Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Bible Cannot Answer Scientific Questions

For over a century debates have raged over the ability of the Bible to tell us about the world, particularly how the natural world, and beings that inhabit this world, came into existence. These debates have only continued the arguments between science and the Bible that started with the 17th century Scientific Revolution when Galileo challenged a literal reading of the words of scripture by showing that the sun, and not the earth, is at the center of the universe, and that the universe functions because of mathematical laws. Yet, in our politically charged culture, the conflict between the Bible and science seems more heated than ever.

The issue, as I see it, seems to be whether the Bible can answer the questions of science, and whether science can actually prove the Bible, as some think. Of course, at the heart of the current conflict is the contentious debate between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious belief in creation. The challenge of science to faith has become so threatening that attempts have been made by some who hold to a literal reading of Genesis 1-2 to use a form of pseudo-science to propose a theory known as intelligent design; but at its core, this teaching is only a refurbishing of creationism. The problem with this view lies in our misunderstanding of the first chapters of Genesis as a basis to prove the idea that the natural world was literally created in seven days from nothing.

Admittedly, I am not a scientist, so I cannot speak about scientific theories in much depth, and certainly not in this brief article. However, as a biblical scholar, historian, and theologian, I can address what I see to be the problem from an interpretive and theological point of view.

First and foremost, we must understand that the narratives of Genesis were written by ancient humans, who, without the skill of modern science, sought to explain their world and the origins of the natural world from a religious viewpoint. Genesis, then, was the ancient Hebrews’ story of their beginnings and the origins of the world and humanity as they saw it from their theological, but not a scientific, point of view. Like other ancient peoples, the Hebrews justified their religion and their view of the world by telling their creation story, which detailed how the world came about as an act of their God.

In the case of the Hebrews, the Genesis narrative was an attempt to define their God as the only God of the universe, who is transcendent, and who, in God’s infinite wisdom and power, created the physical world, including humanity, which is literarily represented by the characters of Adam and Eve. Thus, the beginning chapters of Genesis are theological narratives that express how the Hebrews viewed their God as supreme over other gods, a theme that continues throughout the Hebrew Bible. But the Genesis narratives are not scientific accounts or explanations about natural phenomena, and they cannot support such a literal reading. Doing so misses the point.

Does this view dispel any notion of God? The answer to this question is simply no. While some who hold to evolution as the answer to the origins of the natural world do dismiss the idea of a divine being, science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Alternatively, neither can the Bible prove that God exists. The Bible can only describe how ancient people of faith, Jews and Christians, understood God. A belief in God comes only through faith.

Is evolution a threat to the authority of the Bible? The answer is again no. The Bible is theological literature, written by ancient people, who wrote from the perspective of their religious faith and how they understood the world, humanity, and the divine. The creation story from Genesis is a theological explanation of the world from a monotheistic Hebraic perspective, but it is not a scientific explanation.

What does this mean for people of faith living in a world of scientific knowledge? It means that we must approach the Bible not as a scientific document, for the scriptures cannot answer our scientific questions. Rather, we must view the Bible as a religious text that shapes the way we live in the world, and we must interpret the Bible theologically, investigating what it says about God as the ultimate reality and how we should live out the image of our God in our world.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Seeking the Truth Demands Questioning our Faith

Anyone who knows me very well, knows that I am adventurous when it comes to asking questions about the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith. For me, no question is off limits. I am a person who is not completely satisfied with the common idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it. I am extremely open to new ways of thinking about the Bible and theology, for in my mind Jesus’ statement that the truth will set you free is the hallmark of our quest. Yet, there are specific reasons why I also encourage others to ask such challenging questions.

One reason for my determination to raise critical questions about faith, and why I encourage others to do so also, is that I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition in which queries about the Bible and faith were not appreciated. This was particularly true when one tried to ask questions about the inconsistencies found in the Bible, or when one tried desperately to harmonize a belief in a good God and yet the reality of suffering. As a teenager I was told that such questions are not important, and even dangerous to ask; only knowing Jesus and believing in him were necessary. I became satisfied with this answer until a later time when I began to discover the intellectual obstacles one encounters when approaching the Bible for clear answers. It was then that I returned to ask those serious questions, which opened more questions, and which eventually led to evolutionary, and indeed revolutionary changes in the way I view the Bible and the Christian faith.

A second reason for my critical approach to the Bible and faith is that I perceive a regrettable weakness in the way many churches see the Bible. More liberal minded churches have almost abandoned the Bible as a source for faith and life. While they may read from it in worship, many of them see little or no value in looking critically at the Bible for the basis of theology and practice. I have not reached that point in my Christian journey. On the other end of the spectrum, more conservative traditions have emphasized the hypothetical inerrancy of the Bible, holding a view of the Bible that completely ignores the discrepancies in the Bible, and more importantly, the long and complicated history of the Bible’s transmission and translation. For these Christians, if the Bible says it, then it must be true. I have moved from this position, which I was taught at a younger age. But neither the more liberal nor the more conservative positions are tenable in my mind.

A third motive for my critical look at the Bible and faith logically follows the second in that an insufficient education in our faith, and in the Bible on which our faith is based, has led not only to biblical illiteracy as many people do not know the Bible, but more tragically, to ignorance when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological thinking. Most Bible study groups do not seriously consider the complexities and conundrums inherent in reading ancient texts. Instead, they focus on how we as individuals can improve our lives, and the discussions usually center on what the Bible has to say to me at this point in my life. While this is important for people of faith, it is secondary to delving deeply into the text of the Bible. Failure to do so will only lead us to assume what the Bible says, or to make it say what we want it to say without giving careful thought and attention to the text itself.

Over the next few weeks I will be raising some questions about the Christian faith, and primarily about the Bible. Obviously I will be writing from my own perspective and from my own experience of thinking about these issues. Many of you will disagree with me in part or altogether. I embrace such dialogue, for I appreciate diverse views as long as they are supported with rational arguments based on evidence. I have given many hours, days and years to considering these questions and to seeking answers based on available evidence. I will not claim to be the last word on these issues, and my mind often changes, but if I can persuade my readers to think more seriously and critically about their faith, regardless whether we come down on the same side of the theological fence, then my ministry in this area has been effective. After all, I am convinced that Jesus was right when he said, “the truth will set you free.”