34 Observational cosmology, observational cosmogony?

Various people who read our manuscript in the months and years after we first wrote it raised questions that we agreed we would need to address further. These readers granted that the “two ways of knowing” we were describing might be complementary and even compatible. But how did their results fit together? The questions raised were not scientific ones about natural-historical observations and their interpretation, nor were they biblical ones about texts and their meaning. Rather, they were essentially theological questions.

They raised such issues as how there could have been death (arguably necessary for a process dependent on natural selection) before the emergence through that process of humans who disobeyed God and through that action, according to the Bible, first brought death into the world. Other questions included whether the evolutionary process itself was really of such a character that the God of the Bible could make use of it, and whether the biblical portrayal of the natural world as “fallen” from a previously better state is consistent with an evolutionary description of life having taken on greater and greater complexity through an uninterrupted process.

As these questions accumulated (and the issue of the Bible’s moral authority remained outstanding as well), I began to feel I should share some more reflections in order to address them, even though this meant there would be significant non-autobiographical material in our book after the end of my narrative. With my co-author’s agreement and with encouragement from early readers, I have done just that. Consequently, after I narrate here one more significant episode in my personal pilgrimage of understanding the Scriptures and their description of God as Creator, in future posts I will offer discussions of the grounds for our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority and of the three theological questions just described.

As word spread in my Williamstown congregation about the book Stephen and I were writing, more and more parishioners, particularly college students, engaged me on the subject of origins. Many were concerned about how to establish a correspondence between specific details in the Genesis account and natural-historical occurrences, as if Genesis provided a capsule history of the natural world in symbolic language. To convince them that they didn’t need to look for such a correspondence, I found myself appealing over and over again to the fact that the Bible is written from an observational perspective.

For example, the Bible doesn’t explain to its readers that the sun’s apparent motion is actually due to the rotation of the earth. Rather, it describes very accurately how things appear: The sun seems to “rise” and “set.”   In the same way, it speaks of the sky in the way it appears, as a solid dome over a flat, circular earth that is surrounded by seas. And it speaks of water being above this dome and falling through it as rain. We need look no farther than this to explain the “waters above” and “waters below” of the Genesis creation account. (We certainly do not need to postulate, as one ambitious harmonizing interpreter did, that this is actually a reference to the two arms of a spiral galaxy in formation!)

To me, there seems to be a providential purpose in the Bible’s observational descriptions: They allow it to travel into every culture as the word of God. Imagine what kind of reception it would still get in many parts of the world today if it made claims so counter to our observations as that the sun is not really moving even though it appears to be, or that the earth really is moving even though it appears not to be! That the Bible was inspired and written in cultures that were limited to observational descriptions is thus not a liability, but an asset. But this does require us to be prudent in our interpretations, as we read its words today in a context where we can make objective scientific observations (for example, that the earth rotates).

I think I first began to appreciate the observational character of the Bible’s descriptions back in seminary when, in our Old Testament hermeneutics class, Professor Kline had cautioned that Genesis 7 is not necessarily describing a worldwide flood, even when it says that the floodwaters prevailed upon the earth until “all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered.” “Earth” in Genesis simply means “dry land,” and “heaven” refers to the sky. And so, Dr. Kline observed, the statement may simply mean that all of the “high hills” visible to the observer were covered in this flood. When I had read “earth” in Genesis I had always thought “planet earth” instead, but now I would begin to think in terms of the “land” under the “sky,” and notice other things in the Bible that were being said from an observational perspective.

Over the years I eventually recognized that the Bible’s entire “cosmology,” that is, its description of the universe around us, is consistently observational. For all of the biblical writers, the “earth” is a flat circle of dry land surrounded by water that has been pushed back to clear this space: “the gathering together of the waters he called Seas”; “he drew a circle on the face of the deep . . . he assigned to the sea its limit.” The “heavens” or “sky” is a dome stretched out like a canopy to keep out the “waters above” and create a habitable space beneath: “God made the dome and named it ‘Sky’”; “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth . . . who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in.” Indeed, this dome is considered to be solid, not to consist of air: “Can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?” The sun moves round and round while the land remains stationary: “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.”

In time I came to be amazed at how pervasive this observational “cosmology” was in the Bible, but even more so at how indifferent I and others had been to it while at the same time being very concerned about reconciling the Bible’s “cosmogony,” or its description of how the universe came to be, with scientific descriptions. Why the double standard? Why did we not bat an eyelash at observational cosmology, but insist on the literal truth of what might be a similarly observational cosmogony?

Most frequently we explain the observational cosmology to ourselves as “poetic.” And sometimes there are clear poetic overtones to the Bible’s descriptions of the natural world, as when David describes the rising sun as “like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion” and “like a champion rejoicing to run his course.” But if we are going to explain the consistent biblical cosmology as poetical, why should we object to a poetical understanding of the Genesis cosmogony?

The matter needs to be taken even farther than this, however, because it is not really legitimate to understand the biblical writers’ entire descriptions of a flat stationary earth, a solid domed sky and a moving sun as poetical. Despite rhetorical flourishes about bridegrooms and track athletes, their descriptions must rather be intended essentially as literal, given the limitations on the observations they and their contemporaries could have made. The biblical authors do not appear to have been granted supernatural insights into the non-apparent facts of cosmology.

Solomon did write, “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again,” and on the basis of this statement some interpreters praise him for an extraordinarily early insight into the “hydrologic cycle.” But just before this, as we have seen, Solomon also wrote, “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.” But we do not therefore praise him for a similar insight into the “solar circuit.” Rather, we shift back and forth between a poetical and a literal understanding as we read the opening of Ecclesiastes. Instead, we should see both statements as having been intended literally, within an observational perspective.

It finally occurred to me that we could understand Genesis in the same way. In the fall of 2001, before accepting a call to another parish in East Lansing, Michigan, I spent a three-month sabbatical visiting places in North America where churches were cooperating effectively across denominational lines. This was the official agenda for this study leave. But as we traveled between sites, as we journeyed first across the prairie and then down the Pacific Coast, and later got to see wonders such as the Grand Canyon, I found myself meditating as well on the Bible’s description of creation as earth, sky and sea. Everything certainly did appear to be put together that way, and it was quite beautiful when considered from this perspective. By the end of this trip, I was asking myself why the Genesis creation account couldn’t be understood as a literally-intended observational description.

In other words, our typical approach to this account is that it must either have been intended poetically (and it is a magnificent work of lyric poetry), or else it must be a chronologically accurate description of the world’s origins, even if it does not agree with scientific findings. But if we can accept that when it came to cosmology, the biblical authors described things as they appeared, not knowing otherwise, why couldn’t we accept the same when it came to cosmogony? Could we not see the account as a lyric meditation on the “finished product” of creation, a product that looked compellingly like “six days’ work” to the observer? Three divisions: day and night, sky and sea, then the land. Three populations: of day and night, of sky and sea, and then of the land. And a seventh day of rest and worship, showing that this observer saw meaning and purpose in this ordered creation.

Just like the descriptions throughout the Bible of a moving sun and a flat earth, this could have been intended literally by the original writer, and we could understand it as true from within an observational perspective: Yes, this is how it looks as if all of this was put together. And even as our powers of observation increase, as we study the physics of subatomic particles or look deep into space and find patches of sky that we thought were empty actually swarming with galaxies, we can still be filled with that sabbath sense of wonder and say, with God, “Behold, it is very good.”

This leaves open the question, of course, of how the biblical writers, if they truly were inspired by God, could have been “wrong,” at least by contemporary scientific standards, as they described how the world came to be. When I came to my next parish here on the edge of Michigan State University, I was asked within weeks of my arrival to address the College Life Class on the subject of evolution and creation. I spent the hour describing the “framework” outline of Genesis 1, demonstrating the artistic character of genealogies, and stressing the difference between “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism.” I was invited back the next week because the class wanted me to address some theological questions of the type I have already reported encountering, such as, “If the evolutionary process is really without a goal, doesn’t this imply that there could be something beyond humans? And if so, how can this be reconciled with the Bible’s teaching that humans are the culmination of God’s creation?” I did return to address their questions, and in the process became even more convinced that I needed to add some theological discussion after the narrative in my part of this book.

To the two tasks at hand, then. In the posts to come I will first take up the question of the basis of our confidence in the Bible as the word of God, if this confidence cannot be grounded in the assertion that the biblical writers were able to make observations well beyond the range of normal human ability. I will then address the various theological concerns that were expressed to us as co-authors, such as whether the God revealed in the Bible would (or could) have made use of a process such as evolution, and whether acknowledging such a process permits us to continue believing that humans have a privileged place within creation.

Winslow Homer, “Eastern Point” (Clark Art Institute). Land, sea, and sky.

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