Scripture in Common Usage Part III: Oversight III – Scripture in Opposition to Science

August 14, 2013

It’s been awhile since I’ve picked up this thread, so if anyone wants to read where it has gone so far feel free to click the following links. I began with a prologue piece recounting a conversation I had with an acquaintance on science and climate change that unexpectedly detoured into scripture. I’ll be coming back to science more heavily in this present piece, but the particular misreading I mention in that prologue shows the danger of misreading scripture even to those who want nothing to do with scripture. So far I’ve discussed two other major methods of misreading scripture common in the US today: (I.) Scripture divorced from history and more broadly, (II.) Scripture read flatly–texts divorced from their neighboring texts, scriptures divorced from their primary audience, and scriptural concepts isolated from their cultural contexts. Now I want to revisit science, but much more detailed than previously. This is a big one, because for many conservative religious communities science is the enemy of religion, and even for the mainline and liberal religious communities who claim to have made peace with all aspects of science (from Darwinism to Quantum Physics), there is rarely a creative embrace and incorporation of that science into a holistic religious worldview informing even the way Scripture itself is approached. But before we go there, I need to take the first excursion into a broader theme that this entire exercise is ultimately aiming at–asking and proffering possible answers as to “what is scripture?”

Exc.1: What, ontologically, even is “scripture?”

I believe that most misreadings, misunderstandings, misconceptions, ignorance, and the majority of problems caused by scripture by all followers, believers, doubters, or deniers of any religious text-based tradition are caused by confusion over what scripture itself even is. Earlier this year I participated in a study with a group of graduate students into an investigation of the question “what is scripture” in a manner aimed at answering this question as purely as possible. Our quest was not to understand what a particular text assumed by a group to be scripture was nor to extrapolate on why a particular text (i.e. the Qur’an) was scripture, but to investigate the concept of scripture itself behind the texts–what is scripture and how is it that these examples (Bible, Qur’an, Bhagavad Gita) function as it? This is a broader question than what I aim to tackle in this particular entry, but it bears posing now as introduction as we move into discussing the mistake of situating Scripture in opposition to Science. Because if “Scripture” is something that one does rather than something that is (verb rather than noun)–as can certainly be argued, and argued well–then “doing science” can be scripture. Science has a language of its own, it has texts which form its groundwork, it has a history behind it, it is constantly up for reform and revision in the light of further “revelation,” and it certainly aims at “communing” with something more than the lab or classroom in which it may find itself. If this sounds like stretching to you, consider the standard Protestant Bible with an open mind. It is a collection of 66 books which were written in vastly different times, contexts, and styles, consisting of letters, poetry, legal codes, parables, fables, proverbs, gospels, apologetics, and apocalyptic writings to name a few of its genres. It forms the groundwork from which many a church began and it is (in most communities) open to fresh interpretation in light of new knowledge, context and experience. It “becomes” scripture in conversation, consultation, enactment and practice. “Science” and “the Bible” function in many similar ways but usually in very different decision-making processes. So allow us to at least consider that “science” is not wholly different from “scripture” as we move toward considering if science itself can be holistically incorporated into a scriptural worldview.

Back to the matter at hand…

The great twentieth century philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce who best bridged the age of modern and postmodern philosophy in his work and (at least in his posthumous legacy) developed semiotics into a major field of philosophy for those who would follow, was a Christian enamored with science–and all other fields of knowledge. He took the maxim of “and you will know them by their fruits” to be relevant to knowledge. That truth was of God, and that it was the duty of all true followers of Christ to seek truth wherever it may be found.  If science represents the best of our knowledge about the world (and the universe) around us and if it seeks truth through rational means, how can it be in opposition to any genuine truth one might glean from “scripture?” To disregard truth when found in favor of dogmatic fixed and “acceptable” principles already held would be heresy of the highest order.  Sadly far too many today in varying religious communities overlook this truth.

So in what ways is scripture popularly misread to oppose science? There are many examples I could present, but the most notable one has to be evolution. The Catholic church condemned Galileo when he helped trumpet the work of Copernicus and firmly established heliocentrism as truth in opposition to the earth-centered geocentric view preferred by mainstream Christianity. Much later the Church apologized and cleared his “heretic” label and the Catholic church itself has since also made peace with Darwinism, at least officially. Most mainline churches have ceased any opposition to science in this realm for decades, though not everyone in the pew may be on board and thus the problem for many of these institutions is sheer silence on such matters.

The major scriptural error one makes regarding evolution is when a person reads one of the two creation stories from the book of Genesis (or conflates the two into one as is probably most common)  and treats them as a science lesson on how humanity came to be, thus missing the entire point of the story. Natural selection and biological evolution is rejected out of hand because it contradicts a flat, conflated, misreading of an ancient holy myth concerning the prehistory of humankind. This is common for many other religious traditions as well, but notably not for most oral religious communities–I can’t imagine too many Native Americans who would launch into an apologetics lesson when pressed on just how it could scientifically be that any of their various creation stories are “true.” We could spend days discussing the various ways the entire book of Genesis has been misread and misused on the wrong side of dozens of issues simply because far too many people have no idea how to read such a book, but creation is certainly a big one. The two creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis are ripe with material that can lead to discussions and debates over family, ecology, the environment, humanity’s changing perception of self, responsibility, psychology, art, language, nature, truth, fable, fact, fiction, epic, etc and on for days. Yet when a group misreads “holy myth” as “science class,” they miss the boat on all of this and open themselves up to complete loss of relevance with their surrounding society. Yet the problem is not one just facing those groups that still hold to “literal” interpretations of “everything” in the Bible, it is also one facing most other groups who still interact with the Bible yet also claim to have made peace with science. The average clergy person from a mainline Christian congregation likely knows a great deal about the Hebrew origins of the words used in the creation stories and the multitude of interpretations these stories are capable of proffering. They may introduce “Adam” as universal man and “Eve” as universal woman in a bible study class and briefly discuss the link between words meaning earth, human, man, Adam, mud, etc. They may do all of this and a great deal more, and they are likely familiar enough with science, evolution, and natural selection to personally have no conflict with science and “faith.” They can teach science as the “how things came to be” and faith as the “why” counterpart of the equation. That is good, and that’s a start. But it’s really not enough.

In my lifetime I have heard my share of sermons. I’ve heard practically every type of Christian denominational sermon as well as sermons (or their equivalent) in Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh congregations; and although I’ve heard many religious leaders of these varying traditions deal seriously with science in classroom and academic settings, I’ve heard all of one sermon incorporating such concepts into a Sunday morning sermon (which happened to be a UU sermon). The one I did hear was done very well, though admittedly in a way that would not suffice in every type of congregation. But that’s the problem–that is one of the symptoms of misreading scripture and the damage thus caused. Knowledge becomes fractured and ways of knowing isolated. Truth is truth–and truth, even of the scriptural sort, should be holistic. It is not enough to posit one source of knowledge as the how and another as the why–perhaps there needs to be a level of tension, but there needs to be an on-going conversation nonetheless. If science is the best way we know about the how of the world in which we live, the universe beyond, and the origins of both, then it needs to be incorporated into a genuine scriptural approach even if only in the background as a prompt to ask fresh questions. The inspiration and knowledge to be gained from opening up to truth wherever it may be found can only add and never truly negate. Evolution by natural selection reveals the inter-connectedness of all life–not just human life, though the idea that we are one large human family with deep and shared ancestral roots is certainly a big deal with more than a little potential religious impetus–but all of life, which has large ramifications on duty, responsibility, ecology, and the role of “caretaker” in which the creation stories began in the first place. What science has revealed in DNA, biology, paleontology, etc. about the intertwining of life, and in Physics and Astronomy about the expansion and sheer beauty of the universe itself proves that Creation is an on-going process. If such truths expand your idea of what “God” truly may be, if your theism grows, shakes, or transforms from a narrow concept of deity to something much larger, then there may be room to grow in all other aspects of spirituality and religiosity. Yet this doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of scripture itself. This just means you begin to treat scripture more like scripture than like some other narrower boxed-in field. We’ll explore more of what that might mean as we progress through this series.

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2 Responses to “Scripture in Common Usage Part III: Oversight III – Scripture in Opposition to Science”

  1. […] if I see any positive applications of scripture. We’ve looked at scripture being misused by being set up in opposition to science, misinterpreted by being divorced from history, and being misconstrued by flat readings which […]

  2. […] III. Scripture in Common Usage III: Oversight III – Scripture in Opposition to Science […]

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