Pictures of CreationFrom hot topic God and Science.
Throughout the history of literature, there are few texts that have engendered more controversy than Genesis 1. Individuals with even a nominal exposure to the Bible are typically familiar with its story of creation. God calls into existence the heavens and the earth – and all that is in them – in six days, and then rests from his creative activity on the seventh.
From its opening verses, the Bible presents a serious challenge to anyone who would seek to uphold its status as “inerrant,” as “sacred scripture,” or as “the word of God.” Taken literally, Genesis 1 (and the biblical chronology that follows it) suggests that our planet – indeed, the entire universe – is roughly 5,800 years old. Such an assertion, of course, runs contrary to findings across a wide array of scientific disciplines. Experts judge the earth to be exponentially older – that its true age, in fact, is probably closer to 4.5 billion years.
Given the tremendous disparity between these two timetables, modern believers find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Presumably, they must either side with scripture and dismiss a vast body of scientific research, or side with science and surrender the authority of scripture. Of course, neither of these options is particularly attractive for those who would seek to maintain both the trustworthiness of the Bible and the general validity of contemporary scientific methods.
In an effort to resolve this dilemma, some creative solutions have emerged. One is to grant scripture the ultimate authority, but then to seek out scientific evidence that coincides with the Genesis account. Another is to accept science’s conclusions, but then to reinterpret the biblical text in conformity with them. In either case, such strategies usually disappoint, since the gulf between these two perspectives proves nearly impossible to close. The perception of what’s really at stake in this issue (“religion vs. science,” or “the authority of God vs. the authority of man”) has only galvanised the resolve of the opposing parties. When it comes to creation, what is the truth? Certainly they can’t both be right, can they?
Underlying this clash of science and scripture is the widespread assumption that both are describing the very same thing. Science has endeavored to provide us with an explanation of the geophysical processes involved in the formation of our planet. But to presume that this is also the purpose of Genesis 1 is like presuming the meaning of an overheard conversation. In essence, it neglects the very premise out of which this text emerged. To ignore our author’s worldview – and to replace it with our own – is to jeopardise the message that was originally intended to be communicated. To get at that message, one must recognise some fundamental differences between modern and ancient ways of approaching historical truth.
When it comes to history, we moderns tend to think of “truth” in sensory terms. We want to know what “actually happened,” as it can be apprehended by our physical senses – particularly our sight, our hearing, and our touch. We prefer to think of truth as experiential and recordable – as, for instance, in a photograph or video.
But there is another way of conceiving history, one more in line with the perspective of our biblical author, who wrote long before the advent of modern imaging technologies. His notion of history can be more properly understood along the lines of an artistic representation – a painting.
To illustrate the comparison, consider two portrayals of the same subject. I have two of Martin Luther King Jr. One is a photograph of him engaged in a casual conversation. It is a mundane scene, and when I see it I think, “That’s how he was.” The second is an artist’s rendition. King’s mouth is open as though he is delivering a sermon. His facial features are telling – he is intense, passionate, driven, and inspired. When I look at this portrait, I realise, “That’s how he was!” One conveys truth about the subject in a literal sense; the other expresses truth claims about the subject’s nature and character. Technically, these portrayals “contradict” each other – King’s nose is bigger in one, his mouth is larger in the other. But such “contradictions” hardly diminish their respective truths. The photograph offers a perspective that the painting can’t, and the painting offers a perspective that the photograph can’t. In the end, my knowledge of Dr King is surely enriched by both.
Science provides us with a geophysical “snapshot” of the 4.5 billion year process by which the earth came into being. Presumably, if someone were present with a digital camcorder (and an enormous memory-chip), that’s what they would have recorded. The portraiture of Genesis 1, on the other hand, seeks to convey very different truth claims about the nature and character of that created order.
So what are those truth claims? While an in-depth analysis of Genesis 1 is not possible here, suffice it to say that they emerge most clearly against the backdrop of the author’s original, historical context – particularly in contrast to the prevailing world views of his time (as evidenced, for example, in early Mesopotamian myths such as the Enuma Elish).
Over and against such worldviews, Genesis 1 presents the universe as the deliberate product of a single, transcendent God. This God exists independently of the material world; however, because it originates from him, it is judged to be fundamentally good. Genesis 1 also asserts that human beings occupy a unique position among the earth’s inhabitants. Their status is due primarily to their special relationship to their creator. Made in God’s image, they are entrusted with the unique responsibility of stewardship. And the seven-day timetable? That turns out to be nothing more than a mnemonic device. The order of the first three days (light, sea/sky, land) is repeated in days four to six. It simply makes the story easier to tell.
In summary, Genesis 1 ought not to be taken as a photograph, precisely detailing the geophysical processes of our developing planet. Indeed, the ancient author had no knowledge of such things. Rather, like an artist employing the mediums of his time, he claims certain insights about creation. Such truth claims need not compete with a scientific perspective; ultimately, they serve to enrich it.