Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Genesis in competition

There has been a bit of a storm in a teacup in the last few days over Stephen Hawking’s claims that the creation of the Universe was, or at least very well could have been, godless.  Various people have sprung to God’s defence in various ways, which is jolly decent of them.  I’ve been pondering one very common line of defence, and thinking through the way the Biblical creation narratives work.  Here’s where I’m at so far.

A lot of people, including the ABC for example, have argued that even if Hawking could demonstrate a complete physical explanation for the beginning of everything (I confess I don’t understand whether he has done so, and if not what his prospects are for the future) this would have no impact on religious beliefs about the beginning of the Universe.  These are two totally different sorts of stories, and both could be true at once.  This line of argument is manifestly seeking to avoid the accusation that theologians maintain a ‘god of the gaps’, deploying the Almighty only when there is no less plenipotentiary explanation to hand.  That we avoid such a concept of God is, of course, vitally important, especially if we wish to maintain a specifically Christian theism.  That just isn’t the way God reveals himself and his relation to creation.

So on that score, all well and good.

It does concern me, though, that it could appear (and may well be) that Christian apologists are seeking to assert a complete compatibility between whatever creation stories are floating around in our society and the Biblical accounts.  This will not do.

At this point, one small piece of autobiography and one blunt assertion.  The autobiographical point is that my background here is in young earth creationism, a position from which I’ve retreated, not, I hope, in the face of the rampant hordes of secular humanism, but through reflection on the Biblical texts themselves.  Nevertheless, I maintain some respect for the YEC position, for reasons which will become clear.  The blunt assertion is this: Hawking’s account of origins, like every account, is a story.  There are no uninterpreted facts; every narrative of the beginning is a drama.  That this drama deals primarily with material drawn from contemporary scientific method is irrelevant; that method itself is embedded in a wider worldview shaped by narrative.

A question: why were the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 written?  On the most conservative assumptions of Mosaic authorship and an early date for the Exodus (assumptions I think possible and probable respectively), there were creation stories that looked a lot like Genesis floating around, and indeed dominating in sophisticated Ancient Near Eastern society, many centuries before Moses set pen to papyrus.  We can read them in texts like Enuma Elish and Atrahasis.  Comparison indicates that the author of Genesis is using some of the common building blocks of these accounts – for of course he lives in a broadly similar milieu – but is shaping these building blocks into a completely different building.  In so doing, we must assume he is making a theological point.  He is deliberately putting his creation stories into competition with the existing narratives.  He accepts some common presuppositions – the solid firmament in the sky, for example, or the chaotic and threatening nature of sea – but delivers a completely different message.

It is worth noting also that both Genesis and the standard ANE accounts of origins are in some sense scientific; they work back from what they observe in the world as it exists now, and draw conclusions.  I do not at all want to deny that the Genesis accounts differ in that they preserve a witness to God’s revelation which is not present in Enuma Elish and the like.  But with this firmly acknowledged, I think there is a necessity to recognise the human mode of composition also.  These are designed to be accounts operating at the same level – as complete religious/scientific/metaphysical/social explanations of the origin of the world.  (In this the ancient world had an advantage over us – it did not divide knowledge into distinct and often hermetically sealed spheres as we do.  I suggest that we might learn something here).

As Christians today, we need to take note of the way Genesis works.  It does compete; it does not just set itself up as a deeper explanation.  This, I think, is the insight that young earth creationism brings to the table, and we need to work harder at taking it seriously.  On the other hand, the Genesis accounts are not completely rejectionist; they are happy to accept aspects of the creation stories prevalent in their culture – even aspects (like the raqia) which we can’t accept any longer (which incidentally is perhaps a warning to us that in our appropriation of contemporary concepts we should hold them lightly and provisionally).  That is the insight which shines through theistic evolution, and deserves to be taken equally seriously.  Understanding Genesis as it was plots the course for our understanding of the origins question in the here and now.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Daniel,

    I agree with pretty much everything here. The need for the truth claims in Genesis to compete with those of our culture is becoming more vital than ever, but the assumed importance of the truth claims that YECs spend so much time and money expounding is highly questionable, although understandable.