There is an interesting discussion taking place over Peter Enns’ reflections on the creation narratives in the Old Testament. Peter Enns is an evangelical Christian biblical scholar, with a PhD from Harvard, and was once, according to Jerry Coyne in his response to Enns, “the Senior Fellow in Biblical Studies at Biologos.” (Jason Rosenhouse has pitched in with his own thoughts on the same subject.)
First of all, the important point that Peter Enns makes, and that, according to Rosenhouse, is all that he should have said:
If evolution is right about how humans came to be, then the biblical story of Adam and Eve isn’t. If you believe, as evangelicals do, that God himself is responsible for what’s in the Bible, you have a problem on your hands. Once you open the door to the possibility that God’s version of human origins isn’t what actually happened — well, the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope. The next step is uncertainty, chaos and despair about one’s personal faith.
That, more or less, is the evangelical log flume of fear, and I have seen it played out again and again.
In recent years, the matter has gotten far worse. Popular figures like Richard Dawkins have done an in-your-face-break-the-backboard-slam-dunk over the heads of defenders of the biblical story. They’ve taken great delight in making sure Main Street knows evolution is true, and therefore the Bible is “God’s big book of bad ideas” (Bill Maher) and Christians are morons for taking it seriously. Evangelicals have been on high alert damage control mode.
Then you have the mapping of the human genome. It’s a done deal: humans and primates are 90-something percent related genetically. The best explanation for it, geneticists tell us, is that humans evolved from primates. Since my greatest scientific achievement is doing puppet shows with dissected feral cats in high school biology, I feel I have no right to contest — and I likely speak for many other evangelicals in that regard (sans puppet show). And it doesn’t help things that an evangelical, Francis Collins, was the one who pointed all this out, got the Presidential Medal of Honor for it, and talked about it (twice) on “The Colbert Report.”
If that wasn’t enough, evolution is being used nowadays to explain all sorts of things about us humans — including why we believe in God. If God is a product of evolution, like bipedalism and tool making, well, the jig’s up (and not just for evangelicals).
As Rosenhouse says, that’s pretty good. This is the way the world is folks — get over it! But of course Enns couldn’t stop there, because he wants to preserve something for Christianity. In the face of all that he has accepted, can he still do this? Enns thinks he can. All you have to do, he seems to think, is to read the creation story in a figurative way, and the problem will be solved.
But can you solve the problem of the disconnexion between the Bible and science by reading some stories figuratively? According to Enns — and this is the important part — the stories were meant to be read that way. They were just so stories written — or perhaps at first recited — as a kind of lead in to what was really on their authors’ minds. And here (we are to suppose) we fade from fantasy to reality, from the poetic introduction to the claim about the place of human beings in the purposes of God. Enns begins by scaring the boogeyman away:
Evangelicals look to the Bible to settle important questions of faith. So, faced with a potentially faith-crushing idea like evolution, evangelicals naturally ask right off the bat, “What does the Bible say about that?” And then informed by “what the Bible says,” they are ready to make a “biblical” judgment.
This is fine in principle, but in the evolution debate this mindset is a problem: It assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins.” It isn’t. And as long as evangelicals continue to assume that it does, the conflict between the Bible and evolution is guaranteed.
So, the idea is, get rid of the old idea that the creation narratives are about human origins — that is, meant to tell us how human beings actually came to be — and the problems simply disappear.
The solution is simply to assert that that’s not what these narratives are about. As he says:
Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch — an understandable conclusion to draw. They wrote stories about “the beginning,” however, not to lecture their people on the abstract question “Where do humans come from?” They were storytellers, drawing on cultural traditions, writing about the religious — and often political — beliefs of the people of their own time.
Their creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples.
Now, notice something about the way that is expressed. “Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch — an understandable conclusion to draw.” He goes on immediately to reverse this, by suggesting a false contrast. These anicent peoples had no intention of lecturing people about abstract questions about human origins. And that, of course, is true. But it doesn’t follow from that that they weren’t providing stories that they believed to be true. There were no universities in those days, no abstract theorising about human origins, but that’s not the context in which the stories were told. They were told when it was possible for people to think precisely that “somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch.” So even if, to us, the stories are myths, and can only be read figuratively, because science provides a more reliable theory of how things came to be, it does not follow that they were myths for those who first told the stories, because they lived at a time when it was possible to think in ways that seem poetic to us, but, for them, provided a way of understanding themselves and the world they lived in. Just because it’s not science, doesn’t mean that people didn’t think the world could be understood in precisely these terms.
In fact, though, there are two creation stories. The first one, in the first chapter of Genesis is widely thought to have been composed by a priestly writer who was, in fact, thinking poetically. The interated “Let there be ….” “And it was done.” have a liturgical cadence, and may have been part of a temple ritual. But it is also very realistic. Whereas surrounding pagans thought of sun, moon and stars as gods and goddesses, this creation story makes it clear that they are things created by God, simply by commanding them to be. So there is clearly a mixture of the poetic and the realistic in this narrative.
The second narrative is very, very different, however, and it looks very much as though someone had tried to think through how things had actually happened. It is given not only a location — rivers are named, and territory mapped out – but a process. At first there was just a dry, fruitless earth, because God had not caused rain to fall on the earth. But then notice how the order of things progressed. First, water springs up to cover the face of the earth, and God creates the man from the dust, and breathes into him the breath of life, and then he plants a garden for the man to live in, and so on (see Gen 2. 4-8). It’s a plausible story. It can be believed, and it no doubt was believed for many generations, possibly for millennia. People still manage it, so it is not clear why Enns should think it was plainly meant to be poetic. I do not think it is credible to think that the purpose for telling the story was simply a poetic warm up to what the writer considered of most importance, namely people. Of course, that is important, but much more important is to account for human beings in such a way that it puts them in the centre of things, in a human sized world. Enns talks about the Bible as though it is only here that we find creation stories which distinguish one people from another. Of course, that’s not true. Creation stories are common, and are, for the most part, taken seriously as accounts of how particular peoples came to be. Put them side by side and they must be poetry. Take them one by one, and they are serious attempts to grasp how the world and the people in it came to be.
Let’s not forget that people still hold onto these stories as descriptive of the way things really are and for a similar reason. The creation stories are immediately graspable. The world is finite, easily assimilated by ordinary people. There is no need for complex mathematics, no need to try to get your mind around billions and billions of years and a universe more immense than we can even imagine. Everything is local, immediate and easy to understand. If it seems like all this was made just for you, that’s because it was. Not only was it made just for you, it was made for a purpose, and the purpose is you. You not only have a purpose, you have a responsibility. And so on. It’s no accident that these accessible stories are often still preferred to the complexities of science, which tend to push human beings and their lives into a small, unimportant corner of the universe.
However, it is abundantly evident to us, as it was to the people who wrote about the beginning of things, and their meaning and purpose, that if the world was created by God with us in mind, something is out of joint, and there has to be a reason for it. Since it couldn’t be God, it must be us, because we’re the only ones around with the responsibility. We have been given responsibility to care for the earth, and yet there is pain and suffering, want and fear, plenty and privation, work that makes your body ache, and something so obvious that no one could miss it. Men toil in the fields to scratch out a miserable living, women, on the other hand, bear children, often in great pain, and yet men and women are simply drawn like magnets to each other so that there are more children, more pain, and more work to keep tummies full. What looks like a gift in the creation story looks more like punishment when seen up close and personal. If it’s punishment — and what else could it be? – someone must be to blame, and, again, the finger points straight at us!
Is this just poetry? Later on, people really would try to come to terms with this. In the book of Job we have someone wondering how it was possible to understand suffering. If it was punishment, Job couldn’t think of anything that he deserved to be punished for — which indicates that that was a real dispute at the time. Good people suffered, so suffering can’t be punishment for sin. And if Job is right, as in the story God says he is, then some suffering is simply mysterious and beyond our understanding. From the Christian point of view, however, you can’t just say that suffering is simply inexplicable. That would make a nonsense of Christianity, for Jesus came, as Christians say, to save us from our sins. In fact, Jesus came as a second Adam — and as Paul says, “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I Corinthians 5.22) In other words, however metaphorical the creation story and the story of the fall may be, there has to be a residuum of plain truth about it, or the whole of Christianity disappears in a puff of metaphorical smoke. You simply can’t have someone dying on a real cross to save people from metaphorical sinfulness. Something has to be real, after all. And if the creation story is poetry, and the story of the first sin is simply a poetic trope, then what was the real suffering and death of Jesus all about? Can this be figurative too?
People like Denis Alexander, whose Biologos white paper on models of Adam and Eve and the fall, models, that is, that could be consistent with evolutionary biology — according to which they cannot be the physical progenitors of the human race — know that they have a problem. But Enns wants to skip the problem and go right to the conclusion without noticing that he leaves Christianity floundering in his wake. Either Christianity speaks to the actual human condition, and thus is a resolution to some of the problems which seem to attend the human condition, or it doesn’t and isn’t. But Enns doesn’t even go there. He just wants to resolve the inconsistency of the creation stories and evolution. He does this by throwing the whole redemption story overboard (because he doesn’t even ask how creation-fall-redemption are connnected), for if the redemption story is just a metaphor, then Jesus couldn’t have really achieved anything by really dying. He must be just a metaphor, but a metaphor for …. what?