That doggy has big ears, that doggy has a small tail, that doggy has antlers, wait what?
When a you were a kid your brain was learning all sorts of things, including what a dog was. Once you learned that a dog was an animal that had four legs you framed a conception of dogs in your mind, which played into your small worldview- animals with four legs are dogs. But then you’re driving on a country road (well hopefully your parent is driving not you) and you see an animal in a field and say “big doggy”, nope, that’s a cow. You’ve run into a significant conflict – there are lots of animals that have four legs that aren’t dogs. So now you had to learn new words and ways of categorizing things. In psychology these are called schemas.
You encounter new information which your brain categorizes and relates to other information already in your brain. So, not all four legged animals are dogs. Dogs fit into the four legged animal category, but not all four legged animals fit into the dog category. This is a very simple example, but it’s what happens all the time when we are presented with new information, and we have to ask the question, “How does this fit into the categories I have, and what I already know about the world?”
This means, some things will fit into the categories we already have and some things will create new categories. But when our new categories or information seem to conflict with the old, we are at cross road. Do we get rid of the old information completely (maybe none of the four legged animals are dogs, do dogs even exist?) or do we need to tweak our categories to understand this new information (four legs isn’t the best way to understand what is and isn’t a dog.)
So with all this category shifting we may come to one of the big questions so many people have who are from faith backgrounds, “Can I believe in God and still believe in science?” or “Are science and faith in conflict with one another?”.
How this usually comes up is, people are taught one thing growing up in their home and church, then they hit middle school science class and things all of a sudden don’t add up.
There are a group of people who I’ve trusted my whole life, parents, Sunday school teachers, pastors, saying one thing, and now this other group of people who I trust, teachers, and text book writers, are saying another thing.
Before we address this topic head on, let’s take a look at how we got here, because for the majority of humanity’s existence, the existence of the divine has just been assumed, it’s only in the last few centuries that our way of thinking about life has changed.
For much of human history truth was presented in the forms of art, stories, music and poems. People experienced and shared the realities of their existence through poetic means. This still happens today. This is why when you hear a song, or a read a poem or see a movie, sometimes we say it “speaks to you”, or “it hits you” or “I really get that.” The realities and truths that are represented in that piece of art connect to your experience.
Well something really big happened in history- math. The Greeks in particular started to study mathematics in a big way during the 6th – 3rd centuries BC (600-300BC). You know Pythagoras’ theorem, you learned in geometry : a² + b² = c². That comes out of this period. This began a steady increase in understanding things in quantifiable terms.
Now jump forward (way forward) to the mid to late 17th century AD (1650-1700 AD) to a time called the enlightenment. This was a time where knowledge was being shared in huge ways. Western thinking was beginning to be dominated by reason and analysis. Names like Isaac Newton, and Galileo should ring a bell. These two were influential at the beginning and just before this time period.
Now this more calculated way of thinking has done wonders for the advancement of our society. Engineering, science, leaps in our technology and understanding have come about because of this shift. We can carry around 5000 songs at once because of this, we can communicate with people on the other side of the globe, we have medicines that save lives, I’m writing this write now (the least of these accomplishments) because of technology and this way of thinking.
The issue is that this way of thinking has dominated what we see as true. This quantifiable, measurable mindset has made us quick to dismiss truth found in other places, like art, and poetry. Some have called this the difference between MathTruth and PoemTruth.
We’ve been so inundated with MathTruth that when we go to the Bible we bring those expectations with us, forgetting that the majority of this book was written before MathTruth even existed or was the dominant way of viewing the world.
Does that mean that the bible isn’t true? No! Not at all! It just means it contains a different kind of truth than MathTruth. The Bible is PoemTruth.
So let’s look at one of the prime examples that comes up when people start asking questions about science and faith- the beginning, Genesis.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said “Let there be Light” and there was, and it was good, and he separated light into ‘day’ and darkness into ‘night’ and there was evening and morning – the first day
And God said “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God separated the water under and above the vault and called it “sky” – and there was evening and morning – the second day.
And God said “Let water be gathered to one place and let dry ground appear” and there was ‘land’ and ‘seas’
And God said “Let the land produce vegetation: seed bearing plants and trees on the land according to their kinds”…and it was good- and there was evening and morning- the third day.
And God said “let there be lights in the sky to separate day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark the seasons and days and years,..” And God created the great light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night-and it was good, and there was evening and morning – the fourth day.
And God said “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly about the earth.” So God created them according to their kinds – and it was good- and there was evening and morning – the fifth day.
And God said “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds” and it was so, and it was good.
And then God said “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish and birds, and livestock and wild animals.” So God created them, male and female he created them. – and it was good – and there was evening and morning – the sixth day.
By the seventh day God had finished the work had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested, and made the seventh day holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
There are so many interesting things we could learn from this amazing poem that starts God’s story. The reason I’ve written it out this way is so we can hear the flow, the groove, the pattern that makes us see that this is a poem.
People often make this out to be an account of how God made the world in six literal days. Which leads us ask , what is a literal day anyway?
Well a day is one revolution of our earth (in relation to the…wait for it…Sun) which takes 24 hours. A year is 365 of these lovely days which is the time it takes the Earth to go around, yup you guessed it again, the Sun. By the way that rotation and trip is made possible because at the equator the earth is spinning at 1670 km/h and moving through space at 108,000km/h (and you wonder why sometimes it ‘feels like your world’s spinning’). So when people talk about the 6 literal days we often miss the fact that the ‘heavenly bodies’ that are there to serve as signs to mark the seasons, days and years, don’t show up until the fourth day. You can’t have a literal day without the markers to measure it by.
You see our scientific methods are great, but the Bible isn’t asking, or answering scientific questions. The big bang, for the record, actually scared scientists at first (of course, big bangs scare most people haha), because the big bang meant that the universe hadn’t always ‘just been there’ there was actually a beginning and that sounded a lot like a poem that had been around for a long time. But even saying that the beginning of Genesis lines up with the big bang theory can lead us to miss the point of the story.
What is the point then?
What happens in this story? God creates (in Hebrew bara)
Land and Seas
Suns and Moons
Birds and Fish
Animals and Humans
If we look at the pattern, God is forming and filling the earth. God forms light on day one, and “fills” light with stars on day four. God forms sky on day two, and fills it with birds on day five. God creates land on day three and fills it with animals and humans on day six. Which makes sense if we read the start of the poem. The earth was formless and empty.
The Hebrew is tohuw and bohuw,( let’s say it together, tohuw, bohuw, wasn’t that fun!?). The connotation of these words is not good to say the least. Tohuw is also used in other places to mean vain, confusion, wilderness, nothing, waste. Part of this poem is about a God, who takes things which are tohuw and bohuw and makes them towb or ‘good’. But not just good as in.
How’s it going?
But GOOD in its fullest sense, as in everything that is beautiful, beneficial, excellent, pleasing, wonderful, breath taking, full of life, simply the best (cue the Tina!).
This poem is so deep but for the moment let’s focus on this. Imagine the power of this poem for its first hearers, coming out of slavery into the wilderness. They are coming into the unknown, into the tohuw and bohuw, but THIS God can bring life into that, cool!
So now that we’ve started thinking about this poem in slightly different terms. Lets revisit the issue of faith and science in general.
The issue arises or truly becomes an issue, when we are trying to shove these PoemTruths and MathTruths into the same categories. Science and the Bible aren’t asking the same questions, especially when it comes to things like origins. The Bibles ask the question, why– why are we here. And what kind of God is THIS God, this- YHWH. Science is asking the question how – how, in our quantifiable understanding, did we get here. Science wants to talk about atoms and cells and particles, the Bible wants to talk about hope and promise and love.
These are certainly different categories, but they are different categories that can stand side by side, rather than needing to be assimilated into one another, or defenestrated (that means to throw something out a window, neat huh?).
I won’t act like this answers all the question we may have. In fact it might give us more questions to ask, but that’s OK. In fact that’s a good thing. You know why science really took off in the first place? It’s because people were amazed at the world God had created and they wanted to see how he put it together. Science was birthed out the appreciation for the creation around us, not to belittle it. So we should keep asking questions, keep discovering, keep digging deeper, because you know what will happen? We’ll probably find more questions to ask. And God is there for the ride, welcoming us to explore his vastness as we explore the universe and marvel at its size. He’s there in the minuteness of the subatomic world where things are itty bitty (again a technical term) and scientists are amazed and astonished every day, and he’s there in the vastness of space, which is literally expanding as you read this.
We may still have questions about things like evolution. For example, if we evolved from more primitive life forms where does the Adam and Eve story come in? That’s a great questions. Or what about dinosaurs? That was a big one when I was a kid (duh, I was a little boy, and what’s cooler than a giant reptile am I right?).
I don’t want to break your brain by making it do a bunch of category shifting all at once so I’ll make just two more points.
One, the main point. Science and the Bible are asking different questions, one is talking about MathTruth and one is talking about PoemTruth. When we appreciate them for what they really are we can be opened up to the amazing things they have to say to us.
Two. We have to understand the Bible was written for real people at a real point in history to guide them in their real life issues. If you had someone in the 2nd millennium (2000s BC Abraham’s setting) talking about evolution it would have made everyone look at you like you were nuts, and you would have probably been thrown into the ocean “where you say all life came from haha”. It would have missed the point of those real people in their real time, and God is someone who meets us where we are at, here and now (or in that case there and then). So in order to understand these texts and receive the amazing messages they still have for us, we need to understand they are first speaking to the people who first heard and wrote them, with their ancient understandings of the world.
So can I be a Christian and believe in science? YES! Because though one may be talking more about PoemTruth and one may be talking more about MathTruth, they are both truth and all truth belongs to God. We can seek him in the stars and in the dirt, in our Bibles and in our conversations and he will show up. Because as much as we may be trying to reach him, he’s trying to reach us more than we could ever know.
So let’s add that to our worldview. God is speaking to us, in lots of ways.
Are we listening?