The Big Bang AND Genesis; Evolution AND Genesis
Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
A Word from the Proverbial Soap Box
Ever since Charles Darwin returned from his island adventure on the good ship Beagle and penned his book on natural selection, fundamentalist of science and faith have been arguing with one another. Once science looked further back and developed the more all-encompassing theory which one disbelieving scientist dubbed the “Big Bang Theory” in hopes of discrediting it (didn’t work did it?), the battle ground between the two fundamentalist camps broadened to encompass all of the known universe. And it feels like the two sides have been going at each other for all of eternity as well. Listening to the arguments each side generates, one would conclude there could never be a middle ground in between. It would have to be all or nothing, all science or all faith. That, however, is an airy myth the most embattled, embittered members of both camps have generated that has no grounding in either discipline. Fortunately there are people of science and faith, who believe strongly and deeply in both, who are speaking up today and presenting another perspective. Let’s hear from one such point of view now. I will not be exploring each and every aspect of Genesis or the theories of the Big Bang or Evolution as there is no room for that in a short article, nor have I the time (years and years of intense scholarship would be required to do these vast and beautiful subjects justice) or patience to do so.
For a discussion like this, we might as well begin “In the Beginning.” The book of Genesis was written somewhere between roughly 1440 and 550 B.C. (As a professionally trained archaeologist I like dealing with broad date ranges as one slides into the distant past and as a seminarian I acknowledge the scholarship that goes into the divergent points of view that lead to this range of dates.) Genesis 1-2 describes in beautiful terms two narratives of the creation of everything. The first speaks of the power and majesty of God who speaks the universe into being, who found all of this creation to be good, and who embedded a day of Sabbath rest into the very fabric of creation (take note of that all you type A people). In the second narrative of creation, God is much more personal, getting down in the mud to form humanity by hand and walking in the garden in the cool of the evening with God’s much-loved children. Both are beautiful and timeless narratives that have much to say about the origin of all things and the intrinsic value of all things. They also represent a darned good explanation for how creation came about … and if one reads further, how we got into the fixes we find ourselves in today. They are particularly good considering their antiquity. Further, provided one does not adhere to a literal interpretation of these text—provided one is willing to grant that this was penned long ago, first for a people of another time with different cultural norms and a different understanding of the world around them—and one respects the fact that story and metaphor play a strong role in the Bible, as does poetry, humor, and much else, one is able to see a great deal of harmony between these ancient texts and the narrative of creation that science unfolds today.
Here are only a few examples where the two explanations, recent and ancient, resonate well with one another. The Big Bang theory tells us that the universe began with the singularity, the inexplicable origin point where time and the laws of physics have no meaning. In that singularity, all that was, is, and will ever be was housed in a place of inexplicable strangeness that science today cannot touch. Can there be a stronger statement of faith? Here, described by science, is the very thought of God. Here is the universe condensed to a concept, to a moment, trembling on the verge of creation waiting to be spoken. The Hebrew concept of chaos was waters, the formless deep, and that is how this singularity was described by our inspired ancestors. This singularity also describes the very omniscience of God. Again, there in the singularity was all that would ever be in the universe, all that could ever exist as it was yet to unfold. In the words of faith, all that ever would be was known to the mind of God before it was spoken.
According to the Big Bang theory, next there was an explosive outrush of creation, leaping into existence from everywhere to everywhere. Again, this is very faithful language from my perspective. In time the force of gravity began to coalesce the hot and seething chaotic and dark matter into masses that began to glow. (Now, science fundamentalists, give me some license here as I’m trying to cover great leaps of time in a few words, and faith fundamentalists, I ask the same grace from you as I’m trying to distill centuries of theology into a few pithy sentences as well to make a point.) In verse three of Genesis 1 this is elegantly, poetically described in the paragraph beginning, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Galaxies and stars formed, separating the light from the darkness, the light of creation that the Hubble Space Telescope may now be able to see following the fourth repair mission. What a stirring opportunity, to see the first light described in Genesis 3, to see the separation of light and dark. Genesis 3 poetically sums up the vast sweep of time involved in the simple and easily understood sentence, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” Scientists, I challenge you to come up with a sentence that so eloquently and simply imparts this complex idea.
Scientists, yes, I grant you that the sequence of the origin of life on earth in Genesis 1: 9-23 does not follow the order of evolutionary development as we understand it today. So, give ‘em a break, they were writing around 1440 B.C. for heaven’s sake! How well do you think today’s understanding will hold up roughly 3,000 years from now? After all, you keep tweaking the story you present daily as new discoveries arise (that’s not a critique—I think the discoveries are wonderful—just perspective … which is desperately needed these days). This author, or these authors (depending on what you believe), was (or were) inspired by God with an explanation that fit the time and understanding of the people receiving it. You really don’t think people 3,000 years ago would grasp what you know today do you? If God granted you a glimpse of state of the art science 3,000 years in our future, how much of it do you think you’d understand (be honest now and put aside hubris before you answer)? The point is, first there are plants, then animals, then eventually people. The basic sequence is correct with the one reversal of land life preceding sea life. Given the antiquity of the document, I’d say that’s pretty good.
Following the creation of life on land, in the air, and in the sea, humanity shows up. Early humanity is in a state of innocence as described in Genesis 2:8, moving forward to the fateful moment with the tree of knowledge. Take a look at the archaeological record. There was a time when early humanity did not bury their dead. Here was your age of innocence. Here was the time when humanity did not understand mortality, where the heavy burden of the knowledge of life and death was not in us. Then come the first burials, the first understanding that we all are mortal, and the first lament for the passing of someone known and now missed and grieved over. Here is part of the knowledge on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, part of the knowledge acquired by an evolving human race and captured in narrative terms in the Old Testament to explain how we came to this difficult and long-lamented understanding of our natural condition. Look again at the Genesis narrative from the view of a parent as well. Who among us who have raised children did not wish to extend the age of innocence when our children did not know of their mortality. Who among us parents can blame God for attempting to do the same?
Adventure on to Genesis 4 and you come to a description of the first murder. Note that this murder occurs between an agrarian farming the land and a herdsman raising livestock. Some archaeologists believe that the first acts of large scale organized murder we call warfare occur only after the introduction of agriculture, once there is a specific value to a particular plot of land in a particular spot on the map. Credit goes to the biblical writer(s) who penned this truth long before archaeologists found the evidence to create this hypothesis.
These are only a few points upon which science and faith converge in the long history of humanity’s growing understanding of how we came to be where we are in the universe and how the universe came about. For faithful people who also believe in the evolving understanding science provides for how we got here, this is a wonderful time to be alive. I thrill at the images of the early cosmos, of galaxies wheeling through the infinitude of space, blazing across the night sky, growing and expanding as they wheel across the eons in the mighty waltz that God set in motion when he said “Let there be light.” I wonder at the development of our species from furry arborial vertebrate to upright humanity. The description of our evolution gives me a wry knowledge of why humanity has lower back pain, fallen arches, and postnasal drip. In some ways, our bodies have never forgiven us for standing upright to see over those tall savannah grasses when we descended from the trees. In that story I see the handiwork of God and get to glimpse how God brought us to where we are today.
A Christian physicist has provided a wonderful explanation of what some would term natural evil in the world. God has created a world designed to push life forward, a world that is powerful and dynamic and vital, the sort of world necessary for evolving life. This of course leads to earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and all the rest. These things are necessary for a living planet and God allows them to be what they are to further that end. If you don’t like that, there is a perfectly peaceful place right next door to us. It is known as the moon, a place where no one will ever die in a natural disaster of the sorts I have just described because none exists there. Of course, it is a dead place as well, where no life can develop naturally. I’ll take the world we have thank you very much and thank God for all its diversity.
Paul states that God is evident in the world around us; God’s handiwork is everywhere for the believer to see. I agree with Paul and I revel in the discoveries that are made in this unique moment in time. They are truly wonderful and fill me with awe. The nattering argument between the two sides, fundamental science and fundamental faith does not.
So I make a personal plea to the fundamentalists on both sides of the divide. To the fundamental Christian, I respect your faith and understand your interpretation of Scripture. I respect that this understanding has been the driving force behind your evangelistic efforts that are extending well into the third world and I applaud you for that. I do not agree with your interpretation but I do not judge you either. Grant me the same courtesy. To the fundamentalist scientists, I marvel at what you have discovered and my spirit is uplifted by the wonders you have to recount and the robots and other machines you have created to further your exploration. From you I ask for the same courtesy. To both sides, I ask you humbly to stop your arguing and respect your differences! Understand that neither side will sway the other as neither side may budge from the position they have staked out without losing what they feel to be their basic integrity. Accept that and move on past this grade school argumentation that boils down to nothing more that “No you don’t” and “Yes I do” followed by a string of nah, nah, nah’s. Frankly, personally, I find this beneath the dignity of both sides and a distraction from what you really ought to be doing. Fundamentalist Christians, hasn’t God given you enough to do in a world of suffering humanity without this endless argument? Fundamentalist scientists, don’t you have enough mystery in the universe to unravel and explore without engaging in this distracting, energy reducing, time wasting argument? Fundamentalist Christians, wouldn’t you rather have your professional ministers and theologians teaching your view on creation rather than trying to force instructors who are not trained to do so into this job in public schools? Fundamentalist scientists, shouldn’t you be convincing people to end global warming before all the polar bears drown? For all fundamentalists of all stripes everywhere, didn’t your mothers teach you not to poke at hornet’s nests?! Don’t you all see that Monty Python satirized this sort of debate in the “Argument Clinic?” It would be laughable if it weren’t causing so much needless pain on all sides. Now, excuse me, I have to check up on what the Hubble has found, what archaeologists and paleontologists have dug up, and to prepare for church. May God grant everyone some healing and a little peace!
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