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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Facebook's Recent "Science vs. the Bible" Table

I came across a peculiar image on Facebook recently. I’ll let you read it, then I’ll address the problems I see. But here's the assumption: I'm not trying to make claims about science and the Bible, but more about what the texts used say. I am less concerned with how the Bible and science do or don't match up and more troubled by what the chart claims and alters in the biblical texts. So, for your consideration, here's the fun little table, followed by my observations.

  1. Isaiah 40.22: The phrase is “the circle of the earth” (NRSV, NIV, ESV). This does not mean a sphere. If there is any sort of sphere to the earth, it is in the conception of a dome above from Genesis 1 and Sheol beneath. If the earth is spherical, why did the ancients believe in supporting pillars underneath or above it (cf. the point under Job 26.7)?
  2. Jeremiah 33.22: Innumerable stars, yes. Unmeasurable sand, no. There is a finite mass to the earth, and it is theoretically possible to measure the sand on the earth. While it is impractical to do so (gathering up all the sand in the world? Really?), it is by no means impossible. Do not ignore another “scientific” statement in the text for the sake of your argument.
  3. Job 28.25: The text says the weight of the wind, not of air. Either this is a metaphor for force (NIV) or something else, but no one would argue that wind is weighted. Air has weight since it has mass within a gravitational field. But wind is just a shift in temperature and pressure between two locations, a moving of air.
  4. 1 Corinthians 15.41: This one, at least, is true. But it appears to be less a statement of the nature of stars than a glorification of the power of God.
  5. Job 38.19-20: This may imply movement of light, but it also suggests light has a home. What’s scientific about that?
  6. Job 26.7: This is similar to the Jeremiah 33.22 situation, where one situation is used for the sake of the table’s argument but the other is flatly ignored. The stretching of the north is strange language, but is not something we take literally. The rest of Job 26 has some interesting takes on reality. For instance, in v. 11, since when does heaven (i.e., the sky) sit on pillars?
  7. Ecclesiastes 1.6: Okay, first, I assume the writer of this table meant either “cycles” or “curves” and not “cyclones” (unless they take “cyclones” to mean a system of rotating winds rather than a type of storm system). Second, while the text may claim the wind moves on a circuit, does it do so on a scientific or rhetorical basis? This may also be informed by the constant repetition of “chasing after wind,” a situation that ultimately proves fruitless, as well as the other comparisons immediately before and after (coming and going of generations, the sun, streams and seas).
  8. 2 Samuel 22.16; Jonah 2.6: The text of 2 Sam 22.16 mentions “channel, stream, brooks,” with the most likely translation being “channel” (though the NIV renders it as “valley”). If this is meant to be understood as ruts in the deep of the ocean, then why not use the word for valley? The question of whether Jonah 2.6 understood the “roots of the mountains” to be underwater remains, but I wonder whether it is more the language of completeness (that God is inescapable whether under the sea or near the mountain). Either is possible, I suppose.
  9. Leviticus 17.11: Not much to be said here, except that life can exist without blood. The Bible does not appear to understand plants as living, nor does it have a concept of bacteria or other organisms invisible to the naked eye. This passage is there for the sake of the purity laws, the reason Israelites could not consume blood but were allowed to sacrifice it.
  10. Hebrews 11.3: The claim that God made the seen from the unseen could come from three angles (at least off the top of my head). First, in a religious arena, this could be a statement of the creation as being ex nihilo, out of nothing. God made all things which can be seen out of nothing, which cannot be seen. Second, also religious, the creation narrative could be understood as God’s fashioning of the world before the existence of light, because without light all things are invisible. Third, in the secular realm, the Greeks postulated the idea of atoms before any Christian or Jew did, and such a notion was not completely foreign to India as well. These were the case at least 400 years before Christianity. It is possible that the author of Hebrews adopted this philosophical understanding of the universe for the sake of his argument (which is not unheard of in Christian circles; check out Justin Martyr, for example, who absorbed secular philosophy and reformed it for the cause of Christianity in his day).
  11. Job 38.16: The claim that the seas have springs is intriguing and, now, understood to be factual. However, a cursory glance at the rest of Job 38 reveals that it is not exactly a scientific book (8: shutting in the sea with doors; 17: death has gates?; 22: snow is gathered in heavenly storehouses, apparently; 35: lightning talks).

One final issue to be discussed: I’m glad science changes. If it didn’t, I’d be suspicious. And while there have been changes between columns 2 and 3, aren't we glad for those changes (assuming they're true)? We now understand the universe to be much more vast and magnificent than the authors of the Bible could have possibly imagined! But for those who claim the Bible never changes or never did change, there is a wealth of information that disagrees with such an assertion.

In terms of claims made by the Bible about the nature of reality, some are hard to swallow while others are simply incorrect. Is there a liquid or solid layer between the earth and the water beyond? Nope. Is the moon a source of light? No, it is a reflector of the sun’s rays. Does the sun move while the earth remains still? It is the sun which remains and the earth which follows a path around the sun. So on the off-chance that the Bible makes a statement which lines up with current scientific claims, one must remember the numerous points of disagreement. The church no longer holds to a flat earth as it once did, nor the moon as a light, nor the earth as the center of the universe, its galaxy, let alone its own solar system. But let's not change the text for the sake of a point to be made in the ongoing and frustrating battle between religion and science. These are points for conversation, areas of discussion. So let's have a conversation, shall we?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Progressive Revelation and Homosexual Marriage

In the past few weeks (and let's be honest, years) I've heard various differing positions on homosexuals, their relationships with each other, and positions on their marital rights. Doug Hankins offered his take on what he understands to be the three primary reactions on this particular topic, and I definitely think he's on to something. To be in calm and rational discussion is certainly better with controversial issues than to pursue an aggressive attitude which can shut any communication down among differing opinions.

However, there is one reaction I have yet to read anywhere, which is in some ways more concerned with the progress of theology than what the Bible claims in terms of sexual relationships. There is a concept called "progressive revelation" which roughly claims that later books of the Bible contain a fuller revelation from God. While I have a few issues with this (it can most certainly be misused), I think a nuanced version of progressive revelation can be helpful for the discussion.

Does the view of God change throughout the Bible? Most certainly. With each new generation, the authors of the day brought pen to paper so that they could more fully understand God's character. God in Genesis (or perhaps that book's perception of God) is not quite the same as God in Isaiah, nor is Jesus identical from gospel to gospel. If Hebrews was written later rather than earlier, does a progressive revelatory view dictate that Jesus is indeed of the order of Melchizedek? Most likely, despite the lack of any other evidence for understanding Jesus in such a light. Earlier books have no conception of a physical resurrection or of much of an afterlife at all, or of a Son of God, or many other things which are now taken for granted. Does this mean that the earliest followers of Yahweh did not go to some form of heaven? There are a great many questions to consider.

My question for this discussion is this: If theology in the Bible can evolve over time, why do we tend to assume that it stopped progressing after the Bible's "official" canonization? If we're honest and know just a little of the past, we can admit that the understanding of God has changed continually throughout Jewish-Christian history. The additional understanding of God as Trinity, christological readings of OT texts, and any number of scientific discoveries that we hold as normative which do not agree with biblical evidence (heliocentrism vs. geocentrism; the moon as a source of light vs. as a reflector of light; etc.) are a history of our changing understanding of God.

So if our understanding of God can and has changed throughout the span of history, is it still open to change? Some things haven't changed, because people have almost always held them to be true. The name of God in Exodus 34.5-7 has provided a lens through which other later texts can be understood (which in some ways reverses the position of progressive revelation), but has he ever ceased being the one who keeps "steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and sin"? I would hope not. But as our understanding of God continues to grow, to evolve, we must do the same. It was not too long ago that racial segregation and slavery were met with scriptural support, but such an understanding of scripture was done away with for good reason. It seems a great portion of the world has condemned slavery because it was not justifiable. If we feel the same kind of oppression in whatever days lie ahead, will we allow our understanding of God to grow, or will we attempt to ensure he remains contained and safe? If we seek first the kingdom, will we use it to oppress or to liberate? If NT texts made no mention of homosexuality, would we continue to use the OT texts for our convenience, or would we share in Peter's vision where a voice says, "What God has made clean, you must not call unclean"?