The Genesis Problem: A Catholic Literary Commentary
I’m continually amazed how often the “problem” of Genesis comes up in my work of evangelization and apologetics. What I mean is the way people struggle with the seemingly bad science that is on display in the opening chapters of the first book of the Bible. How can anyone believe that God made the visible universe in six days, that all the species were created at the same time, that light existed before the sun and moon, etc., etc? How can believers possibly square the naïve cosmology of Genesis with the textured and sophisticated theories of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Stephen Hawking?
One of the most important principles of Catholic Biblical interpretation is that the reader of the Scriptural texts must be sensitive to the genre or literary type of the text with which he is dealing. Just as it would be counter-indicated to read Moby Dick as history or “The Waste Land” as social science, so it is silly to interpret, say, “The Song of Songs” as journalism or the Gospel of Matthew as a spy novel. By the same token, it is deeply problematic to read the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific treatise. If I can borrow an insight from Fr. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astrophysicist, no Biblical text can possibly be “scientific” in nature, since “science,” as we understand it, first emerged some fourteen centuries after the composition of the last Biblical book.
The author of Genesis simply wasn’t doing what Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Hawking were doing; he wasn’t attempting to explain the origins of things in the characteristically modern manner, which is to say, on the basis of empirical observation, testing of hypotheses, marshalling of evidence, and experimentation. Therefore, to maintain that the opening chapters of Genesis are “bad science” is a bit like saying “The Iliad” is bad history or “The Chicago Tribune” is not very compelling poetry.
So what precisely was that ancient author trying to communicate? Once we get past the “bad science” confusion, the opening of the Bible gives itself to us in all of its theological and spiritual power. Let me explore just a few dimensions of this lyrical and evocative text. We hear that Yahweh brought forth the whole of created reality through great acts of speech: “Let there be light,’ and there was light; ‘Let the dry land appear’ and so it was.” In almost every mythological cosmology in the ancient world, God or the gods establish order through some act of violence. They conquer rival powers or they impose their will on some recalcitrant matter. (How fascinating, by the way, that we still largely subscribe to this manner of explanation, convinced that order can be maintained only through violence or the threat of violence). But there is none of this in the Biblical account.
God doesn’t subdue some rival or express his will through violence. Rather, through a sheerly generous and peaceful act of speech, he gives rise to the whole of the universe. This means that the most fundamental truth of things—the metaphysics that governs reality at the deepest level—is peace and non-violence. Can you see how congruent this is with Jesus’ great teachings on non-violence and enemy love in the Sermon on the Mount? The Lord is instructing his followers how to live in accord with the elemental grain of the universe.
Secondly, we are meant to notice the elements of creation that are explicitly mentioned in this account: the heavens, the stars, the sun, the moon, the earth itself, the sea, the wide variety of animals that roam the earth. Each one of these was proposed by various cultures in the ancient world as objects of worship. Many of the peoples that surrounded Israel held sky, stars, sun, moon, the earth, and various animals to be gods. By insisting that these were, in fact, created by the true God, the author of Genesis was, not so subtly, de-throning false claimants to divinity and disallowing all forms of idolatry. Mind you, the author of Genesis never tires of reminding us that everything that God made is good (thus holding off all forms of dualism, Manichaeism and Gnosticism), but none of these good things is the ultimate good.
A third feature that we should notice is the position and role of Adam, the primal human, in the context of God’s creation. He is given the responsibility of naming the animals , “all the birds of heaven and all the wild beasts” (Gen. 2:20). The Church fathers read this as follows: naming God’s creatures in accord with the intelligibility placed in them by the Creator, Adam is the first scientist and philosopher, for he is, quite literally, “cataloguing” the world he sees around him. (Kata Logon means “according to the word”). From the beginning, the author is telling us, God accords to his rational creatures the privilege of participating, through their own acts of intelligence, in God’s intelligent ordering of the world. This is why, too, Adam is told, not to dominate the world, but precisely to “cultivate and care for it” (Gen. 2: 16), perpetuating thereby the non-violence of the creative act.
These are, obviously, just a handful of insights among the dozens that can be culled from this great text. My hope is that those who are tripped up by the beginning of the book of Genesis can make a small but essential interpretive adjustment and see these writings as they were meant to be seen: not as primitive science, but as exquisite theology.
By Bishop Robert Barron
(Read more from Bishop Barron on Word on Fire)