Literal versus Literalist
Do I believe that the texts of the bible are the literal truth ? Yes I do – and I’m very relaxed about saying that, and in the same breath agreeing that evolution is an accurate description of the mechanism through which our bodies developed. I’m completely happy with a 4 billion year old earth and 13 billion year old universe.
There seem to be two very strange viewpoints that cause a huge amount of heat and confusion in this area. The first is the one held by many atheists. In this view, there is no such thing as revealed truths – at least not beyond Rutherford’s (misleading) dream of an atom or Einsteins journey alongside a beam of light. In this view the words of scripture must be taken as nothing more than primitive fairy tales. So god fashioning man from clay is just a primitive explanation for how humans came to be. They imagine a Gandalf-like old man fashioning a Morph like creature, then casting a spell worthy of Harry Potter to animate it with the spark of life.
Of course I’m not suggesting that some people who believe in these texts do not have similar understandings of them. What I am stating is that this is not the intended meaning of the text. There is a natural consequence of a belief that the texts are deliberately inspired by the same spirit that was responsible for (and present ‘before’) the start of time. That which inspired the texts understands the reality more fully than big bang or evolution theory. It may well be the case that a technically accurate description of these things would still be meaningless to us even with all our modern understanding. The true description of the process of evolution right from proto RNA in the ‘primordial soup’, or even further back to the source of the fitness landscape, may be such that “shaped from clay” is still just as appropriate to us in our age as it was several millennia back. The honest search for the truth is not just about the technical detail. You cannot see a van Gogh painting if your only window onto it is through a scanning electron microscope.
There are also nuanced layers between the understanding of the people being described and quoted, the understanding of the author, and the underlying truth being revealed. For example, in the gospels there are stories of people “possessed by demons” who are healed by Jesus. Its not always clear whether these are simply diseases that they did not understand at the time, or genuine cases of demonic possession. Either way, what is being described is what the people at the time thought it was, and the fact that they were healed. There is no suggestion that the authors of the gospels had detailed knowledge of, say, epilepsy.
The second strange viewpoint on this is from people who believe scripture is true, but take no notice of how our understanding of these things has developed through solid evidence. For example, the idea that the universe was created in seven days. To start with, why would these be 24 hour earth days ? The story is told from the perspective of someone who at the start speaks the universe into existence! There is no reason to assume the terms are directly equivalent to a literalist translation of them. In other words, I’m not saying that the translators should have used the word, say, “age” instead of “day” – even if the original word had that possible meaning. The word used is perfectly suitable for the purpose intended, which does not involve a technical account of the mechanics. There is plenty of evidence that can now help us to get a better idea of what the biblical account is describing, but there is simply no reason to accept the warped literalist interpretation.
I have no idea why people make such a chaotic and heated fuss over these things. It clearly has something to do with the fact peoples identities are to some extent defined for or against these texts. You don’t see people getting their knickers in such a twist when they read that it was “raining cats and dogs”.
The strange thing is that the Catholic Church, the authority which discerned the texts of the bible(*), has been closely following alongside the changing understanding of these things. There seems to be a meme out there that has the church at complete odds with rational people, holding fast to a flat, young earth full of instant-brewed-humans, when all thoughtful people had moved on. In fact the famous contentious issues were contentious because they were so revolutionary at the time. Yes there was the Inquisition, and yes members of the church did some terrible things over 2000 years, and yes real historians have a good idea of the actual context of these things. But the average science commentator, let alone the interested ‘person on the street’, seems to imagine Copernicus being laughed at by the pope and cardinals, whilst the scholars of the time accepted the heliocentric model as self evident. This is no more true than the idea that the church was responsible for or supported the idea of a flat earth.
You can’t really blame the atheists for having a literalist interpretation of the bible. Its literally a closed book to them – the foundation of their worldview prevents them from being able to comprehend any possible basis for truth behind the narrative. At a very simplistic level, their view is logical and internally consistent. But you can blame the people who believe in the texts for making the texts look stupid, by insisting forcefully on their own ignorant interpretation of them. For the earth to be merely thousands of years old, god would have had to deceptively create it all so that it appeared as if processes happening today had carried on for billions of years into the past. Why would anyone be so firm in their ignorant, literalist interpretation that they are prepared to make god out to be like a deceptive child playing Mindcraft ? What is the agenda for all these US southern baptists and other creationists spending so much time talking about junk science rather than the message of Jesus ? It sometimes seems as if they should follow their true heart – and set up the church of junk science!
This is perhaps unfair of me, especially as someone who oversteps his own competence in science from time to time. For those who experience truth in their relationship with god that corresponds with what they read in the bible, having a constant critical evaluation of the bible sentence by sentence is the opposite of using the bible for spiritual growth and guidance, as it is intended.
Here is the rub. Just as there are scientists who like to stick to the solid of what they ‘know’, and avoid walking along the edges of more watery mysteries, so too there are the same types in many areas including christianity. For these people, Adam and Eve have to be the first human beings – specific indivuals surrounded only by animals. The questions of who their children marry and where the cities come from as they travel is best avoided. In many cases the barriers are up against an increasingly unbelieving world, so they hold tightly to what is most important from their personal experience. If this works for them then who am I to question it, so long as they don’t spend too much effort and resources arguing that the bible denies evolution. Then its maybe more helpful to point out some of the layers of truth in the story of Adam and Eve. Of the primal innocence of nature and life itself, of the consequences of free will and self awareness, and of the universal need for redemption that comes with human self awareness.
To me, the more I soak into the story of Adam and Eve, I get small insights into the depth of the goodness of god. With humans, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. With god, all power, unimaginable power, cannot deflect him one dot. That he chose to make himself weak like us, and remained so entirely uncorrupted that he can also pull us all back up. As people in the east may put it, there is no negative karma to hold him down. Its incredible and difficult to grasp when you compare the scale of the universe with us worms crawling over a speck of rock in a small backwater of one galaxy. Nonetheless, the question of whether or not Adam and Eve were specific individual people is of no importance next to this kind of glimpse of the truth that the text contains.
* Note that when I refer to scripture, I mean the bible, old and new. I respect many Hindu and Buddhist texts, and believe they contain some profound truths, but do not consider them to be the active revelation of the creator of the universe. I personally don’t accept the veracity of the texts of Islam (for reasons of historicity and theology – such as those raised by CS Lewis), but equally I don’t claim to know everything and certainly don’t doubt the relationship individual Muslims can have with god.