Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Reverend Reads the Bible

The Praxis Institute, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Church of the Orange Sky, is pleased to present a revolutionary new perspective on the Christian Bible. The Church regrets that its authorized spokesman may have erred in representing one of the links in a previous post. Please be assured the individual in question will be stoned as soon as possible to preserve our honour.

An update to my previous post - The Sword of Gryffindor, which I linked to in the previous post, has prepared some lengthier reflections on the "culture war" with respect to Harry Potter. I think the suggestion of stepping away from the usual liberal-conservative categories has some merit. Kudos to the people who didn't see this as a big deal, and to the ones who used it to suggest a future beyond "culture wars." The religious right has begun to grumble a little, too - Laura Mallory thinks this is further "indoctrination" into "anti-Christian values," and people at the "Values Voters" summit think the injection of homosexuality into the series makes it too "political." I'm fascinated by how making a character gay makes him (or her) intrinsically "political," when him being implicitly heterosexual was politically irrelevant. In any event, this is hopefully the end of my present interest in Harry Potter and I will say no more about it, except perhaps to note that my frustration in this case applies in similar form to people hunting for homoeroticism in The Lord of the Rings or Fight Club.

A message from one of the Mad Reverends - I've found what could have been our blog's anthum, though sadly we had nothing to do with the production or distribution of it: WWJD? (A Music Video). Asinine, hilarious, and heretical, all at the same time - ideals to which I also aspire.

This blog has sort of a disturbing pattern: both of its mysterious authors both vanish for months on end, popping up only when their frustration with world events reaches a boiling point and they need to bitch about corruption, sexuality, school killings, and various other marginally depressing topics. This proposes a problem for the exaggerated hopes of the Church of the Orange Sky, which now finances this project in the belief that Jesus Drives an SUV is going to spearhead a revolution in North American Christian culture. A new Cultural Revolution, if you will, except without Red Guards or Maoist personality cults. At the very least, the Mad Reverends' Cultural Revolution will require more frequent blog posts.

Fortunately, as a semi-Christian writer, I can always resort to writing about the Bible. There's thousands of chapters in it and it's a constant subject of conversation on Sunday mornings (not so constant at other times of the week, mind you). Back when I first became a Christian, a well-meaning youth pastor gave me a free copy which I studiously read from cover to cover, trying along the way to convince myself of the absolute truth of the contents. Occasionally I suspect I should read it again, with the benefit of a little more maturity and ability to think critically, though I usually get rather bored after stumbling about in the Old Testament for a while. Nevertheless, while on one of my many periods of procrastination lately, I sat down and re-read the first few chapters of Genesis. I'll start there and see how far I get this time. In the meantime, you're welcome to my thoughts on the contents, some of which is even more difficult to accept than I remember it being.

The fact that the Judeo-Christian creation myth is the first story in the first book of the first Testament of the Bible creates considerable difficulties for me, since it means that I have to develop my view on the inerrancy of the Bible – as well as what the Bible really is, if it’s not the inerrant word of God – right off the bat. Of course, as a reminder of the fact that the Scriptures have been ineptly manipulated by human hands in the centuries following the original writing of them, here we’re also treated to a curious chapter placement: notice that the second chapter of Genesis begins in the middle of the first creation story, rather than a few sentences later, when we move to the second creation story.

For someone simply looking for Scriptural inconsistencies, it doesn't take long to hit paydirt. Genesis 2 is a very different story of the creation than Genesis 1, because this story has man created first, followed by plants, which are followed by animals. From a literal perspective, these accounts are probably irreconcileable. One of the more widely referenced contemporary evangelical propaganda websites, Answers in Genesis, argues that “Jewish scholars” understood verb tenses based on context, so the problem vanishes, apparently assuming that our own translaters are therefore incompetent at reading ancient Hebrew, which is very disappointing. In any event, this is irrelevant because Genesis 2 actually notes that “the Lord God formed the man” at a time when “no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth,” a statement which has nothing to do with verb-tense context. In Genesis 1, the “trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds,” and other plants, were created on the third day, before even the sun was created; in Genesis 2, the garden (with its trees) appears after the man. Answers in Genesis further explains that Genesis 2 is a “recap” which might not present events in “chronological sequence,” since it is “a more detailed account of the creation of Adam and Eve and day six of creation.”

My real problem with the six-day creation, however, is not that the Biblical account of it has some textual enigmas, but that the whole process really does not make a great deal of sense. The worldview which lays behind the creation myth, and almost certainly would have belonged to Moses himself even if modern young-earth (and even old-earth, to some extent) scientists are desperately trying to find an adequate reinterpretation, is clearly the work of a cosmology alien to our own. The Scriptures say that the Earth was initially “formless and empty.” God created “light” ex nihilo and then “separated” it from the darkness, so that there was light for part of the day but darkness for the rest of the day. He does not actually create the Sun until the fourth day. This would mean that God not only created the Earth before the Sun, but that in the absence of the Sun he created some other source of light, with the Sun existing only to provide order to the procession of day, season, and year.

Next, God creates an “expanse between the waters” above and the waters below, which is called the “sky.” Where the waters above eventually go I’m not sure, since the universe is not filled with water at present. After he creates the plants, he creates “lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night,” and to “mark seasons and days and years.” These are “governed” by two “great lights,” the sun and the moon. Of course, the moon is not really a light at all: it is a giant rock which serves us as a giant mirror. God created only one “great light.” Finally, once all this work is finished, he creates a large number of animals and plants which coexist with one another, despite the fact that they never do so again throughout our entire fossil record -- including primitive organisms, dinosaurs, and human beings.

What emerges from Genesis 1 is the creation account of a people who saw a flat Earth, surrounded by water hovering above the sky; an Earth-centered universe with an uncertain span beyond this solar system (beyond which there are billions of other stars and millions of other galaxies), in which the sun and moon were lights which “hung” in the sky above the Earth. It would be simplistic and somewhat immature to now rush forward with new scientific evidence that the Earth is not flat, and in fact revolves around the Sun, which is one of an uncounted number of stars in the universe with dubious claims to uniqueness. The most obvious method of discounting these differences is that Moses simply related the creation of the world as he saw it, which was from an imperfect human perspective we today do not share. To this, more traditional Christians have in the past responded to me: if that's true, how can we trust any other part of the Bible? Fair enough, if "trust" is earned through some sort of Enlightenment-inspired textual examination of the Bible as a single flawless unit.

It has to be said that, unsatisfying as this may seem, this is the point where old earth creationists and many of the current crop of young-earth creation "scientists" have to abandon pretensions about Biblical inerrancy. If they don't use the above argument, they have to instead argue that Moses didn't actually understand the real truth of the stories he was writing in Genesis. That's a disturbing argument given the questions it raises about the relationship between God and humanity (including the humans who wrote the Bible), and it's one which most people want to drop later on, when it becomes more convenient to say the author can be ignored because he was tied down by a particular cultural context (i.e. the argument we use to dismiss many of Paul's various statements about the subjection of women within the church).

Can we decide now, long after the fact, that Moses is dead and we can read into his words whatever "godly" meaning we wish? The Statement of Faith of the denomination in which I am currently nominally a member, the Canadian Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches, believes that “the Bible [is] the complete Word of God… as originally written… [and] verbally inspired by the Spirit of God and entirely free from error.” I’m not entirely certain what it means to “verbally inspire” a text, but it seems to imply that God determined the selection of the words used, as well as their meaning. The Biblical authors (so far referred to here as "Moses," though it could have been damned near anyone) thus become the unthinking channels through which God’s language is communicated. If this is true, then God has told humanity statements which appeared at times to be untrue. I should stress that I can’t disprove the fact that the earth was created in six days in the manner described in either Genesis 1 or Genesis 2: I simply have no reason to believe it. This, perhaps, is the root of the disagreement, and really there is no way past it. I simply do not believe that the creation event in Genesis 1 is what really happened, over the period of 144 hours at an unspecified point in history. I cannot “choose” to believe such a thing simply because it is in accordance with accepted doctrine, and frankly, I would look with suspicion on anyone who was able to accept something as truth simply because they were told to by an institution of the church.

It is possible that people such as myself are the targets of the “science” being practiced by members both of the old earth and the young earth creation camps. However, in many ways I find these even less useful. In my experience, neither a conversion nor a faith that is based on human interpretation of the geological past is likely to be deep or enduring. This is because ultimately my relationship with God is and always has been based on an experiential awareness of the presence of the Lord; what I consider “knowledge” has been subject to that awareness, rather than the other way around. I do not believe that Christianity is likely to win many converts by arguing that it has a scientific account of the history of the planet.

Speaking of science, that branch of human activity is normally the observation, identification, description, investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena. A scientific hypothesis is an inference which can never be proved; it may be supported by observation and evidence, and it may be disproved when this evidence contradicts the thesis. Today's creationists take the opposite approach, beginning with the creation of the world by God and then casting about for evidence to support a chain of events in keeping with their predetermined conclusion. Yet this ignores the fact that our religion is by definition a non-scientific thing: God is not a physical, natural phenomenon and thus should not fall within the jurisdiction of scientific investigation anyways, just as we would not attempt to share the gospel through the instructional manual for a toaster oven.

Particularly in the case of the Old Earth investigators, then, creationists tend to slide towards the seemingly more appealing alternative of simply arguing that the other options available to us – namely, the theory of evolution – are irreparably flawed and must be discarded, even if there is not a better theory currently available. Most such arguments derive from some variant of the notion of “irreducible complexity” – that is, that aspects of life and nature are so complex that they could not possibly have arisen without divine intervention in the form of some sort of creator, or at least intelligent designer. The fact that presentations of this theory usually require misrepresentations of what the actual theory of evolution is does us no credit with many of the audiences we are attempting to persuade, and even when it does, I do not believe that the Christian faith should ever be – or should ever need to be – spread through intellectual dishonesty. Neither did St. Augustine, incidentally, who, in similar circumstances, complained that

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.

A little like Augustine's idiots, some of the young earth crowd go further by developing seemingly sophisticated theories to explain a scientific method of divine six-day creation. This is hardly new – some geological catastrophists used to argue that most of the Earth’s features were established in the Great Flood, and most young earth types still do – but it has expanded to include more smoke and mirrors. Barry Setterfield, for example, has amassed some frankly confusing arguments that the speed of light (and therefore time) declines over time, allowing more human history to happen in a year in 2000 B.C. than a year in 2000 A.D. Extremely conservative groups, such as Rapture Ready, frequently attribute their failures to the hardened anti-Christian attitude among scientists, and sometimes go so far as to claim that many scientists want to come forward with the evidence which disproves evolution but are being repressed by the atheist academic establishment. It is true that this establishment is and always has been reluctant to accept new ideas that fundamentally change existing theoretical frameworks, but there is more at work here: the “scientific” case for creation is largely limited to the claim that evolution does not work, and that the remaining “gaps” must be the result of divine intervention. This is not a scientific "theory" and we should not bother to pretend that it is: as I remarked before, the tools of science are inappropriate for the religious and spiritual task which we have set for ourselves.

Some of my brethren would doubtless respond that my conclusion about Genesis 1 and 2 is unacceptable from a Christian perspective because it casts doubt on the reliability of God’s Word. This is often coupled with the claim that dismissing parts of the Bible is the first step on a slippery slope leading to the rejection of the entire Bible. My answer to this is very simple: I first trusted the gospels through the influence of the Spirit of God, and I never felt compelled to believe in the accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 in the same way. I struggled to do so when instructed to by the church, and ultimately concluded that belief does not follow from obedience. Furthermore, I simply do not believe that the Bible is some sort of unitary machine made up of innumerable cogs and pulleys and belts; I do not believe, therefore, that pulling out one or two of these cogs is somehow going to “break” the Bible.

If I have dismissed their historical validity, is there still religious meaning in the accounts of creation in Genesis? Perhaps there is. A Jewish philosopher from the first century, Philo, argued that “it is quite foolish to think that the world was created in the space of six days or in a space of time at all”; to Philo, Moses’s creation account was an allegory of God’s perfection. Mind you, Philo also thought that the number of days were chosen to represent mathematical perfection. Three centuries later, the somewhat unconventional Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria, also rejecting a literal reading of creation, wrote that “I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance and not literally.” Many of the early Christians, too, saw the story of creation as an allegory for God's love for and salvation of humanity.

At the end of the day, though, I don't find much meaning in those statements either. The creation question has ceased to have any real meaning for me one way or the other. I hadn't really realized I would conclude with that somewhat nihilistic observation when I started writing this post. I suppose it means I will have to submit a resignation to my old church on the grounds that I no longer accept their statement of faith, though in fairness I should have done that quite some time ago, since this is hardly the first serious disagreement I've had with that silly little document. On the bright side, this liberation will bind me closer to the Church of the Orange Sky, which is the profitable postmodern future of all good religion.