Why are you playing by their rules? Every time I hear someone advocate for a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 ( or the Flood, or the story of Jonah and so on) I wonder, “Why are you playing by the rules of scientism?” The rules of scientism are, simply put, that truth and truth claims must be empirically verifiable. It is a sort of reductionism – all truth can be reduced to physical and/or historical evidence. And in addition, if one’s claim cannot be physically, historically verified it cannot in any sense of the word be true.
This mindset, that all truth claims must be historically, physically true, seems to be what fuels six day creationists to insist on a six day creation. The Bible is true. Something can only be true if is physically, historically happened. So the world was created in 6 days. The idea that truth claims must be physically, historically verifiable seems to be what motivates Intelligent Design advocates to seek “proof” of a designer. This same set of criteria are used by atheists to deny the Bible and God’s existence.
Historical accuracy is important. As is being able to physically verify that an event occurred. No quarrel on that from me. Science, as a way of understanding the universe and the world we live in, has been a tremendously accurate, trustworthy and helpful endeavor. We would not live as we do without science. Medicine, technology, and other branches of science have enriched our lives in a myriad of ways.
But, while science explains many, many things, it doesn’t explain everything. I don’t mean any disrespect to science or scientists when I say that science doesn’t explain everything. It’s just that some things, by definition, reside outside the domain of science.
The Collins English Dictionary defines “science” this way;
the systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation,experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms.
By this commonly accepted definition, God and experiences of God would not be included as part of the work of science, but God is not the only thing not included in this definition. Some atheist scientists claim that everything will, ultimately, be explained by science because nothing resides outside of the material, physical world. But I think they are wrong about this.
Music can be explained by physics- sound waves, and by anatomy and physiology- ear drums, and neurons. But is that everything there is to know about music? Is that all there is to the experience of music?
Love can be explained by physiology- hormones and by the evolutionary drive to survive. But is that everything there is to know about love?
Beauty- most of us agree it exists and that it has value, but what exactly is it?
What strikes me as odd is that some of my Christian friends claim a similar view to my atheist friends. Namely, that events described in the Bible must have happen, as described, within our conception of space and time to be true. Now I know these Christians don’t believe every act of God, every experience of God can be understood, examined and explained by physical, material, historically verifiable means. That is not their experience of God and it is not my experience of God. And so I wonder why they think everything described in the Bible must meet scientism’s limited criteria?
Could the Bible be exploring ideas for which human language and understanding are inadequate? Did the Holy Spirit and the writers of the Bible decide to use various literary genres to help us catch a glimmer of who God is and how God is at work in the world? Can a “story” tell us the truth? Is Tom Sawyer “true”? Great Expectations? Cry the Beloved Country? The Lord of the Rings?
Can a poem tell the truth? A song? A Psalm?
Stories, songs, poems move us in mysterious and profound ways. As dense as we humans can be, I don’t know why God wouldn’t use every trick in the book, so to speak, to help us understand who God is and what God wants for us.
I’ve never met a Christian who believed that Jesus’ parables were historically verifiable. Or for whom the parables non historicity was a problem. We don’t look for the inn where the injured man was taken by the good Samaritan. We don’t wonder where the home was to which the prodigal son returned. We accept these stories tell us important and true things about God.
I’m not sure why the early chapters of Genesis are such a flash point among us. Many Bible scholars are very comfortable believing that Genesis 1-3 are not about science but rather are about Israel’s understanding of who God is ( as opposed to the false gods of other nations), why we are here, and Israel’s wrestling with the reality that the world is not as it ought to be. Genesis 1 is a stirring statement of faith. Genesis 2 and 3 have profound and important things to say about the human condition.
As much as I value science, I don’t feel a need to accept scientism’s limited claim about truth. The rules of scientism are inadequate and insufficient for us to use when we talk about God. As a Christian I want to claim a large truth. Truth that is more than mere facts. Truth that transcends the material world. Truth that embraces the entire cosmos and more. Truth beyond understanding but not beyond knowing.