Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Pentateuch, Day 4: Myth or Science?

Garden of Eden, Jan Brueghel the Elder

Two Ways

     When modern people consider the account of creation narrated in the Book of Genesis, they usually look at it in one of two ways.

1.  It's a myth. 
     A myth is a story created by man, often to explain some phenomena he has observed which are otherwise inexplicable to him.   Myths create gods, and then attribute to these imaginary gods the  creation of the world out of some already-existing matter. Events in the world that are not understood by the people of the time are also attributed to the gods. Essentially, a myth is man's effort to understand the world by determining the causes of objects and events in that world.  Many people today would consider Genesis no more than a myth, based on ancient Sumerian myths and no more a source of truth than such myths.  
     The Catholic Church does agree that ancient mythological images were called upon by the writer(s) of Genesis, but this does not undermine the inspired nature of the account.  The image of a primordial "sea" and the idea of a garden of paradise are two elements borrowed from pagan mythology.  However, these are used as commonly-understood symbols or metaphors to convey an inspired truth in ways that the people of that time could understand. 

Pope Pius XII
...the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes: the same simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people.  If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents--Humani Generis, 18

2.  It's science.

      On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who consider the Genesis account to be as technically detailed and precise as a modern-day scientific report.  Each detail is scrutinized for its possible scientific relevance, and each statement is interpreted in an absolutely literal way.  This approach, often seen as "old-fashioned" or "fundamentalist" is in a way very up-to-date.  The scientific thinking that influences a reader to want the Genesis account to be scientifically accurate is a completely modern phenomenon.  In our time, science has become man's effort to understand the world by determining the causes of objects and events in that world.  In other words, it has replaced myth as our way of explaining the world to ourselves.
     The sacred writers, however, were not composing a science textbook. The Church maintains that

...the biblical creation narratives represent another way of speaking about reality than that with which we are familiar from physics and biology.  They do not depict the process of becoming or the mathematical structure of matter; instead, they say in different ways that there is only one God and that the universe is not the scene of a struggle among dark forces but rather the creation of his Word...[The biblical accounts] express the truth--in another way, to be sure, than is the case in physics or biology.  They represent truth in the way that symbols do--just as, for example, a Gothic window gives us a deep insight into reality, thanks to the effect of light that it produces and to the figures that it portrays.--In the Beginning, p. 25-26

Rose Window, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

A Third Way

Neither fish...
...nor fowl
     If Genesis isn't myth or science, neither fish nor fowl, then what is it?  The Catholic Church does not consider Genesis to be either myth or science.  Genesis is not the product of  man's effort to understand the world by determining the causes of objects and events in that world, instead it is God's effort to reveal Himself to man.

 The truth about creation is so important for all of human life that God in his tenderness wanted to reveal to his People everything that is salutary to know on the subject.--CCC 287

So, the Church teaches that the Genesis account is revelation, neither an unfounded, man-made myth nor a detailed, analytical report.   Theological truths necessary for salvation are presented symbolically, and are embedded in the cultural images common in the ancient world.

 God himself created the visible world in all its richness, diversity, and order.  Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine "work," concluded by the "rest" of the seventh day.  On the subject of creation , the sacred text teaches the truths revealed by God for our salvation...--CCC 337

What have we learned so far about God and creation?   We have learned:

1.  One all-powerful God created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo)
2.  The world, as created by God, was good.
3.  God upholds and sustains His creation at every moment.
4.  God guides creation toward its final destiny--union with and in Him.
5.  Six days of creation followed by a seventh day of rest point to the duty of man to worship God, honor Him, and enter into relationship with Him. 

Main Idea:  The Genesis account is neither myth nor science, but the divine Revelation of God which teaches us fundamental doctrines we need to understand for our salvation.

  Your assignment

1.  Compare the creation account in Genesis 1 and with the account in Genesis 2.  How do they differ?  How are they the same?
2.  Read Ps. 104, which recounts the glory of God in His creation and tells of the providential care of God for His creatures.
3.  Read Romans 1:18.  What can be known about God by observing His creation?  Can you think of some things that can not be known through that observation?

Next lesson:  The Framework of Creation

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