Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Genesis: Exegesis, Creation, and Science

St. Augustine once wrote, "There is knowledge to be had, after all, about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude and distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones and everything else of this kind. And it frequently happens that even non-Christians will have knowledge of this sort in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now it is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one's guard against at all costs, that they should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian literature has to say on these topics, and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be toto caelo, as the saying goes, wide of the mark."

This brief statement can serve as a most useful preface for a reading of Genesis, as well as for the relationship between faith and science as a whole. The entire Genesis narrative opens with fantastic poetry, a creation account written in the genre of myth and which, as Augustine puts it, "should rather be discussed by asking questions than by making affirmations." We as readers must possess humility to approach the narrative, not as something that we can easily grasp at a moment's notice, but something to be approached again and again in a spirit of inquiry. The temptation to go with our gut reaction, to either wholeheartedly embrace the Genesis narrative of creation as literally true or to reject it as a scientifically invalid and irrelevant fable, is a mark of our own flawed belief that we should be able to immediately understand the mystery of scripture.

There are plenty of atheists and agnostics who have rejected Christianity because of this misunderstanding of scripture. We as Catholics have a long tradition of understanding the different meanings of scripture: the Bible does not talk to us in a single, monotone voice. It uses a variety of different voices, sometimes talking to us about literal events and sometimes using poetry, storytelling, and fables to teach us about God. These spiritual senses allow us to avoid the danger which St. Augustine warns us against of assuming that Genesis is meant to be a science textbook.

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." The doctrine of creation ex nihilo is the recognition that God neither made the cosmos from some pre-existing matter, nor did He fashion it from His own indivisible essence. We believe that He made all things, seen and unseen, and that this creation was both superfluous, in the sense that it was freely made, and that it was truly given its own nature and integrity. God is fashioning something new.

Science has sometimes questioned the relationship between God and the universe. As we have discovered more about our universe, we can again face the temptation of immediately assuming that we can understand it totally. It is tempting to believe that we can somehow discover the essence of the universe through reason alone, to dispense of God and to trust in the fruit of our intellect. But the humility of Sacred Scriptures teaches us that whatever else we may learn about the universe is always an incomplete part of a much larger picture. There is a mystery here, a recognition that the reality of the universe exceeds our ability to comprehend it. The mystery of creation does not deny that we can learn about the structure and history of our world. It does not limit science from continuing to bring us new and important insights about our biological history, evolution, and the earliest moments of the universe. It does prohibit us from assuming that these descriptions, however true and elegant, do not constitute a complete understanding, and we believe that the full meaning of the universe can only be found when the findings of science are paired with the insight of faith. In this way, the story of our faith functions as a context of science, like the setting of a play.

"The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters."

The poetry of Scriptures brings us the powerful, even haunting image of complete chaos: the deep waters of unformed creation. These deeps waters are brought to life by the Spirit of God, rushing over the face of the waters like a mighty wind, tossing up great waves. There is something both magnificent and horrifying about the ocean; the recent tragedy of the tsunami in Japan brings to mind that although water can be life giving, it can be destructive as well. Over the next six days of the narrative, God will form an ordered universe out of this chaotic void. We do not believe these days to be descriptive of literal historical events, but rather as a poetic blueprint of the ordered universe God created; although I would like to note that there will always remain something of the nature of the "deep waters" in creation. We know that creation, like a great body of water, can at alternate moments be tranquil and serene, but that in a moment's notice it can become powerful and dangerous.

Science probes the nature of this ordered universe, and it stands in testimony to a universe that has elements of serene order while still remaining ultimately mysterious. On the one hand, science functions to categorize nature, to find links and relationships, and to inasmuch as possible sum up the interactions of the universe in concise laws. But on the other hand, nature frequently eludes any final, definitive understanding. Science is frequently renewed by revolutionaries like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, who each saw that the universe was a much broader, wilder place than contemporary science gave it credit. We are likely to see these revolutions continue, as we continue to find that the wildness and wonder of creation remain just beyond our full scientific grasp.

"Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day."

St. Augustine believes this light is a spiritual light; it is just as well that there is an accompanying spiritual darkness. Christian theology is full of references to both light and darkness, to the theology of the light of Christ that has come into the world as well as to the night of our souls as we wrestle in the dark with the mystery of God. We rely so much on sight as the primary way we learn about our world. There is a real sense in which physical light is our guide to the earth, and those who have never been blessed with sight or who have lost it must valiantly thrive without it. So, too, there is a spiritual light: God has made us capable of understanding the world as something ordered. As Genesis continues, we will see this theme of spiritual light return: the gift of faith, which will allow us to believe in things unseen.

This brings to mind again the good work of faith, especially in regards to science. Science focuses on the seen; it guides our understanding of physical phenomena, it works through experiment and observation. It can tell us nothing of spiritual realities. While in this secular age many have rejected traditional religions, it is a testimony to our nature as embodied souls that many of these still continue to pursue some form of meaningful spiritualism. We love stories of the supernatural. We eagerly search the heavens, hoping to contact enlightened beings who may be able to help us make sense of our universe. When someone rejects the cult of the saints, it is just as possible that they may make a cult of science, or sports, or celebrity; anything to find something transcendent and truly meaningful. The Catholic Faith teaches us both to take pride in Christ, to certainly rejoice in the gifts He has given us and to stand fast in our beliefs, but it also instructs us to be humble, to recognize that we have not yet achieved a full understanding. We can be students to all, for even the atheistic scientist may have much to teach us about our role in God's universe.


  1. Yawn.

    Good luck on your surveys.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Mr. Geo:

    Of all the world's fowl, I've always found the call of the loon to be the most persistently strange and annoying, although it is remarkably effective at drawing other loons from great distances to join it.

    Maybe if you yell, nyah nyah loud enough, or tell Ellis that his mother wears army boots, you'll egg him on enough to get him to take you seriously again and help you to spread the call of the geocentrist far and wide.

    Good luck.

  4. I appreciate the support, Dale. Rick will simply not receive any more attention from me unless he somehow manages to scrape together a more reasonable and respectful set of arguments.