November 12, 2003

The Two Books

Recently I exchanged e-mail with a fellow who thought because I was a Christian I must necessarily be on the Creationist side in the Creation vs. Evolution sweepstakes. He seemed rather disappointed when I said I wasn't--though not a Christian himself, he said he was definitely on the Creationist side of things, and thought that Evolution was manifestly untrue.

My position on the subject is rather more complicated than the tag "Creation vs. Evolution" would imply. On the one hand, I don't read the opening chapters of Genesis as a precise description of how the world was created; nevertheless I do believe that the universe is God's creation. On the other hand, I don't think that random forces produced modern human beings; nevertheless, all those fossils had to come from somewhere.

I've been pondering this ever since, and I've decided that there are two related topics I'd like to expand on. The second, which I'll address in another post, will contain some thoughts I've had on the nature of creation, and how creation and evolution can play together. This one, however, is on the two documents I believe God has left us--the Book of Spirit, and the Book of Nature--and the relationship between them.

The Book of Spirit is, of course, the Bible; the Book of Nature is the physical universe we find all around us. Both reflect God's character, and both have much to teach us.

As a Christian, I believe that the universe is God's handiwork, and as such makes manifest his desires and his character. There's much we can learn about God from studying the world around us. He loves diversity, but he also loves order in that diversity. And as Professor Haldane famously (and no doubt facetiously) remarked, he's surprisingly fond of beetles. I won't say "inordinately," as Haldane did; from our study of the world it should be clear, if nothing else is, that God's likes and dislikes aren't exactly the same as ours, but I'm confident that he has his reasons.

Now, the Book of Nature is notoriously difficult to interpret. The history of science is the history of ideas that were once judged correct and were later found to be inconsistent with reality. On top of that, no matter how well we interpret the Book of Nature it can't tell the whole story. If you ask why the sky is blue, science will tell you that sunlight scatters and bends in the atmosphere, leaving only blue behind--but that doesn't really answer the question. That only explains how it works, not why. Science has much to say about mechanism, and little or nothing to say about meaning.

And that's where the Bible comes in. The Book of Nature tells us much about How and What; inspired by God, the Bible tells us Why--or, at least, as much of Why as we are capable of understanding and need to know.

A digression on the inspiration of Scripture. There probably are Christians who believe that God dictated the books of the Bible to the original authors as an executive dictates a letter to his secretary, but it's really more complicated than that.

God, for some reason I do not know, likes to work through people. I'm sure St. Paul spent hours on his letters, pondering just which word to use. I'm confident that St. Luke revised the book of Acts with great care before sending it on its way. And no one with any sense for style would ever confuse St. Luke's writing with St. Paul's.

In truth, the Bible as we know have it is the work of many minds and many hands: those who witnessed the events of which it speaks, and remembered them; those who wrote them down; those who edited the documents into their final shapes; those who determined that these writings would become part of the Biblical canon, while those writings would be abandoned. And all of this work was done by human beings. And yet, God was behind all of that work at the same time. He helped St. Paul find the right words; he helped the early church fathers winnow the many writings about Christ down to those in our Bible. No doubt he arranged for some of Paul's letters to go astray, lest they lead us astray; not even even saints bat a thousand. In the end we have the Bible, which, though the work of human hands, says just what God wanted it to.

And the importance of the Bible is that it is God's communication to us, in which he tells us that which we need to know but cannot infer solely from examination of the world around us. The Bible does not supplant the Book of Nature as a source of knowledge, but it augments it; the one lends meaning to the other. For this reason, the Book of Spirit and the Book of Nature can never truly contradict each other.

Now, back to the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. Does Genesis attempt a scientific discussion of the beginning of the world? Of course not. Genesis isn't about mechanism; it's about meaning. It tells us the things we need to know to make sense of God's creation. So what are these things?

First, Genesis tells us, simply, that God is the creator; that the universe, and all that is in it, is his creation; that we are his creatures. This is his universe, not ours.

Second, it tells us that we screwed up. We are fallen people, and we live in a fallen world. Some folks make much of Eve's sin, and blame her for Adam's sin, but as I see it there's plenty of blame to go around. It wasn't just Man who sinned; it wasn't just Woman; it was the whole damned species.

Now, if you were to ask me whether I believe in a literal Garden of Eden, with a literal Adam and Eve, and fig leaves and all that, I'd answer, categorically, "I don't know."--an answer I'll elaborate on in another post.

But grant, for the sake of argument, that there was a Garden. You know what people are like. Do you really think that two kids stuck in a garden with a forbidden fruit wouldn't eventually give in to temptation and take a bite? Perhaps his name wasn't Adam, and perhaps hers wasn't Eve, and perhaps the real story was a lot more complicated than the tale that was passed down, mouth to ear, to the one who first wrote it down. Perhaps it happened much longer ago than the Bible indicates. Nevertheless, I suggest that the essence of the story remained unchanged, and is clear to this day--that given a choice between joyful union with God and the short-term gratification of their own desires, Man and Women made the wrong choice.

And we still make the wrong choices. G. K. Chesterton said that Original Sin was the only religious doctrine that was experimentally verifiable, and he's clearly right. How many saints do you know?

And that's the point of the rest of the Bible--first, verification that perfection is not in us, and then the Good News of how to get out from under our sins and back into joyful union with God.

Does the Bible tell us everything there is to know about God? Of course not. Consider all that we know about the Universe, and how many volumes it would take to write it all down--and consider that God stands in relation to us as an author does to his novel. Which is more complex, the novel, or the author who writes it? But if the Bible doesn't tell us everything, yet it tells us what we need to know, until that blessed day when, the race complete, we can see for ourselves.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 12, 2003 04:51 PM

Deb said:

Interesting post, Will. I am looking forward to part 2.

My only thought is that I've never had much trouble with the Creation vs Evolution thing mostly because as a teenager, I came to realize that human minds cannot conceive of Infinity, Divine Beings or what we call God. It's just beyond our ken. It's too big for us. In the OT, God gave us some rules to structure our lives by because we werent doing a very good job of it ourselves and some stories to illustrate that. And a set of stories to illustrate some things HE wanted us to know about and heroes to look to in times of doubt.

But He also gave us mind to look at creation with and find His fingerprints with. Things like higher level math and physics seem to me to be illustrations of the Wonder of how immense and minute creation really is. We get so bogged down in our own small mortal details about the structure of the world that we forget the Hugeness of Divinity. We are surrounded by miracles of creation everyday and we dont see them because we aren't looking for them.

You have one going on in your family right now!

Will Duquette said:

All very true.

I'll have more to say about that in part II.