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Saturday, January 23, 2016

How Has Modern Science Changed How We Understand the Bible?

by Steve Kindle
“By identifying the new learning with heresy, you make orthodoxy synonymous with ignorance.”
~Erasmus

What follows in this post is my personal reflection on Dr. Vick's post which ran yesterday on the Energion Publications blog (for which I am the editor). Although I hope he finds this compatible with his own view, he may not. He is only responsible for prodding me to think through some of the implications of what he wrote.

The heliocentric model of the universe changes everything.
Since the Copernican revolution, we can no longer accept the Ancient Near Eastern three-tiered universe with heaven “up there,” and Sheol “down below.” Paul’s vision of a man transported to “the third heaven” reveals a psychology steeped in that worldview. Elijah taken to heaven in a fiery chariot, and even the ascension of Jesus, can no longer be taken literally. Given the vastness of the universe, the psalmist’s question, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” takes on deepened meaning. Can we still speak of God “in the heavens,” or literally understand that “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.”? I think not.

The biological Theory of Evolution changes everything.
No longer can we think of the world as created in six days, or Bishop Ussher's 6,000 years ago, or the Creationist's 10,000. The creation narratives in Genesis can no longer be taken literally, but as a poetic ode to creation and the Creator. Adam and Eve can now be seen as a primordial myth that speaks to the human condition, not of the actual First Parents. The Flood has shrunk to the area surrounding the Black Sea about 12000 BCE. (The universality of flood stories can be traced back to the melting of the great ice sheet that covered most of the northern hemisphere at the same period, and how it affected its people.)

The only answer that literalists can give in response is that the Bible is the word of God and must take priority over any other presumed authority…regardless of the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. “The Bible says” trumps scientific findings.

Literalists do claim a kind of science on their side, Creation Science. They marshal “evidence” that no scientist in the academies supports, even continuing to cite long overturned arguments from John Whitcomb, Henry Morris, and George McCready Price. The Creation Science movement proved too embarrassing for many scientists of faith, because it was tied too closely to biblical arguments. They began the Intelligent Design movement and eschewed any taint of religion in their deliberations. However, virtually all are aligned with some form of Christian Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism, which drives their efforts, not pure science. They have yet to make significant inroads into the wider scientific community.

So what does the consensus scientific worldview do for biblical interpretation and theology?
  • It removes biblical supernaturalism as an explanation of events.
  • God’s transcendence is not physical (out there), but “wholly other.”
  • Literalism is no longer the first and preferred reading.
  • The biblical notions of sin and salvation (atonement) need to be understood as arising from the ancient milieu, and not appropriate today.
  • The Bible, rather than being a scientific textbook, can be recognized as the record of a people trying to understand their world and their place in it. It is the people’s record, not God’s.
  • The apocalyptic undergirding of the New Testament needs to be seen as a yearning for hope in a world gone mad, not as a timetable for the ages.
  • It ends the dualism that turns the world into a battleground instead of a paradise.
What are some of the applications that can be made from these assertions?

It removes biblical supernaturalism as an explanation of events.
God can no longer be seen as acting from outside the cosmos upon the Earth shaping events and suspending natural law at will. Things have proceeded over the past 14.5 billion years in a natural fashion and continue to do so. We know that the Earth rotates about 25,000 miles per hour and orbits the sun, which is stationary (relative to the earth). The story of the battle for Jericho includes God causing the sun to stand still in the sky to allow for more daylight. This is a perfect example of the ancient worldview’s explanation for how Israel wins battles: God intervenes for them. This, for me, serves as an archetype for all such interventions.

God’s transcendence is not physical (out there), but “wholly other.”
By removing God from beyond the cosmos (heaven), we have not demoted God, but made God immanent—within all things. In certain ways, God is closer to humanity than before. Gone are such notions as “the Man upstairs,” “the Old Man in the sky,” and other figures of speech that make God remote and far removed from human life. God being intimately related to and involved with every aspect of life, from the smallest subatomic particle, to the fullness of the cosmos, makes everything sacred and gives humans motivation for proper care of creation.

Literalism is no longer the first and preferred reading.
Knowing that we are reading ancient documents that are informed by a worldview vastly different from our own, we can no longer accept their understanding at face value. Taking the text literally is to overlook this fact. We begin interpreting by asking what informed the author to understand the text in this way, and then compare it to how we find things in our world today.

The biblical notions of sin and salvation (atonement) need to be understood as arising from the ancient milieu, and not appropriate today.
Can you imagine anyone operating out of the modern worldview attaching the remedy for sin to blood atonement? The gods of the Ancient Near East were capricious and vengeful. In agrarian societies, the only thing they had to offer the gods to appease them were what they grew or the livestock they raised. They saw these things as an extension of themselves, and, in a way, the offering of themselves. Blood, life, in exchange for their lives.

Even the Bible comes against this notion from time to time. From Amos: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. 

 Even the pagans such as King Nebuchadnezzar found peace with God away from blood atonement. From Daniel: Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.”

Not all the atonement theories arising from the New Testament and later required a blood sacrifice for efficacy. Specifically, Luke sees salvation arising out of being faithful to the end, even as was Jesus, who models our means of salvation.

The Bible, rather than being a scientific textbook, can now be considered a record of a people trying to understand their world and their place in it. It is the peoples’ record, not God’s.
Rather than this being woeful, it is an amazing realization. Humans are capable of spiritual insights and profound realizations about the world and themselves. God will be seen as a participant in this, but the record is from humans. Therefore, for humans to engage the Bible as human to human is to do precisely what the ancient people were doing that resulted in the Bible. The tradition continues into our own time and much spiritual good is reaped in the process.

The apocalyptic undergirding of the New Testament needs to be seen as a yearning for hope in a world gone mad, not as a timetable for the ages.
Apocalyptic theology, that is, the understanding that God shapes all world history according to God’s will, and that good will ultimately triumph over evil, arose out of a need, indeed, a longing, that this is the case. I believe that God will ultimately prevail in securing a world typified by shalom, and I recognize this as a faith statement. But the notion of God superintending history, much as a mother hen, doesn’t give free will its due.

The Hebrew Bible is full of instances where God is depicted as “changing his mind.” First, with being sorry, actually repenting making humankind, and rectifying this by the genocide of the race. Then there is Moses pleading with God in the wilderness not to destroy Israel. God relents when Moses argues that the Egyptians will laugh at him. These and many other examples suggest that not all things are set in place “before the foundation of the world.” That the future is unknown and not predicable, as apocalyptic would have it.

It ends the dualism that turns the world into a battleground instead of a paradise.
Religious dualism is the idea that there are two supernatural forces diametrically opposed to one another vying for dominance. For nearly 4.5 billion years of the formation of planet Earth, down to our own day, dualism was irrelevant. Actually, the idea that there is God and an anti-god (Satan), is very new to humanity. In fact, the Hebrew Bible’s recording of the history of Israel from creation to the return from Babylonian exile got along without it. Satan, as known in the New Testament is absent. Dualism emerges in the Intertestamental period and flourishes in the New Testament. Many scholars believe that Jewish theologians were introduced to dualism during the Babylonian captivity with their exposure to dualistic Zoroastrianism. Dualism tends to divide people, institutions, and things into good or evil. Monism (the metaphysical and theological view that all is one, that there are no fundamental divisions) promotes world unity and peace and is the basis of Shalom.

Conclusion
We in the 21st century have been given a marvelous inheritance in the Bible. If we can learn to view it as a human enterprise encapsulating the wisdom of a people who earnestly sought to find answers to the human predicament, we, too, will find our way out of darkness and into the light. But only if we are not imprisoned by an outmoded and now harmful worldview that would keep us from finding our own way.

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