[Note: Today’s post is a continuation of yesterday’s. In response to a comment on yesterday’s post I’ve put up a Page over on the right called REALITY. It gives an extended “systematic ktismology” of how the creation of the heavens and earth could refer to something other than the creation of the material universe. Now on with the jeremiad… ]
Our exegesis preserves the literal truth of a particularly treacherous passage of Scripture without discounting the findings of modern natural science. Not only that, but it turns out that Genesis 1 describes the creation of natural science itself. We haven’t merely reopened the Platonic real-versus-ideal dispute that distracted Biblical exegetes for more than a thousand years. The material world exists, and not just as an imperfect representation of pure idea. Neither are ideas pure and eternal forms rendered imperfectly in minds. Ideas are created by thinking, imagining, perceiving beings trying to make sense of the world. For the Greeks science was a kind of revelation, an insight into the perfect and immutable forms of which nature is but an imperfect reflection. In contrast we see the elohim of Genesis 1 as an early empiricist trying to understand the world on its own terms. According to the traditional interpretation the creation narrative puts the sheer power of God on display; the new interpretation emphasizes God’s intelligence and imagination. Rather than being an aloof conjurer, God reveals himself as a teacher – an image that’s consistent with the lawgiver of the Torah and especially with the Jesus of the Gospels explaining the Kingdom of God to his small circle of disciples.
Creating a way of making sense of the data without doing violence to the data itself: this commitment to imaginative realism, in conjunction with the widely-acknowledged ethos of workmanlike perseverance, fueled the creative and economic boom of the Western world. The Scientific Revolution, far from being a reaction against religion, was the most obvious manifestation of imaginative realism as applied to the natural world. Kepler wanted to be a Lutheran Minister; Newton devoted much of his time and energy to Biblical exegesis; most of the important figures in the development of a resolutely empirical science were Protestants.
Suppose people begin to accept the idea that Genesis 1 describes the creation of science. A test of blind faith, a stumbling block, a proof text of religious irrationality – Genesis 1’s prominence would begin to recede in the contemporary creation-versus-evolution debate. The literal truth of Scripture would be preserved without invoking literary genres in which literal truth doesn’t count. Even traditional theism can be preserved: Genesis 1 might not describe God’s creation of the raw material universe, but that’s not to say he didn’t do it anyway. Even for Judeo-Christian believers the timeline and sequence of the creation narrative have always posed interpretive problems; now, with this obstacle removed, the faithful could agree to disagree about when and in what order God actually did the work, what methods he used, and how long it took him to complete the job. Of course we haven’t even touched on the second chapter of Genesis, a text that seems to offer an alternative creation story which many interpreters deem incompatible with Genesis 1. Perhaps the revised reading of Chapter 1 would shed new light on Chapter 2 as well.
The specific irony of the new interpretation wouldn’t be lost on evolutionary scientists. How richly fitting that the Biblical creation story should describe not the creation of the physical universe but the creation of natural science. Emissaries from an advanced civilization teaching Cosmology 101 to a protohuman tribe: scifi-savvy scientists would have no trouble recognizing in themselves the image and likeness of elohim. In a dramatic reversal, religious conservatives might abandon their efforts to dilute scientific education in the public schools, instead embracing empirical science as a distinctly Judeo-Christian calling.
But things won’t turn out that way.
Believers in the Judeo-Christian God are unlikely ever to abandon their belief in God as creator of the material universe. Even if they accept evolution, even if they reject creation science or intelligent design, they will not reject the idea that behind it all, beyond all scientific probes, God set everything in motion and holds everything in place by his power. But perhaps the fatal blow to the new interpretation’s potential impact on creation-versus-evolution is the belief, firmly held by theists and atheists alike, that Genesis 1 is a narrative about God’s creation of the material universe.
Central to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is the worship of an all-powerful God; in that religious reality, Genesis 1 is a message about, and from, that God. Jews and Christians have long acknowledged factual contradictions in all the proposed literal readings of Genesis 1. Remarkably, even some evangelicals have begun to read the narrative figuratively. The new generation of evangelical exegetes treat the creation narrative as an archaic literary form in which the writer had no intention of conveying scientific fact – a poem, say, or a saga. What then did the writer intend to convey? That there is an all-powerful God who created the material universe. Now a new reading of Genesis 1 comes along, one that treats the text as a straightforward and accurate depiction of a historical event. This new reading suggests that the Genesis 1 narrative describes an event other than the material creation. Evangelicals are faced with a choice: preservation of Scriptural literalism, or preservation of the traditional underpinning of theism. Guess which one is going to win the day?
Evolutionary scientists, on the other hand, may dismiss the new interpretation of Genesis 1 as a last-ditch attempt to salvage an obsolete religion by subsuming all of science under the mighty hand of God. Attributing the initial creation of science to God is to invoke a supernatural intervention – a “skyhook” in Dennett’s terminology – to account for a completely natural development. Empirical science explores the impersonal forces of nature; in that scientific reality, Genesis 1 is relevant primarily as an ideological impediment to the widespread acceptance of empirically-tested and generally-accepted scientific conclusions. Just as an exegesis of Genesis 1 that doesn’t unfold within a theistic framework is meaningless to the Judeo-Christian religious reality, so too an exegesis that doesn’t speak directly to the origins of the material universe is meaningless to the reality of modern science. Our reading of Genesis 1 doesn’t fit well in either of these dominant realities. We read the text as if it was literally true – an evangelical foundation stone – but we leave open the possibility that the creator might have been a group of gods, or even a group of humans. In our interpretation God does not create the material universe in Genesis 1 – an acceptable conclusion to evolutionary scientists – but we don’t debunk the inerrancy of Scripture or the possibility that God might still have created the physical world. From inside the theist and atheist meaning systems there’s nothing in the new exegesis to grab hold of. It’s irrelevant, meaningless, unreal.
The most likely outcome, then, is that both sides in the creation-evolution debate will ignore the new interpretation altogether. It’s not the next iteration in the argument; it doesn’t clearly support one side or the other; it doesn’t even split the difference. If we wanted to make sure people paid attention, it might have been shrewder to embed our exegesis in one of these larger realities. There’s nothing to be gained by playing it coy: in an already-heated debate, strong partisanship sells. We’ve entered the controversy neither as theologians nor as natural scientists but as creators. Within a creators’ reality it’s not clear what the debate points are, let alone which side we support. The new interpretation of Genesis 1 is an anomaly, misaligned with the zeitgeist, difficult to classify or interpret according to any of the prevalent worldviews. Generally speaking, anomalies are doomed to obscurity.
TOMORROW: The Creation of Hermeneutics