Q: Over the years I have really struggled to make sense of the debate of science and creationism. I grew up in a conservative background in which young Earth creationists would never question the literalism of the biblical texts, especially in Genesis. How do you respond to the notion that the Bible is most likely incorrect by suggesting the Earth is merely 6,000 years old? How does that affect the validity and “infallibility” of the rest of the Bible? Is the Bible actually the word of God if it contains fallacies and inaccuracies? Thank you for entertaining this. – From C
A: Thank you, C, for your heartfelt desire to reconcile the Bible and science. Let us begin this deep and common question by first realizing that what we think the Bible says is not always what it really says.
The best example of this is the first chapter of Genesis which contains the Creation account. The question we must ask is “What is a day in this story?” It cannot be a 24-hour span of time because our days are a measurement of the Earth’s rotation on its axis. It is clear, however, that this cannot be the intent of the biblical text because the Earth and sun were not created until the fourth day! So, the first three days could be millions of years, and this would bring the biblical account close to the scientific account of evolution. This wipes out one of the supposed conflicts between science and faith.
From this point we can then take a fresh look at the series of created things created by God. The progression from the gathering of waters and the appearance of land and then the emergence of vegetation and then the appearance of sea creatures and then land creatures and then at the end of the creation week the appearance of human beings. This sequence fits very closely the exact order of the appearance of life in all its varied forms that evolutionary biologists think is true. We can leave Genesis chapter one with a new admiration for the biblical vision of how life began on Earth.
Beyond Genesis chapter one, of course, we encounter conflicts, and this is where science and faith must part ways. For example, the Bible did not understand the water cycle of evaporation and condensation. It posits a world that is flat and that is floating on a sea of water. The Earth has gates in it that open and close and fill the rivers and seas. The Earth is held up in the water by wooden pillars called the foundations of the Earth (Hebrew: yesodei ha’aretz). Above the Earth is a clear dome called the firmament (Heb: rakiah) that holds up and holds back a great sea of water above the Earth. In that dome are sluice gates that open and close. When the gates open it rains and when they close it is dry. Now, none of this is true but it is so old it would be impossible to imagine that the ancients could have known about a round Earth and the water cycle.
We can add other phantasmagorical elements in the biblical account like talking snakes and the appearance of just two human beings, one made out of Earth and one made out of the man’s rib; or a boat that held within it all the animals. We can and we must take a breath and conclude that we cannot believe that these biblical myths are true.
So, then your question becomes pressing. If biblical science is not true, how can we believe that the rest of the Bible is true?
To answer this, we must distinguish between two kinds of human questions. Some questions we ask about the world and our life on it are problems and some questions are mysteries. The French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel in his book “The Mystery of Being” makes this distinction. He taught that a problem is a question about something that is outside of us and that we can solve. When we solve a problem, it goes away forever. A mystery, on the other hand, is a question in which we are involved deeply and personally, and it can never be solved. What is the cure for cancer? This is a problem. Is goodness rewarded and is evil punished? This is a mystery.
The Bible is a mixture of problems that it got wrong or partially right and mysteries whose truth endures forever. Do not steal and do not murder are true moral responses to the mystery of our lives. A mature faith must be able to distinguish between the two. Science is about how life began. Faith is about what life means.
Both are true in their way and the source of all that truth is God.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
This article originally appeared on Monroe News-Star: God Squad: Reconciling faith with science