What to Do With Holy Writ
It seems to me that in our modern day we are inclined to categorize literature into the neat categories of ‘fiction’ vs. ‘non-fiction’. But I wonder if literature in general, and Sacred Literature in particular, doesn’t fit in that tidy dichotomy very well.
Consider Homer’s epic Iliad & Odyssey. In ancient Greek times they were considered sacred literature, held in the same esteem as the Bible and Bhagavad Gita are today. Yet Homer’s epic is a curious mix of what we would call ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’: there really was a city named Troy, and Greeks really did attack and defeat it. Meanwhile, no one has found any evidence of sea monsters like Scylla and Charybdis. And what was Homer’s purpose? Why, to communicate the ethos — the history, mythology1 and culture of his era. We run into problems when we view literature — especially literature that is distant from our own in time and place — thorough the lens of our 21st century American sensibilities, without understanding the author’s intentions or the literary norms of their day.
Likewise the Bible is a mix of historically verifiable data (there really were Hittites) alongside stories that challenge credulity. Let’s start with the Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis:
- “Let there be light.”
- “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament…
- “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear…. Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind…”
- “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night…”
- “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens…”
- “Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind… Let us make man…”
Let’s compare that to the Science’s current best understanding:
- First there was a “big bang” in which an unimaginable amount of energy was release all at once. If one could see that, it would look like a burst of light.
- All this energy eventually coalesced (divided itself?) into galaxies, stars and planets.
- When Life evolved on Earth, first the plants appeared.
- Then the animals.
- Then human beings.
In short, the overall arc of the Genesis Creation story jibes rather well with our current best scientific understanding. If someone 3000 years ago had a vision of how the world was created, and tried to record it using only the agrarian vocabulary and world-view available to them, their poetic vision is in remarkable accord with Science.
One standard criticism of this story is that it is broken into ‘days’, and “there couldn’t be days yet because the Sun wasn’t created until Day Four, so the entire account is absurd.” Except that Science does exactly the same thing: the first event is the “Big Bang” but there couldn’t have been a `bang’ yet because there was no air, and you can’t have a `bang’ without air. Therefore, (according to this logic), Science’s entire account is absurd. Except that obviously ‘Big Bang’ is a metaphor. Then why not `day’ also? After all, even in English `day’ has meanings other than a 24-hour period, such as ``back in the day” and ``day of reckoning”.
But more than that, we assume that `day’ must apply to the events unfolding. But why couldn’t our Ancient Seer be referring to how the vision unfolded to them: the vision took a week, and on the first day of the vision s/he saw the Big Bang. Then on the second day s/he saw energy coalescing into matter. Etc.
Nits can still be picked with the Genesis 1 story. I’m just suggesting that there is a middle ground between “it’s literally true down to the last detail” (Biblical literalists), vs. “any poetic license invalidates the entire account” (Richard Dawkins et al). Instead I’m trying to give credit where credit is due for a remarkably accurate account 3000 years ago when neighboring cultures were asserting that the earth rested on the back of a turtle.
So let’s press on to Adam and Eve, a story with which I want to take an entirely different approach. There are definitely ‘tipping points’ in consciousness. One example is animals who ‘get’ that mirrors show images of themselves (“that monkey in the mirror is really me! How fun!”), vs. animals that don’t (“I’ve just GOT TO GET that parakeet in there!”). Or human babies, who at one point are pure experience with no real sense of ‘Me vs. Others’, and one day they awaken to a new conscious awareness of Self. The Adam and Eve story is certainly about a major shift in consciousness: at the beginning of the story they are naive (unaware of their nakedness) and at the end of the story they have had a harsh lesson (and are now quite aware of their nakedness). To try to explicate exactly what kind of shift of consciousness takes place in the Adam and Eve story is far beyond this modest article, but I think this kind of approach shifts the story from ‘patently ridiculous’ to ‘hmm, this might have something meaningful to say about the human experience.’
Likewise Homer’s account of Odysseus sailing his ship between the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis resonates with anyone who has had to thread their life between two terrible choices and find a way through.
Scientific Truth certainly has its place. But there are other kinds of Truths that are better expressed with metaphors than equations. (And arguably mathematical equations are a very specific kind of metaphor.)
Which gives insight to the verse in the Bible: “All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them.” (Matt 13:34)