Today, I want to start commenting on the Creation story in the bible – Genesis 1 & 2. One of the big controversies of our day is the assessment of scientific evidence vs. the literal reading of Genesis.
I will state my position immediately: I believe in the assessment of scientific evidence; I do not believe in a strictly literal reading of Genesis. I do think, however, that Genesis 1, 2 & 3 are perhaps the most profound religious texts I’ve ever read. I think that a Christian can gather most everything necessary in our Faith just from these three chapters, if they understand them as they were intended to be understood. And there is the key: they must be understood as they were intended, not as I want. I am saddened that a minor controversy is today a red herring, directing us away from the intended meaning, which is so rich and deep – I think we can contemplate on these three chapters for many lifetimes.
I believe in the idea that Sacred Scripture has multiple senses. Ordinarily, there are four: literal, analogical, moral and eschatological. The literal is the face-value of the text; the analogical is a deeper meaning, using the literal as analogy to spiritual things (usually Christ); the moral leads us to action; the eschatological directs such actions to the right end. These four senses of Scripture are well-known and have been a standard of Scripture study among Catholics as long as there have been Catholics.
Oops – I should qualify that last sentence. Frankly, most Catholics don’t study the bible. Due to old, historical wounds, many Catholics think reading the bible is a Protestant innovation and that we should only get our Scripture from the Liturgy. It is true that there are more and more Bible Study groups in Catholic churches these days – the old prejudice is dying away. But, at the risk of over-quoting St. Jerome: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” (Comm. on Isaiah). Do you want to know Jesus, the Word made flesh? Then study the Word of God; He is the same Word.Anyway, back to the four senses. I do not think the literal sense is properly understood these days. We forget that the bible I have on my bookshelf is not really the bible. The bible is composed of Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek, written millennia ago in a far-away time and place. It made sense to those people of that time and place. The book on my bookshelf is a 20th century translation into modern English. Not only has it passed through the filter of the translator’s mind, but it loses countless literary techniques only possible in the original text. Those literary characteristics are, I believe, critical to understand what is trying to be said. For example, in Gen 1:2 there is mention of “the Deep.” That thing called the Deep is very, very important in ancient Hebrew cosmology. Modern English bibles translate it as the deep or the sea or the waters – so much meaning is lost when you simply pass over this, as most do. But these primordial waters – outside of time and space – come back again and again in Scripture with shades of primordial context. Even the water of Baptism carries this ancient meaning; shouldn’t we understand it better? Why does St. Paul say we were buried with Christ in baptism (Rom 6:4 & Col 2:12)? What does that mean to us? What does water have to do with burial and death? The ancient Deep was a place of the dead; water has a double meaning, related to death and life. It all goes back to Gen 1:2. This is part of the literal sense. Is it necessary to believe in the reality of ancient Hebrew cosmology? No. Is it important to understand it? Yes.
Another example is in Exodus: the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Why does Exodus spell out the Law in detail for pages, then go back to narration, then repeat the Law in detail again? Why repeat several pages of law? Because ancient Hebrew had no visual means of context as we have in modern English. We make context by spacing, paragraphs, upper/lower case, punctuation, etc. Ancient Hebrew used literary context instead. The Israelites worshipped a calf statue, implying they had adopted Egyptian culture. To eliminate this desire to worship animals, they were to sacrifice those same animals to the God whom they should worship. By repeating the Law of animal sacrifice twice and sandwiching the story of the golden calf in between, the original readers could understand why they had to sacrifice sheep, goats and cows.
Third example: The Gospel of John is profound in its use of chiastic parallelism, a literary device which establishes connections through repeated contexts. In a book, “The Genius of John,” Fordham professor Peter Ellis shows the amazing parallel structures in John’s composition that point to many things that you can’t get from an easy read of the text. This explains, for example, why John’s narrative chronology is out of whack compared with the Synoptics; it’s not meant to follow an historical chronology. This chiastic parallelism was used in many ancient works, Greek, Hebrew, etc. And, as another quick Johannine example: Can you recognize that when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, He is symbolically marrying the Samaritans? The meeting at the well is the clue; wells have matrimonial meaning.
And on and on I can go. Don’t even get me started on Revelation. My point here is that a good literal sense should involve a good literary sense; study and learn the texts in their literary context. If you tell me that God created the cosmos in a single moment and that it's been evolving for 13 billion years, I am content. If you tell me that God created the cosmos, doing specific things over the course of 6 days, I am still content. Either way, I am only not content if no religious meaning is derived. Either way, Genesis 1-3 is a profoundly meaningful religious text.
I have a personal theory about the modern bickering. The Historical-Critical school of bible scholarship began in the 19th century and really ticked off a lot of people with what seemed to be an attack on the traditional Faith. These people reacted by condemning it outright, entrenching themselves in an anti-Historical-Critical mindset. The “HC’s,” thinking themselves to be scientific, accepted and embraced the growing evidence of scientific research, trying to incorporate it into their research. The crux was Bultmann’s assessment of Scripture as myth; that was the last straw. The Fundamentalist Movement was born and their strategy was to teach Scripture as complete non-myth, as true history; anyone who says otherwise is a Bultmann-ite. It became a litmus test.
As for me, I accept the literary sense of Genesis 1-3; I do not take it literally, though. And it is not myth. And it does not contradict modern, scientific cosmology. What I get out of it is fantastic. It tells me that God created the cosmos out of nothing, in an instant. That He established form and matter. That things are what they are because He defined them as such; we humans don’t get to redefine - our job is one of discovery. That He created a first man and woman from whom we all derive (therefore, no moral assessment of race is possible). And, most amazing of all, that He made us humans His children – as children, we are His kin and of His own nature.
But I’m OK that some folks take it literally. My only complaint is that it should not be a litmus test of fidelity. I’ll continue this train of thought in the next post.