(from my forthcoming book Beyond the God Delusion)
There is no quarrel between the Bible and science, on the contrary we need the Bible in order to appreciate science. Science has made its marvellous discoveries through the objectivity of its method, but it has paid a high price in terms of subjectivity. We now know that the earth developed not in seven days but billions of years. Well that’s very interesting but it’s so far outside my time scale I can’t really handle it. The wonder doesn’t impinge on my life. I find Stephen Hawking’s ideas about the origin of the universe awesome, in fact too awesome. Let alone Hawking’s mathematics engaging my emotions, I couldn’t even begin to understand them. I find it amazingly fascinating that science tells us subatomic elements are both particles and waves, and there is a realm of rationality that it is beyond our ordinary every day logic and common sense to understand. But I just feel intellectually winded, as if hit in the stomach by one of Stephen Gerrard’s free kicks.
The Bible humanizes these remarkable facts, enables us to absorb them emotionally and feel their wonder, and renders them personally available. Here are three examples. I don’t know what billions of years feels like, I do know what seven days feels like. Far from contradicting science, Genesis is amazingly parallel to it. Hawking tells us that the universe sprang spontaneously out of nothing and that is just what the Bible tells us too. The Bible’s equivalent of Hawking’s nothing is tohu wa bohu, an empty and void waste. ‘The spirit of God hovered over the tohu wa bohu’. Far from God manufacturing the universe like a watch, s(h)e simply lets it spontaneously happen. God said ‘let it be’. Just as in the Copenhagen theory of quantum physics things only appear out of nothing because the scientist observes them, so God observes the universe. God saw that it was good. Just as science does, the Bible tells us that all there was in the very beginning was light. Just as science tells us that the earth developed in orderly sequence, so in the Bible we have inanimate things followed by plants followed by animals.
Just as science tells us we are made of the same atoms as everything else, so the Bible says, but far more poetically, that we are made from the dust of the earth. Just as Darwin taught us that humans evolved from apes, so in Genesis they were preceded by a pre-human ‘earth creature’ ha ‘adama.[i] (I bet Dawkins didn’t know that). How Adam’s rapturous cries when he first sees Eve ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ moves the heart in a way The Origin of Species does not. Science is able to tell us that one object evolved after another because the evidence has been objectively observed by scientists. But in Genesis the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. The word for ‘hover’ occurs again in Deuteronomy. It means an eagle hoveringly lovingly and watchfully over its nest. Whereas science talks about test tubes, Genesis talks of love. In Genesis cosmology breaks into song. Could I suggest that before he writes any more sweeping condemnations of the Bible, Dawkins studies some biblical criticism, even learns some Hebrew, the better to appreciate the magnificent poetry and splendour of this greatest and grandest hymn to the creation?
My second example is the Book of Job. Science tells us that there is a realm of reality that is beyond our rational faculties to grasp, and for me everything starts from this amazing discovery. But by definition we cannot grasp it, not intellectually and still less emotionally. But Job presents us with poetry that enables us to lay a hand even on this. ‘Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind. Who is this that darkens my counsel by words without knowledge?’ The author himself talks almost with the curiosity of a scientist:
‘Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge?’
‘The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,
But are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth
And lets them be warmed on the ground
Forgetting that a foot might crush them
And that wild beasts may trample them
She deals cruelly with her young
As if they were not hers…’
In surreal images that almost break the bonds of language the author communicates the wonder of this world beyond common sense and logic:
‘He smells the battle from afar
The thunder of the captains and the shouting…
Who can open the doors of his face?
Round about his teeth is terror,
His back is made of rows of shields
Shut up closely as with a seal, so close
That no air can come between them…
His sneezings flash forth like light
And his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn
Out of his mouth go flaming torches
Sparks of fire leap forth and out of his nostrils
Comes forth smoke, in his neck abides strength
And terror dances before him…’
My emotions can do something with this in a way that they can’t when I’m confronted by articles in Nature or Scientific American.
My third example is drawn from the Jewish Day of Atonement. On that day the High Priest walked through the seven stages of the temple, each of which represented a day of the creation. Finally, taking off his clothes and wearing special garments made of linen, he entered the Holy of Holies which represented the first day of the creation and the inmost secrets of the universe. In the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant surmounted by figures of two golden angels. In this theology, the High Priest took all the sins of the people with him into the Holy of Holies, and there the sins were, as it were, symbolically annihilated through encounter with the holiness of God. The priest offered sacrifice before coming out and announcing the good news of salvation to the people. [ii] Is there not something analogous with the scientist wearing his white coat and entering a specially consecrated place in order to discover the inmost secrets of the universe, and when he has done so announcing his good news to the people?
Most of all though Dawkins has misunderstood the Bible’s doctrine of the Redemption. He badly needs to attend a course of post-Vatican 2 Catholic theology (WHAT! I am delighted by the very thought of his flooring Jesuits just as he did the Sky Pilot). Jesus does not have to suffer on the cross because an angry Jehovah demands blood in order that his anger might be appeased, but because the evangelists see the passion and resurrection as the fulfillment of the crossing of the Red Sea from captivity into freedom. Christ’s sacrifice is seen as the fulfillment of the sacrifice in the Holy of Holies, and in the resurrection accounts the reference to angels in the tomb is probably there to make the connection with the Ark of the Covenant. According to Catholic theology Jesus takes the whole of humanity, in fact everything that has ever or will exist, into God through his passion and resurrection. In fact, far from mankind being punished, through the passion mankind becomes God. The Church’s liturgy is absolutely clear on the point:
‘God, our Father
our human nature is the wonderful work of your hands,
made still more wonderful by your work of redemption,
Your son took to himself our manhood,
grant us a share in the godhead of Jesus Christ’
who lives and reigns …’
says the collect for Christmas day.
‘But in this the final age he has spoken to us in the Son whom he made heir to the whole universe and through whom he created all orders of existence’ says the Epistle to the Hebrews.
‘All things were created through him and for him, he is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the Church, he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent, for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether in earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ are verses from an early Christian hymn Paul quotes to the Colossians.
Paul writes in The Epistle to the Romans ‘God will be everything to everybody’ (that does seem an awful long way from Paley. No watches here)
and again in Romans: ‘…because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves…’ (I’m pinning my hopes on St Paul that I will meet our dear cats again in the great hereafter. Still, if Dawkins is right and death is just the big black out at least we won’t know it is, I suppose)
Quoting another hymn, this time from the Epistle to the Philippians and probably the earliest fragment of New Testament text that we have, Paul writes:
‘And being found in human form
he humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross
Therefore God has exalted him
And bestowed upon him the name that is above every name…’
There is only one name that is above every name and that is the name of God.
Why did Christ have to suffer? Not so that God’s anger could be appeased but so that God, because s(h)e is also human, could become free. Because in the whole panoply of creation only humans are free, God had to become human. In Catholic theology God is not God and man, but God is man and man is God, as a particle is a wave and a wave is a particle. Therefore. Christ who is eternally and timelessly God humanly became God because he died on the cross, because he freely chose to do so. He had to suffer because to freely choose the good there has to evil to choose it from. Christ’s passion and resurrection is the passage whereby everything that has, does and ever will exist passes from its separate particulated state back into the superposition, the unity of all being, from which it came. Through humanity the earth and everything else becomes conscious, and through Christ humanity and everything else becomes God.
[i] Tribble Phyllis 1978 God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality Fortress Press pp. 72-144
[ii] See Margaret Barker 2004 Temple Theology: an introduction. SPCK