Science and Different Kinds of Truth: the True Genesis Myth
Updated: Jul 30, 2021
I’ve been mulling over the concept of "openness" to new ideas, and what it means for something to be true in the eyes of science and myth.
Man and Woman
Some "poetic thinking"
There is one path set before each of us, cleared out by wisdom herself. One must ask, though, in life, have I deviated? Does this trail before me wind into wild and waste wilderness? Will it arrive in shattered deserts or impassible ravines? Will I stumble off through foolishness into Mirkwood?
Look, we forage through a tangled jungle when we seek out the truth. It can be slow going, hot work, and downright dangerous. But I know about the sweat on my brow and that the sun beats down.
Though I ask again, what are the odds that I began my journey along the right path? Ought I take up my rickety machete and make another way? Aha. My age is one where all have tread because all take up their own machete to blaze forward a “new” path until the land is stripped bare of greenery for all the millions of those striking out for themselves.
Most end up headfirst at the end of a cliff with shattered bones. Yet always, except for beyond death, a strong, calloused hand awaits to give sweet aid.
That hand awaits, I’ve taken it myself.
Truth and interpretation
I’ll stop the digression there.
In Christianity, we are told to follow truth. The Word of God is truth, we worship God in spirit and truth. When we receive whispers, even from spirits, we ought to submit them to testing. A common means of testing is to examine the fruit of the one whispering—in other words, what actions arise from it? Does it lead to and come from love? Yet again, this statement “All truth is God’s truth” is helpful… and simultaneously misleading for those who take an extra-biblical outlook on truth. I’ll talk about what I mean in a moment.
I’m thinking about this idea of truth because I’m in an active conversation with two Mormon missionaries. It’s the question I asked them to mull over for a day, approximately: “What is the measure of truth?”
Let’s approach this through another sticky subject: how do we test the Bible? By what means do we determine interpretive methods to analyze the Bible? What “hermeneutic”?
This is interesting and critical for non-Christians as well.
Here’s an essential skill to interpret the Bible: the ability to take a step back and view our age from a wider lens. In a way, this is accessible to Christians whether they are awake to their own cultural limitations or not, because the Bible often on its face teaches counter-culturally (by definition in some cases). Sometimes, in rare instances, that clarity is not afforded us.
The best way to discuss this is through a test case: namely, “what truth do the first two chapters of Genesis communicate?”
Let’s start with this idea: we want to respect the authors of the text by reading it literally and as they intended it to read. This ideal will never perfectly be attained, but that’s OK, it’s not necessary. Let’s just do our best.
The misplaced scientism of the Concordist Theory
The tension exists when considering the position of “Concordist,” who attempts to interpret Genesis by fitting the words into 21st (or 20th) century scientific language. They usually equate young earth to a face-value reading. They might say a “literal” reading of Genesis 1 and 2. My science teacher growing up was a Concordist, and she was amazing.
I’m not going to argue against the science behind their claims, I’m not interested. No disrespect meant; I am merely uninterested. I am more concerned with their self-imposed shackles of scientism that seep into their interpretation structure.
The primary issue I see is their adherence to modern materialism in their reading misses the point and removes possible interpretations that are far more likely.
Here are some observations that show why this Concordist view is flimsy and is built on false presuppositions.
1. Science and its categories fluctuate and evolve all of the time. Therefore, given the Concordist theory, we will continually have to update our beliefs about the Bible’s interpretation based on the evidence of modern science.
2. Though it uses categories of modern science, it seems to simultaneously contradict established, repeatable empirical tests that modern science brings like in Carbon dating.
3. The authors of the Bible did not view reality as split between “natural” and “supernatural,” especially not in the Old Testament. The ancient world as a whole, Jews included, viewed the gods and God as stepping in to intervene, but they also ran things anyway. Sometimes they manifested in more obvious ways, like a pillar of fire. Other times, in the decision a Pharaoh makes, we see God hardening his heart. The “spiritual” is always involved in the “natural”. Thunderstorm? A god did that. Drought? God did that. That is why they thought the stars were spiritual beings, or at least, represented them.
Our naïve 21st view of reality and what we even mean by “literally” reflects a lack of sophistication. John Walton describes points this out in The Lost World of Genesis One:
The English reader must face a difficult fact: one cannot comprehend the literal
meaning of a word in the Old Testament without knowing Hebrew or having
access to the analysis by someone who does. It does us no good to know what
“create” literally means—we have to know what bara means literally means. (37)
I read this book last week and I highly recommend it. Dr. Walton revolutionized how many modern Christians now think about Genesis. It’s an incredibly helpful book. Much of what I say from now on is influenced by this book—full disclosure.
I’m going to describe the creation account in Genesis from now on as a “true myth.” It’s a cosmological origins myth, paralleling (though differing from) surrounding creation myths from the Babylonian to the Egyptians. Those are false myths. The Bible’s myth to account for creation is true.
Being trapped in modern materialism
So, I’m more concerned with the serious limitations of this epistemology from allowing us to access God’s Word through the authors of the Bible:
Literal = Physical
Actually, maybe even more underlying than that is a problem of ontology (what exists / being). This is hard for some people. Concordists seem to fall into this view:
West (Concordists): Exists = Material
Basically, a chair is there when it materially exists, primarily. In other words, they say “For God to barah (create) means he materially created from nothing.” That is an assumption, right or wrong. On the contrary, an ancient would have emphasized the purpose "it being sat in" to determine the existence of the chair. The purpose that defines it holds the ontological truth of its existence (see discussion in Walton, 23-34).
The ancients believed this about ontology:
Ancients: Exists = Ordered
Ancients: Exists = Possesses purpose
Let me pause and say two things.
One: I actually do believe that God created the material universe ex nihilo (from nothing). Two: I believe Genesis is not very concerned with that statement. Each day is not God created new physical things. He provided material realities with “function” or “order” or “meaning” or “purpose.” Take your pick.
There is far more complexity here that I am not an expert on, and I don’t have time regardless. But let me state plainly: the Genesis account teaches that God ordered the material cosmos chiefly so that humans can live and thrive in it.
I remember sending emails back and forth at length with an atheist friend of mine in high school. We would write paragraphs debating theirs and resend the email with our response in a different color. He is off the charts smart, went into ROTC and did engineering, brilliantly analytic, but hopelessly lost in his own narrow way of scientism—that truth can only be discovered through empirical proof.
Another book I skimmed through recently called The Biblical Cosmos versus Modern Cosmology: Why the Bible is Not the Word of God, falls into the same trap. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion contains this fallacy in quantity.
It rightly says things like the ancient authors believe that there was a physical dome in the sky that held backwater, and a flat disk of the earth beneath us, and beneath that more water.
I would say: yes. For instance, Moses probably believed that. He was scientifically wrong when he held that belief, but He was right that God created (barah-ed) the cosmos. Personally, I think the latter truth is more critical to understand and live your life by. Our scientific understanding of the cosmos is fascinating, but not super relevant to living my life. However, knowing that, regardless of the mechanism or materials realities of the cosmos, God controls it.
God’s prerogative was not to update the scientific views of the biblical authors, that’s not the point of the Bible. Reading the Bible this way honors the authors of the Bible. The Psalms are not a theology textbook. Do they contain theology? Yes, but they are poems and must be read as such. Similarly, Genesis one and two are two (true) creation myths. Thus, The Biblical Cosmos versus Modern Cosmology wrongly concludes that the Bible is generally untrustworthy.
The stakes are high here. Many will walk away from the faith if they equate young earth with inspiration from the Bible rather than a separate scientific claim. Note here: I believe the Bible is inspired and the final revelation of God to man. And who knows. Maybe young earth will turn out to be true. That’s fine. I just think Genesis doesn’t care about those questions.
Now, the post-modern view I also reject:
Exists = Perception
"There is no literal"
To reject these does not mean you have to hold to scientism. While I reject scientism (it is self-defeating) I also reject relativism (it too is self-defeating).
Adam and Eve and more
OK, here’s an intuitive example. The Old Testament speaks of God casting lightning (Job 36.30). Yet we know from meteorology that lightning is a charge built up in clouds and the ground reaching up to the clouds. Which one is correct? Meteorology science today or the Old Testament authors?
BOTH. Both can be simultaneously true because they’re speaking of different kinds of truth.
Here’s a great example I ran across of nuanced scientific and biblical study working together. When we consider who Adam and Eve were, there are numerous theories to explain what they existed like in history. I haven’t studied it at all in-depth, though it’s a fascinating question. Take Adam and Even being the progenitors of all humans; all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, right?
It’s still disputable but do think Bible claims it. Adam and Eve may have been archetypes to represent humanity since, after all, early Genesis is a “true myth”. However, for the doctrine of sin nature and the way Paul talks about Adam, I think it’s far more likely that they are from God. OK, so let’s move forward.
A Christian scientist named Joshua Swamidass (who possesses ridiculous credentials as an M.D. and a Ph.D.) recently wrote a book that he talked about on the Bible Project podcast. This Dr. Swamidass is working in conjunction with Dr. William Lane Craig and his book, as yet unpublished, on the historical Adam and Eve. To encapsulate his own breakthrough, Dr. Swamidass wrote The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry.
Dr. Swamidass defends the idea that the Bible is talking about genealogical ancestry and not genetic ancestry when referencing Adam and Eve. Why? Well, for one, if you go back a handful of generations because you split your chromosomes about 50/50 with your mom and dad, a far back ancestor will statistically have passed down 0 chromosomes to you, which is very counter-intuitive. However, he or she is still your ancestor.
In the same way, though we wouldn’t necessarily share the same genetics as Adam and Eve, we do descend from them. Statistically, if you go back far enough, you actually will statistically certainly share the same genealogical ancestor with every other human.
Statistically, then, there is almost certainly an Adam and Eve whether you believe in God or not. In fact, there are probably multiple "Adam and Eves" from that perspective! In my understanding, this is why about .5% of the world descends from Genghis Khan.
Now, we’re not adapting our beliefs of the Bible based on science, per se. The Bible does seem to communicate the truth that all humans share a common genealogical ancestor named Adam and Eve. Namely, I believe that sin passed down through Adam. Paul makes that clear.
Notice, if we try to fit the Bible’s language to refer to genetics (a modern concept) we would be wrong. If we’re nuanced enough to apply science to where it should apply, we can discover some interesting ideas. But what comes first? Well, we should from the beginning, before we even do the science, note that the authors couldn’t have been referring to genes. Why? Because they would not have meant to talk about genes in that way. How could they? That science wasn’t even invented until a few centuries ago with the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. Sure, they would observe the traits are passed down, but they didn’t understand genetics the way we do.
Nothing against those ancient authors that wrote the inspired Word of God for not talking about specific genetics. That doesn’t make them wrong (unless they make a wrong claim), and they certainly aren’t unintelligent.
The bottom line
As I’ve explored the idea of truth I’ve realized this truism, truth is delivered through communication, and communication is delivered within a culture and through language. Culture and language are reciprocal (and boy is that obvious in today’s world with almost infinite communication capacity). The truth may transcend language and the subject, but it is communicated in it.
Thanks for sticking with me this week, I'd love to discuss with you more.
Soli Deo Gloria