A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

When Challenging the Factuality of the Bible Serves the Faithful

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins respond to the question, “Where does evolution leave God?”   Not surprisingly, Armstrong answers in a way that respects religious belief, while Dawkins uses the opportunity to further disparage religion.

Armstrong argues that evolution challenges only one understanding of religion, one in which truth is reduced to facts and the meaning of the Bible is limited to the information it can provide.  She insists that this is not the only or even the most historic understanding of religion.  Instead, much of the Bible is myth and story– poetic and imaginative rather than informational.

“In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis. Some cosmologies taught people how to unlock their own creativity, others made them aware of the struggle required to maintain social and political order. The Genesis creation hymn, written during the Israelites’ exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BC, was a gentle polemic against Babylonian religion. Its vision of an ordered universe where everything had its place was probably consoling to a displaced people, though—as we can see in the Bible—some of the exiles preferred a more aggressive cosmology.”

“The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.”

I share Armstrong’s conviction that debating the factuality of Genesis 1 misses its point.  I don’t believe is a transcript of how the universe was formed, but the story is incredibly important to me for what it says about the human condition and how it challenges me to understand the world and the humans in it as gifts.  As a professor of mine once said, it’s a whole lot easier to believe that the world was created in six days than to really believe that every person who encounter is created in the image of God.

At the same time, I recognize how all stories, including Genesis 1, can inscribe the power of particular groups, how what is consoling to the teller can work against the interests of others.  What Armstrong calls the “gentle polemic” against Babylonian deities didn’t comfort those who worshipped Marduk.  And it often serves in the present to privilege heterosexual relations and set procreation as the basis for human bonding.  Moving into Genesis 2 and 3 and onward, the stories of the Bible do all sorts of things to the imagination–some that I celebrate and others that I resist.  Claims about families and gender and land and whose story is worth following.

I find conversations about how Genesis sparks and restrains the imagination far more interesting and important than how it relates to fossil remains and flood deposits.  Biblical stories are far too important–for good and ill–to quit talking about them just because they don’t answer questions of science.

 


2 Responses to When Challenging the Factuality of the Bible Serves the Faithful

  • I wonder how these therapeutic poems were viewed by their audiences. Not too much later than the exile, the author of the Gospel According to Matthew decided that these stories were “real” enough to treat them as prophesies of a very real Messiah.

  • But then, ScottF, many of the New Testament authors seemed to play so fast-and-loose with the stories that they raided for prophetic use, it makes you wonder if they ever saw it as the same kind of thing that we expect our modern history books to be.

    The practice of pesher pre-dates the Gospel of Matthew.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *