What follows below is an essay I submitted to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2013, in response to a series of essays for and against evolution and creationism, on the terms usually staked out in the debate pitting science against the Bible. It was not printed, by the way. I’d like to think that’s because this alternative offering to the pointless positions usually taken in this debate was considered a poor prospect for selling copy. It’s more likely, though, that it was just too long (when have I ever done that before?), and perhaps violated other requirements for getting printed.
Recent issues of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune have hosted a renewal of the debate over evolution versus Biblical creationism (The Evolution of a Creationist, July 31, and “Genesis of a Social Divide” July 22). The debate was a battle between the stock arguments of biblical creationism and classical Darwinian evolution. But both sides, in referencing the Bible, overlook an important rule about the interpretation of any kind of literature: you interpret it according to what type of literature it is. Since there are many types of literature in the Bible, we should read literally only what is meant to be read literally. When we read, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” (Psalm 23) we don’t need to scour the maps to find where such a valley exists. It’s a Psalm, after all. We interpret it poetically, symbolically.
The same applies for the first Creation account in chapters one through chapter two, verse three, of Genesis. Rather than offering us a 21st Century scientific treatise on the formation of the universe, Genesis 1 through 2: 3 would have us regard the natural, material world from a stance of wonder and worship, worship, that is, of the Creator, not the creation. This passage is poetic, rhythmic and liturgical, like a Psalm. Recurrent phrases include, “And God said, ‘Let there be…’ and God saw that it was good…. and there was evening, and there was morning, the first day (or second, third….).” One can almost hear the priests, the choir, the worship leader and the congregation chanting or reciting their parts in turn, praising the greatness of God, and confessing the goodness of creation.
Which also made Genesis 1 and 2 subversive literature at the time of its composition, compared to the creation myths of ancient Israel’s imperial neighbors, like Assyria and Babylon. Their creation stories served not only to explain the world, but to legitimize much of it, especially imperial politics. In such stories, the world is usually formed through violence, chaos, warfare and domination, with the result that humans are to be slaves, soldiers and sacrifices to the gods, who are represented by the royal family, “the images of the gods,” their semi-divine vice regents on the earth. Since time in their cultures was understood to be cyclical, all this chaos and creation through violence will happen again, just as it has happened many times before. Furthermore, earthly and celestial entities, like stars, the moon, the sun and the sea are themselves gods to be feared and worshiped, whose inscrutable wills and interactions require the interpretation of specialists in astrology, divination and magic, namely, the imperially-sponsored priesthood.
By contrast, the Genesis creation litany presents one supreme God who transforms chaos into order and harmony not by violence but simply by the creative, reconciling, harmonizing power of his word, “Let there be….” All transpires peacefully in an apparent challenge to imperial war myths. That all moves forward harmoniously and in orderly fashion is the basis of modern science; laboratories do not need to hire priests to interpret why the laws of chemistry and physics do not work on random Tuesdays. The day-by-day unfolding of the litany reflects and reinforces the Hebrew rhythm of life, with one day of rest per seven. It also reflects the Hebrew sense of time and history, as going somewhere purposeful, rather than as a magical, endless, but brutal cycle of creation and destruction, death and rebirth. At the end of the litany, we are introduced to a vice regent who represents the Creator on the earth, but it is not the royal dynasty. It is the simple human, any human, male and female, who together reflect the divine image. Nature has been de-divinized, so that we need not worship it nor take all our moral cues from it. But it has also been lifted up in dignity, so that to exploit and abuse it is to disrespect its Owner.
To pit the Biblical creation account against science is to force it into a role that is foreign to its purpose. It also misses the awe-inspiring, wonder-inducing, worshipful, subversive, liberating, hope-giving and peace-making messages that emerge from its poetic and liturgical language. These are what we should be debating, for they are still subversive, radical and revolutionary alternatives not only to the ancient imperial forms of primal and pantheistic mysticism, but to their postmodern neopagan revivals as well.
They also carry a challenge to the modern Western worldview, which sees the universe as merely mindless and mechanical, no place, in the final accounting, for human freedom or dignity. There is only a small jump from the idea of a created natural order to that of a created moral order. That would imply moral responsibility and accountability. But if we take the modern, mechanistic world view out to its logical ends, as though it too were a religion, then human spirituality, freedom, dignity and responsibility are only illusions, conceits and indulgences unique to our species that we cannot afford, not if we are to progress along the lines laid out by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
Yes, it does take an act of faith to say that there is more to the universe, and to being human, than either mere mechanical laws, or magical, mystical pantheism, would allow. Neither human dignity nor a purposeful divine activity is one hundred per cent provable in this world, on the world’s own terms. To both worldviews, the messages of Genesis 1 and 2 carry many implied affronts, challenges and scandals. These challenges and implications are what Christians should be advocating. They are what we and the world should be debating. If offense is unavoidable, these are what should offend the world, and not our misuse of science in the cause of a literalistic, modern scientific reading of Genesis 1 and 2.