Monday, August 3, 2009

What the Bible Really Means: Accommodationism of Science and Religion

In the first edition of the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote that rhinoceroses are never prey, that no other animals kills any rhinoceros for food. Francis Galton pointed out to him that in fact young rhinoceroses are sometimes hounded, literally, by wild dogs.

Suppose I read Galton and directly observed the hunting of young rhinos, and so replied that Darwin really meant that older rhinos, and only older rhinos, are never prey.

Presumably you would think that I was misinterpreting Darwin, deliberately understanding him in a way that fits a preconceived bias, that is only supportable on the assumption that Darwin is always correct.

Yet people frequently interpret the Bible in a way that is equally unsupportable, interpreting its meaning to be whatever they find to be true by independent means. So, the Bible can never be wrong, not because one antecedently understands the claims it makes and then finds them to fit with observations and reason, but because one only comes to understand what the Bible really means after one already has those observations in hand. In fact, that is exactly how Francis Collins, Barack Obama's nominee to head the National Institutes of Health, understands the Bible.

I discovered this interview in Christianity Today via a discussion by Jason Rosenhouse in EvolutionBlog.

You take both the Bible and evolution seriously. Did the harmony you find between evolution and your faith just come naturally?

You know, it really did. When I became a believer at 27, the first church I went to was a pretty conservative Methodist church in a little town outside Chapel Hill. I'm sure there were a lot of people in that church who were taking Genesis literally and rejecting evolution.

But I couldn't take Genesis literally because I had come to the scientific worldview before I came to the spiritual worldview. I felt that, once I arrived at the sense that God was real and that God was the source of all truth, then, just by definition, there could not be a conflict.

One of my theologian friends once said, in great frustration over this issue, "I wish they had never put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people." It seems to me that we need to take more seriously the teaching ministry of the church. We encourage people to read the Bible on their own, but certain misunderstandings are bound to emerge with that approach. Young people are going to read Genesis and think of Adam and Eve as real biological parents of the human race.

I reread your Language of God recently with the stories of your childhood, and it didn't occur to me to think that some of those stories were just stuff you made up to give different insights into your character. I just read your stories and believed that was the way things happened. And that's the natural way many people read the Bible.

I think we should all read the Bible, and I believe in the priesthood of the believer. It's biblical to do so; it's certainly the way that Christ seems to be teaching us, but that means responsibility to read the Bible at more than the most superficial level.
Curious believers will want to go deeper, but that deeper searching has to involve more than searching through the Bible. We must also search through the other book that God gave us—the book of nature. We must not pretend that one of these books is untrustworthy if it seems on the surface to conflict with the other. It's our responsibility, as individuals and as a culture and I think, frankly, as Christians.

But this places a huge burden on the teaching ministry of the church to pass on that level of sophistication. I can't imagine evangelical churches embracing this task.
We must. Because what we're doing now is passing on a burden to the youth. And it's a burden that many of them are going to be weighed down with to the point where they will not have their faith anymore. Right now, many churches are telling their young people, "You have to adhere to this absolutely literal description of what we say Genesis means," and they put a lot of energy into conveying that in Sunday school and in home schooling curricula. It's not as if the church has not already invested in providing a perspective on this issue—but unfortunately they've invested in a view that's counter to God's book of nature. This is both unnecessary and tragic. But I have hopes that over time we can come to the realization that the current battle between the scientific and spiritual worldviews is not God's battle, but is one created by us. That means we should also be able to find a way toward peace.

The problem with this way of interpreting the Bible is that, because it renders the meaning of the Bible dependent on what we discover and believe to be the truth, it cannot mean anything at all. If the real meaning of a text can become its negation as previously understood, then it has no meaning of its own but only whatever meaning we give it. Perhaps Collins is channeling Stanley Fish, and his reader-response theory, but one would not expect to find that view of meaning in a theist.

The meaning of Genesis for example is clear: God created the world in six days, in the order described, and rested on the seventh, etc. Presumably Collins thinks all this is metaphorical as is the claim that God made humanity in his own image. But what clue is there that the passage is intended by its authors metaphorically? Is there some reason to think that ancient Hebrew culture had progressed beyond the anthropomorphism of, say, ancient Greek culture? Is there some subtle linguistic analysis or translational problem that renders all this metaphorical? These are possible explanations, of course, but they are not explanations given by Collins. Collins interprets the Bible in a way that is the direct negation of its literal meaning based entirely on its disagreement with actual facts. And that's just as absurd as my little game of reinterpreting Darwin.

Collins reaches this absurdity because of two beliefs: the apparent meaning of the Bible is inaccurate as measured by independent observations, but the real meaning of the Bible must be entirely accurate. But these together entail that the Bible's real meaning can be only what we give it after the fact. If one simply dispenses with the belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, one has no such problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment