Belief, myth and reality in creationism and evolution theory

PART I:  The creation stories, viewed faithfully and realistically

Introduction

Creationism is still weak worldwide but seems to be slowly but surely gaining ground (including in intellectual circles). Probably a lot of believing Christians will rejoice about this, but I would like to make it clear at the outset that there is a great danger of them being lured into the deceptive trap of a “false fundamentalism”.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, I regard certain forms of ‘fundamentalism’ as positive cultural contributions, which can be broadening and enriching in a peaceful dialogue with dissenters. False fundamentalism, on the other hand, is a form of fanaticism that emphasizes the letter rather than the spirit of precepts and texts and shifts attention to details and points of contention that, on closer inspection, are not of essential importance.

As an archaeologist, I taught the theory of evolution for several years. In the following, I try to correct some misconceptions from a personal point of view  on this very controversial subject. In the first place, religious or exegetical opinions are judged and then the scientific value of creationist and Darwinian arguments is weighed.

Since the subject discussed here is so far-reaching and complex, it makes little sense to write a few laconic remarks about this.  Some passages of an essentially scientific nature may be less easy to digest for readers who are less familiar with this topic. The text published here is a translation, based on a series of articles by me in the former Flemish religious journal Paradox, year 8, 3-6 and year 9, 1 (1999).

Faith and science

With these two areas in which human thought evolves, the situation is somewhat like the separation between the powers of Church and State: theoretically, it does not seem so difficult to delimit them clearly, but in practice it is sometimes not clear in which area one finds oneself. One of the reasons for this is the tendency of our mind to simplify, which on the one hand contributes to making our intellect more dynamic, but on the other hand leads to superficiality and the danger of conceptual confusions.

Faith and science provide us with elements to better grasp reality. Science gives us insight into external or observable aspects, with questions like “how? where? and when? ». For its part, faith satisfies our thirst for a much more fundamental field of knowledge and provides us with answers to questions such as “why?”, which tell us something about the interior and the meaning of reality.

In faith we, as time-bound people, seek contact with God, who is above and outside time, which He Himself created and on which He can intervene freely. However, our reasoning ability cannot imagine timelessness or say anything meaningful about it; even extremely long or short times are incomprehensible to us. In addition, our brain itself needs time to process or understand something and over time we forget a lot of things that are not repeated regularly. So, to understand something about God’s being or is creative actions, we cannot do much with our intellectual abilities, if we do not appeal to a timeless inner logic that the Creator has engraved in us.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the gap between creationist and evolutionary views is essentially a time gap. The theory of evolution is based on scientific observations – therefore time-bound – and juggles with millions of years. Creationism is based on the Bible, a religious text that teaches us the eternal and timeless values and truths that animate and govern reality, and it starts from the biblical texts to reduce the age of everything that exists to a few thousand years.  

When the theory of evolution itself evolves from a scientific hypothesis to an evolutionary dogma, or when the biblical creation evocation is given scientific status, in both cases one finds oneself in a treacherous swampy no man’s land. After all, one can violate scientificity in two directions: either abuse it in the service of a doctrine, or forcibly attribute scientificity to a presupposed “truth”. Pure positive science focuses only on reproducible experiences and facts that are perceptible and verifiable with the human senses.

Let us first consider what we can say in this context in a rational, therefore scientifically justified, way about: 

The Bible and the Book of Genesis

From a Christian point of view, the Bible is the collection of texts by God-inspired writers, recorded and transmitted by the Israelites, the Jews and finally the Christians.

In exegetical presentations, the basic book of the world’s largest religious community is regularly associated with Eastern myths, such as e.g., the Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish epics, as well as with the views and customs of the peoples who surrounded Israel. However, the Bible as a whole has a unique and rather realistic character. Passages with a mythical style are mainly located in the parts that deal with the most distant past. The more recent the stories, the more realistic and detailed the descriptions become. But even the stories of creation have a style that cannot be described as one hundred percent mythological.

When evaluating a text, we must first start from its intention. Biblical texts are usually written in a realistic style and therefore cannot, in my opinion, simply be dismissed as myths, but neither should we treat them as historical accounts. A “history” in the modern sense of the term, with scientifically accepted criteria of objectivity, was unknown at that time. Few people could write then and when they wrote, they had a concrete practical, ideological or narrative goal in mind.

Any serious Bible study, believing or not, must conclude that the main intention of the authors was not to give a distant chronological account of the events of their people’s past, but to tell us something about the transcendent Supreme Being whose name they were not allowed or dared to say aloud. In their texts, he is written as YHWH. Probably this name should be pronounced as Yahweh, which means “He is” (see also God’s revelation in Exodus 3:14: “I am the one who am”). Biblical writers were most interested in the relationship between this one God and men — and especially with their own chosen people — and this is what the whole book is about.

The authors of the biblical texts delivered their message as much as possible based on concrete events in the tradition, originally largely oral, of their ancestors. When they talked about the early days, the available data became so scarce and vague that they were forced to resort to a more mythological narrative style. This gave the concrete facts a largely symbolic character.

A myth can be compared to a dream: elements of time and space are mixed, so that the limits of the possible are shifted, but the resulting story can also be the subtle carrier of a message. Sometimes the myth also has something of a work of art, whose creator leaves it to the art lover or commentator to distill or decode what he exactly wanted to express. The biblical stories of creation are not just dreams and works of art according to the form. They deal with the deepest truths immersed in God’s dream with humanity and the immense work of art he created.

The predominantly mythological character of the creation stories is not only apparent in their style and design, but also in the concrete representations and chronological order used. The first act of God’s creation is to separate the light from the darkness and create on this basis a “day”, while He does not create the sun until the fourth day, without which a “day” as a period does not exist. On the seventh day, God “rested”, although the image of a tired God is difficult to reconcile with that of an all-powerful and timeless Creator. In the first creation story, Yahweh first creates animals, then man as male and female. In the following story, He creates Adam first, then the animals, then the woman. An astonishing aspect of the first chapter of Genesis are the cited elements of creation, which, when rearranged, can without any problem be used in a simplified summary of the current dominant views on the origin of the cosmos, the earth, and the evolution of the first forms of life. That a simple people of wandering shepherds can be the bearer of knowledge and wisdom that far exceeds what has been left to us by the literature of the great cultures that surrounded them, must be an inexplicable mystery to many rationalists.

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