, the most incredible roof anyone ever designed …

Fr Ant

The Atheist Crusade

Thank you Tony for your comment and the links you suggested. I found the Alvin Plantinga essay very interesting. He very accurately indentifies some of Dawkins’ most glaring errors of method and logic, but his arguments in response range from the totally convincing to the pretty shaky.

Alister McGrath has written a short book in response to Dawkins’ The God Delusion in particular which is pretty strong, but a little too short! However, his previous books on the general topic of Atheism in the 21st century will satisfy the hunger and curiosity of those who want a deeper and more detailed dissection of the emptiness of today’s atheist philosophy.

One of the main faults in all of these atheist evanglists’ position is a very simple ignorance of a critically important fact: they insist on claiming that they, and all of “Science”, are totally objective – like a computer or a machine or a methematical equation. they believe that when they consider evidence they do so without any bias and with a pure and undiluted cast-iron commitment to finding the truth, whatever that truth may be. Even if they don’t state this in black and white (some do, some don’t) you can see it in their words and attitudes as clearly as you can see the sun on a sunny day. This, they believe, gives them a sort of credibility that sets their conclusions head and shoulders above those of others who are silly enough to still have religious faith.

My problem with this is that no one, no human being is that objective. Our nature does not allow us to be, and those who come closest to it have to work incredibly hard on themselves for years to build into their thought patterns even a semblance of true objectivity, when it comes to questions of philosophy or theology. One of the more objective atheists I have come across are mathematician Roger Penrose and Mind Specialist Sir Robert Winston, both of whom have a healthy respect for those who reasonably hold religious views, and both of whom cringe at the kind of bombast that people like Dawkins put out.

The fact is that whenever we look at a piece of evidence, we are doing so with a raft of pre-assumptions. Those pre-assumptions must necessarily colour the conclusions we draw from the evidence. Our minds are too limited to be able to genuinely consider ALL the possible interpretations of a given set of data, so we take the easy way – begin by considering the interpretation you feel most comfortable with, and see if you can make it work somehow. We will only ever take the considerable trouble of testing out alternative interpretations if our first interpretation is proved totally wrong.

The history of science (and the practice of science today) offers a myriad of examples that prove this is universally true. You need only to look at the lengths to which Ptolemy and his intellectual children went to prop up the theory that the earth is the centre of the universe. For 1,500 years, the most incredible gymnastics of the mind were required to explain how the sun, moon and planets move in the sky, assuming they all orbit the earth. Even when Copernicus came up with the simple (and true) explanation that the planets and earth all orbit the SUN, the scientific establishment of his day rejected it. Why? Because his theory didn’t work? NO, it worked just as well as Ptolemy’s in predicting where these heavenly bodies should be. Because it was too complicated? No, it was far, far simpler than Ptolemy’s model. The simple fact is that the greatest minds of that age had other reasons for wanting the earth to be at the centre of the universe, and this bias prevented them from seeing the truth.

If scientists today wish to pretend that they are free of any such bias, then it is truly they who are deluded. You need only read Dawkins’ opinions on religious organisations, his utter contempt for people who have a religious faith, his characterisation of religions as child abusers because they teach their children to follow their faith from a young age (I am not kidding – he devotes a whole chapter to this accusation), to understand that he is anything but an objective scientist. He has a huge weight of prejudices that clearly affect his judgment. It is the prejudice, not the evidence, that makes Dawkins so strong a defender of atheism.

Of course, this means that those on the other side of the argument are also prejudiced. Yep. That is true. But the difference is that we know that, and admit it to ourselves and to others. Yes, a Christian is biased towards believing in God – it’s called faith. We have to have a prejudice of some kind, and we happen to have chosen this particular prejudice for a raft of good reasons that I won’t try to squash into this little blog. But the fact that we know that we’re prejudiced, that we admit it, and that we even know exactly what the nature of our prejudice is, means that we can allow for it in our examination of evidence. And, we can ask ourselves honestly, “If I didn’t have that prejudice, would I see this evidence differently? And if so, how?”

Again, I emphasise: it is only because we know our bias that we can control for it. A scientist like Dawkins who is unaware or refuses to acknowledge his bias cannot control for it, and will therefore often draw the wrong conclusions. This is exactly what he has done in The God Delusion.

PPFM

Fr Ant