I wrote this in a facebook forum where people discuss the implications of science on their religious faith. Naturally, the topic of Genesis comes up frequently, because a literal reading of Genesis seems to contradict so much of what we know about the universe through science. Christianity does have a long tradition of not reading every line of scripture as factual, scientific, or historical. But some modern faith traditions insist that all scripture must be read literally as if it were scientific and historically without error.
The question that inspired my facebook comment was as follows:
“WHAT lead you to believe in this alternative beginning to Genesis and WHERE/WHEN does the Bible start to be the true and authoritative word of God (ie factual, where God says “this is what happened” He means EXACTLY that)? (e.g. chapter_?_Gen/Exodus etc. *I’m just looking for beliefs*”
In the different faith traditions I have been involved with throughout my life, where the Bible starts to be “factual” and one starts to ask if “this is what happened”, is precisely where the Bible becomes untrue and loses its authority.
Approaching the Bible, especially Genesis, as a history or science text is a very modern notion. In these modern times, we expect truth to come in a lab coat with a clipboard with graphs and statistics on it. Whereas, in ancient times, when the grey haired wise elder started to impart wisdom he signaled the importance of it with their equivalent to “once upon a time.”
Throughout history, profound wisdom was seen to be timeless and placeless. It transcended the actual events at any given moment, precisely because it was timeless and placeless. To reduce profound wisdom to any kind of factual story would have been seen to be only communicating part of that wisdom. So many different stories were used to convey it over time. Think of this kind of wisdom as being too profound, too ineffable, to be conveyed linearly like a shopping list, or set of instructions.
A good example would be you trying to truly understand deep into your soul all aspects of human love. There is everything from romantic love, love of children, love of parents, love of country, aching unrequited love, a love that drives one to sacrifice one’s life for others. There is love that can heal and love that can destroy you. And love that can heal the object of that love or destroy the object of that love.
Then consider where you might go to learn about this profound aspect of the human condition. Would you turn to history books or scientists? Or would you turn to the great works of literature, poetry, art, music, and so on. What would the historian or scientist have to offer about love? They both would tell you factual things about love that would be very accurate.
The scientist would talk about the physiological affects of different mental states of some kinds of love. The histoiran would tell you about things that happened in the past that were driven by different kinds of love. All of these factoids would be the kinds of truth that are highly verifiable, but would not really give you the Truth you are looking for.
You would get far more real profound truth about love by reading something like Anna Karenina or some other great work of literature that is meant to transmit wisdom about love. The reason why a work of fiction like Anna Karenina would tell you more about love is because love, like many other aspects of the human condition are timeless and placeless truths. They are inner truths that are woven into our souls in a way that transcends place, time, and events. With some cultural varations, to be sure, our experience of love is the same whether it is taking place in 1st century village in the middle east or in the most modern 21st century urban setting.
And whats more, our own understanding of our own response and feelings about all these aspects of love is obscure, partial, and fleeting. It takes us a lifetime to even understand ourselves when it comes to love. Trying to distill this into wisdom and convey it to others takes 10 lifetimes of accumulated wisdom that cannot be crystallized into a mere series of events or a bulleted list of facts. So when someone is imparting wisdom to us about love, they are attempting to speak the unspeakable (in the sense that it just doesn’t fit into words very well).
So rather than science facts, they have to paint pictures, or create parables, or hypothetical situations that bring out dramatic aspects of love in ways that leave us with strong impressions, vivid imagery and so forth. What they have to do is make us feel what it feels like to be tangled up in a certain kind of love, perhaps the kind where one is driven to sacrifice one’s live for love of another. They have to give us an entire experience in the place of one we have not yet or may never experience for ourselves in our own life. They have to leave us yearning, panting, soaring, in deep agony, or deep joy.
You read a book like Anna Karenina, for example, and those characters and those situations will be like parables such that they will live in your conciousness for your whole life, and as you mature and have different experiences, you will see those same scenes and reexperience those parabolic experiences form different angles with different lighting, and so on. They will grow, thrive, and live entire lives inside your life and continue to turn out more wisdom about love as you come to learn your own internal language about love.
Now imagine reading that book in Tolstoy’s time and running into him in Moscow some snowy evening. You tell him about reading his book and he starts searching your face and listening to your words to see if he managed to convey to you the profundity of his feelings about love to you. He wants to know if his novel truly was able to speak the unspeakable, voice the unvoiceable about love. He wants to know if he managed to transmit directly from his soul to yours that which is ineffable when put into mere words. He holds his breath waiting for your first words about how it moved you and you ask, “Hey, did that really happen?” At which Tolstoy invents the first facepalm.
I chose the subject of love for two reasons. It is a subject that does not lend itself to facts, events, and literal truths. But the most important reason is that the Bible is a love story. And until we see the Bible as a love story, with all the complexity, facets, and visceral soul crushing, healing, terrifying, life giving aspects of love, it is just a collection of silly stories about talking snakes.
The Bible is a story about a love triangle between God, Man, and God’s Creation. The core of it is not creation, but the Resurrection, which is an event that is so profound and dense with meaning that it is like neutron star material, where one baseball sized piece of it weighs as much as a star.
This is a story about a God who creates a universe with creatures in that he loves so much that by chapter 3 it breaks his heart. It is a story about how omnipotence, and godlike love seem to come together to produce a universe that would have no meaning unless it is somehow broken. Where each loving gift that God imparts on its creatures comes with a paradoxical aspect where misery and suffering is possible and inevitable, but somehow inescapable if that gift is realized.
It is presented to us as a conundrum where God cannot create a creation that is separate and “not God” but contains something meaningful without it having consequences in misery and suffering. But a God who loves so much that he does it anyway knowing full well that it will break his heart by chapter 3.
And out of that love, he temporarily abdicates his omnipotence, enters his own creation as a helpless infant creature born in a pig trough to an ignorant unwed mother in the middle of nowhere. He gives himself over to that which he created out of love, submitting himself to the same capacity for suffering that came along with it. In the process he experiences the pain, the love, the anguish, the drama, the mortality, and every visceral aspect of mortal life within his own creation.
He stands on a mountain knowing the Godlike power contained within him. But at the same time, he seems to be locked into some cosmic equation where he cannot use that power right away to make misery and suffering vanish. All he can do is impart to the creatures around him his unfailing and unconditional love. He does a few parlor tricks (compared to creating the universe) to get their attention. He obviously wants to heal everything but the situation forces him to heal locally and sporadically as if anything else would destroy that which he created out of love.
So he heals a blind man but not all blindness. He heals a leper but not all leprosy. And after enigmatically arriving too late to save his good friend Lazarus from death, he can only stand in front of Mary feeling the same pain that she feels, but amplified through his godlike love, and tortured by whatever conditions cause him to have to abstain from fixing it all right away. So God answers Mary’s tears with his own.
And then his love caused him to have to submit to the local authorities overseen by a proud Roman governor of a client state who wonders why he was assigned to this backwater. He allows himself to be brought to accounts by the petty politics and senseless jealousies of a local church council. And he lets them nail him to a tree to die a wholly mortal death in such a way that one organ at a time shuts down systematically in abject pain. And when he finally accomplishes what he means to accomplish, it is in a “kingdom that is not of this world”. (John 18:36)
The message of love to you is that “I am the God who created the entire universe. I understand your suffering, because I submitted to it as well. I promise you I will fix this broken world, but for reasons you wont’ understand, that won’t happen right away. In the meantime, though, sit under this now empty cross and realize that I would give my life over and over again in place of the suffering of each and every one of you. All you need to do is trust in that promise.” In dying, Christ binds our suffering, and our mortality to his suffering and his mortality. And through his resurrection, Christ binds this all to his divinity.
This is why in my faith tradition, we are taught that the proper vantage point for reading scripture is at the foot of the now empty cross, not on the newly minted shores of creation. We are taught that the Word of God is Jesus, the Living Word of God. And that the Bible is relevant only in that it proclaims the grace of the God known to us through Christ Risen. When we meet a new line of scripture that we don’t understand, our question is “what does this have to do with The Resurrection?”, not “did this really happen?”
And when you ask that question, you step outside of time, facts, events and any concern about the size and weight of talking snakes. You step into a domain where facts are useless and only get in the way of trying to understand the impossible contradiction of an all loving, all powerful God who when creating a world with creatures that he loves, it has to be accompanied with the potential for misery and suffering.
God wants you to find these truths and authority in the Bible. Like Tolstoy he is searching your face and your soul in anguish hoping that he has managed to impart something from his soul to yours to ease your suffering and show his unwavering love. Don’t look back into the face of God and ask, “Did that really happen?” You are liable to get a cosmic facepalm for an answer.
So in regard to what I wrote in the comments above, my short answer is, yes, every word of Genesis is inspired and authoritative on the subjects of faith, salvation, and God’s unconditional love. And that goes for the rest of the Bible. But the Bible is not without error, especially in regard to the natural world. But an attempt to read every line as literally true makes as much sense as reading all fiction and non-fiction as literally true.
In some cases it is the right thing to do, such as where the Gospels are assumed to be somewhat journalistic in their accounts of the life of Jesus. But even at that, the definition of journalism and “account” at the time of their authorship is much different than our view of it in modern times. So to force a modern standard of journalism on the Gospels is just what it sounds. It is forcing a worldly modern (and somewhat recent) version for journalism on an ancient text.
When you read the Gospels, it is obvious that each author had a different agenda, a different background and was speaking to a different audience. And probably the strongest of those subjective aspects was their separate agendas. To ignore those agendas is to ignore some more cosmic truth that comes from discerning why those particular four Gospels ended up canonized. We must assume that the canon was also God inspired regardless of the obviously messy political agendas of those who did the canonizing.
So we deny the truth when we ignore that messy process because there is truth in that as well. And we deny the truth contained in those different agendas of the Gospels when we pretend that there are no differences or contradictions in them. What we are doing is forcing them to fit into a modern, narrow, standard for journalism when in fact the Gospels are part reporting and part commentary.
Also, Genesis loses a lot of its meaning when we ignore or deny the fact that the creation story contained in it seems to be ripped off of more ancient creation stories from the civilizations around the authors of Genesis. And given that this part of the world was a bustling commercial and cultural crossroads of all those civilizations, one has to realize that everyone who sat around a desert campfire listening to the Genesis creation story was hearing it in that context. Since at that time almost everyone was illiterate, Genesis is mostly oral tradition as are all the other creation stories from the surrounding cultures.
And knowing what we do from the Bible about hospitality, we know that the groups around those desert campfires contained travelers from all the surrounding civilizations at one point or another. And since local gossip is uninteresting to travelers, what is being talked about is commonality and differences in cultures as conveyed by their national or tribal stories.
Without that context, for example, we miss the meaning of something like this:
“God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. ” – Genesis 1:16.
The lack of drama in this passage is important theologically when read in context to the other similar creation stories. Where the other polytheistic religions see natural objects like the sun and moon as part of their pantheon of demi-gods, or that these things in the universe are operated by demi-gods like some kind of roadie crew. And where these gods are fighting squabbling, and acting like they are in some cosmic soap opera populated by slightly bigger humans, Genesis places a stake in the ground and says, “NO!”
I can just imagine some of those stories being told around a campfilre in the postprandial haze of a good meal. When the foreigner is done with his very entertaining story of how this god fought with that god, the night gets quiet as everyone is contemplating that. And the Israelite simply and quietly says, “NO.” And the conversation stops as they here him quietly pray in his own language, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam”(Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe.) And he proceeds to tell about the one true God in very non-anthropomorphic terms. This is not a God here to entertain us with drama. This is single all powerful God who simply speaks creation into existence. He tells them your sun-god is nothing more that a light that God sticks in the sky ini passing, placed there for its utility. And that moon over there? Created with just a word. “MOON” and the one true God simply sticks it in place on the dome of the firmament for its utility.
In this one simple line of scripture all the demi-gods in the surrounding theologies are reduced to “utility lights”. The implication here is that your moon god is not a god at all but just a nightlight so we can find our way to the latrine at night. Genesis is a both a polemic (a complaint against some other theologies) and a grand statement of a new theology.
So it goes on like this. The more we understand the context, the history, the messy human aspect of how the Bible was written and who wrote it and where, the more we can pull out the profound wisdom that is being transmitted to us. But the more we see it as an account that was dictated verbatim to Moses as a science and history text, the more we reduce it to a vacuous collection of things to memorize or something.
In my faith tradition, the Fall is hugely important theologically. It does help us understand why Jesus’ death and Resurrection was essential, but not in the way that you might think. The Fall and the Resurrection are still the cosmic bookends, but man’s culpability in bringing sin into the world is not considered an event so much as a statement of the unperfectable human condition and man’s relationship with God because of that.
Seeing The Fall as a description of the human condition (and this is a separate topic of its own, I think) it does not rely on the event itself actually occurring. A literal and historic Adam and Eve only get in the way of the profundity of what is being transmitted to us in the form of an allegorical Adam and Eve
One more thing that is important is that what I have been saying is not my peculiar version of Christianity. The things I have been saying would find themselves at home in the sermon of most of the mainstream denominations that represent about 90% of the Christian world. I say this not to intimidate but just to point out (to quote and mangle Shakespeare), that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your theology.
What I mean to say is that there are about 1.8 billion Christians worldwide, just like you and me, who range from casual church attenders to monks and nuns and people who have given their life to devout and faithful service to God who subscribe to rich, deep, and long standing theologies that do not insist on a literal interpretation of Genesis. And they are as sincere, faithful, and as truth seeking as you and I.
So I invite you to come and question those of us who are here, and also those who are accessible in other faith communities near where you can investigate how they view Genesis in a way that might be different than yours. Or what they consider as true vs what they consider as factual.
I will leave you with this Native American phrase that they sometimes use when they tell their wisdom stories. “I don’t know if this happened or not, but I do know it is true.”