Even a Stopped Clock is Right Twice a Day:
A Response to James S. Mellett
by The Rev. Arthur W. Collins, Ph.D.
A geologist who attends my church gave me a copy of The Professional Geologist containing an article by James S. Mellett. He thought it might pique my interest, both as a clergyperson and as the son of a professional geologist.
In writing on the Creation/Evolution wrangle that seems to go on and on, Mr. Mellett did a fair job of representing the Science side of the argument, but I’m not sure that he did justice to the religious data he cited. This is a problem with all polemicists: if they are sure of their cause, then they feel justified in throwing the kitchen sink (even if it’s the wrong kitchen sink) at their opponents.
But let me begin with points of agreement and distinction. I agree with Mr. Mellett about the way Science works; I think he is wrong in his assertions about how Religion works. As an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church, I agree with the people he criticizes about the authority of the Bible; however, I do not use the Bible in the same manner the Creation Science people do. And while I agree that the bottom line in this society-wide dispute is what is written in textbooks and taught to our children, I think Mr. Mellett does his side a disservice by assuming that the rightness of his side is magnified by pushing over strawmen constructed for the purpose of winning the argument. Truth -- whether scientific or religious -- need not stoop to such tactics.
Science and Religion
Mr. Mellett correctly points out that Science is both process and product. He also shows how the product evolves as the process is applied to it. The essence of Science is what we call “the scientific method.” Science has no final answers, but only a definitive way of asking more questions. Thus, no answer, no fact -- however time-honored and appealing to common sense -- can be maintained in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary. This has led to astonishing discoveries, and will lead to even greater discoveries in the future.
But there are limitations to Science, nevertheless. For one thing, an experiment must be repeatable in order to be confirmed. Remember the old joke about the final exam question that demanded, Define the universe. Give two examples. This joke points up an important truth. Without being able to create another universe to test our hypotheses, some of our theories about the origin of things cannot be confirmed.
Science, which is so good at answering questions of how and when, also has difficulty when confronting the question of why. Scientists have reams of data on how the earth developed and when it passed through each stage of its development; however, Science is ill-equipped to tell us why there is Something rather than Nothing. I read somewhere an article attempting to estimate the odds of the universe developing as it has. But the odds are 1:1 that it has done so. I mean, here it is -- and have you found one where it turned out differently?
Religion, meanwhile, starts at the other end. Religion attempts to understand the goals of existence, not merely its processes. Some religions depend upon the perceiving mind attempting to discover the self-evident. Others (including Christianity) say they depend upon the receiving mind being told things which would be unknowable absent revelation from without.
Religion does not depend upon a methodology that gives more and more answers (all provisional in nature). Religion says, “Here is an answer -- I can’t prove where it comes from -- and all I know is that it will be demonstrated right in the end; wise people will pay attention.” Please note that all religions assert this sort of thing, even though they disagree with each other. This is what Religion does. From there, you pays your money and you takes your choice. In the end, we all are faced with Pascal’s wager.
So Religion attempts to say who God is, and what he (or she, or they, or it -- depending upon your spiritual allegiance) is up to. It attempts to tell us why the world is, and what it’s for. It attempts to tell us what our lives are supposed to be about. It has a lot to say about holiness and happiness. It needs to show that it has the goods on us, as we know ourselves to be when we close our eyes and turn inward. We Christians also have a very particular set of beliefs about what the world needs, and what God is going to ultimately do with the world (including us).
My wing of Christianity says that the Creation Science people have a mistaken view of the Bible, not Science. They are defending the wrong fort. They think that a fully authoritative text must be shown to be correct in all its literal statements, or its authority would be shown to be void. My co-religionists would say that since the Bible is not fundamentally trying to address scientific questions, one should not attempt to read it as a scientific document. But even though the Bible is not a scientific text, one must still read it scientifically, and here Mr. Mellett has shown that he doesn’t know Sheol from Shinola.
Mr. Mellett’s fine article is marred by his prejudicial way of handling the Bible. If he were writing up the results of an examination of sand samples or oil well cores, he could not get away with his high-handed approach, nor his selective citations of data.
He is not the first to notice the differences in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, both of which contain creation stories. His over-confident assertion that chapter 1 is the Priestly account and chapter 2 the Yahwist’s account is actually a matter of great contention among Biblical scholars. It was first posited in the late Nineteenth Century in the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis (now usually referred to, shorthand fashion, as “JEPD”), which attempted to identify different authors of the material that went into the first five books of the Bible. Some version of this theory of authorship is still believed by many Biblical scholars today, but even those who hold it argue incessantly among themselves over the details. His use of this reference does not bolster his case; it is basically there to demonstrate his command of the minutiae of the other side’s material. It does the opposite, rather like a reference to the Theory of the Humors in a serious presentation to a gathering of psychologists.
The two chapters, however, demonstrate different things. Chapter 1 is basically about the ordering of creation. Chapter 2 addresses the beginnings of human society. Genesis 1 draws upon common images of God at work from the cultures of the time to describe a god unlike any other known. The God of Genesis 1 is a unique Creator, whose mode of fashioning the world is unlike that of other gods and demiurges. Furthermore, the creation story is told in such a way as to show a progression of capacity on the part of the world to respond to its Creator. It starts with light, then matter, then life, then the reckoning of time (which is why the Sun, Moon, and Stars are presented after the beginnings of life), then higher forms of life (including Man) and finally the rest day to show that life is about more than mere existence.
In Genesis 2, we see God at work developing his pet project, us. The difference in sequence Mr. Mellett sees between chapters 1 and 2 is due to the rapid summary given in 2, as a segue into this new theme.
At this point, Mr. Mellett says, “Further errors came into scripture because of faulty translations and ignorance on the part of the writers of Genesis and later Biblical scholars.” He makes a big deal out of people taking Adam’s “rib” literally, when the Hebrew word zela and the Latin costa used to translate it can also mean “side.” What he is apparently unaware of is that even Fundamentalists know that language can be used euphemistically. Maybe some Christians insist that God made Eve from a particular bone out of Adam’s body, but most Christians I know would simply shrug and say, Okay, so it’s a trope for his side; call it poetic and get over it.
He then confidently asserts that “Genesis borrowed heavily from other creation myths circulating at that time.” Maybe so, but the only models available would have been Babylonian, Canaanite, Egyptian, Achaean -- something like that. The Hindu reference he uses to suggest that in the original story, Adam was a hermaphrodite whom God separated into two halves is surely out of court here. That would be like my asserting that since cotton is native to both the Old World and the New, a culture in one hemisphere must be the source of it in the other hemisphere. People have attempted to maintain theories that ancient Egyptians brought cotton to the Americas, but they haven’t been highly thought of by scientific investigators.
(There is a reference to the hermaphroditic origins of humanity in Western culture, but it is from Plato’s Symposium. It is put in the mouth of the comic playwright Aristophanes, but he isn’t serious about it. Plato’s Aristophanes says that the gods made humanity double-sided, some male/male, some female/female, some male/female, and ever since the gods split them apart, everyone keeps trying to find one’s other half, which explains why there are homosexuals as well as heterosexuals in the world. Apologists for homosexuality keep using this story to “prove” that ancient Greece approved of homosexuality, but in fact Aristophanes’s story is a witty put-down of another participant in the symposium, Alcibiades, using locker-room macho humor. If anything, this story shows that guys could be just as cruel in ancient Greece as in any junior high today.)
Then Mr. Mellett asserts that misunderstanding Adam’s original hermaphroditic nature “has contributed to the second-class status of women in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam . . .” One could debate the reasons for women’s second-class status a long time, and no doubt religious as well as cultural reasons could be found for it; nevertheless, both Judaism and Christianity have made positive contributions to women’s status, too. And while no doubt male chauvinists have used the “Adam’s rib” imagery to emphasize the subordinate nature of women, this is not emphasized in the Old Testament text (St. Paul’s use of this passage in the New Testament is another matter). In any case, a lot of what has been written on “Adam’s rib” and the subordinate nature of women is from guys engaging in what theologians call eisegesis (reading stuff into the text), as opposed to exegesis (deriving stuff from the text).
The problem is, Mr. Mellett is doing eisegesis, too. He could aver that the Bible is wrong, or that its readers are wrong, are both. He is instead saying the Bible is wrong because its readers are wrong, and that is illogical. It would be like my saying that because Ptolemy was wrong about the relative motions of the earth and Sun, therefore the earth and Sun do not move.
He then says, “The so-called New Testament” (could he get away with such a snide phrase in a paper on geology?) “is also rife with errors and omissions.” He offers one supposed error and one supposed omission to prove his case.
The supposed error is found in the temptation of Christ (Matthew 4), where, according to Mr. Mellett, “Satan took Jesus to the highest mountain to show him all the nations in the world . . .” He takes this as proof that the New Testament is describing something that could only be seen from a flat earth; therefore, the New Testament is in error in something it affirms. Well, to cite the Scripture correctly, “the devil took him” (though whether physically or in a vision is never said) “to a very high mountain” (not necessarily the highest mountain) “and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and all the glory of them . . .” It seems to me that if I stood atop the Sears Tower or the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, and saw all the hustle and bustle and economic activity and universities and government installations in even one of the great cities of the world, I dare say I would be believed if I said that I had seen all the kingdoms of the world and all the glory of them. It’s a metaphor, Jack, not a guided tour, and would have been known to be such by the First Century folk to whom it was first told. Not to mention that its validity could be attested by any number of would-be rulers who might be said to have caught such a glimpse and lusted after what the devil offered Jesus: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
The supposed omission from the New Testament is found in a staggering assertion that Mary Magdalene wrote a gospel which “was later expunged from the collected gospels . . .” To be correct, it was never put in. There were lots of dubious gospels of unprovable authorship floating around in those days. Some have survived. I submit that the early Church would have treasured a gospel it thought actually written by one who knew Jesus. The plain fact is, it wasn’t judged authentic. To take another comparison with Mr. Mellett’s field of expertise, I suppose I could accuse today’s geologists of suppressing evidence of the drowning of Atlantis, and if he replied, spluttering, that there never was any reputable evidence for this widespread folk belief, he would simply make my case for me.
So where do we go from here?
I have no quarrel with Mr. Mellett’s critique of Creation Science, which I think misguided.
I do have a rather large collection of bones to pick with his critique of the Bible and his
understanding of Religion; the fact that he includes footnotes doesn’t make his sources
any more correct than he is.
As for what gets taught in school, I have an answer. I think Science ought to be taught in Science classes. As Mr. Mellett says, Science is both process and product. We ought to teach the process (the “Scientific Method”) as the primary thing, but also the product (what we “know” at this point in time). To those who argue that we aren’t telling both sides, I would say that once your side (the Creation Science side, that is) gains the assent of the bulk of scientists, we’ll teach your stuff; until it does, we’ll teach what we’re teaching now, as the best stuff we know. This means that geology and biology are going to be dealing with big bangs and celestial mechanics and DNA and evolution. But that’s the best we’ve got for now.
As for other accounts, including Biblical, Egyptian, Hindu, Babylonian, Greek, whatnot, there are other places to meet up with these things -- even in the public schools. We meet up with them in Literature, in History, in Philosophy, in Sociology. The Bible, after all, is great literature. It offers a critique of history-as-mere-events. It informs philosophy. It shows people thousands of years ago telling stories to explain why there are ethnic groups and wealth divisions. We are often moved by the power of the words and ideas in books like the Bible. We shouldn’t bottle it up, but we shouldn’t teach it in Science classes.
For the Bible is not a Science textbook, not even a Political Science one. Its purpose is not to tell you how the world was made (except incidentally, and then only to make other points). It tells you who God is, what he is up to, what he wants. It tells you what human life is about, why we are the way we are, what we should want (and so seldom do). It tells you about how you and God can fix what is broken between you. It tells the world how to fix what is broken between people and between nations. It does not reason its way from point to point. It merely states what everyone thinks should be obvious, but somehow never was before it came along to state it.