July 19, 2016
The Bible has a lot to say about the natural world, but what does it say? I’m not asking, “Which words does it use and which sentences does it contain?” but instead “When the Bible talks about the natural world, what is the nature of its discourse?”
As I discussed in a previous journal entry, the Bible talks about the natural world in its relation to human beings. I offered the example of Proverbs 30:24-28, where moral lessons are drawn from animal behavior. In contrast to scientific knowledge, in which things are studied in ways that abstract from the human experience of them, in the Bible things are often presented according to the ways in which we experience them. Scientifically, it would be absurd to claim that ants are wise (as Proverbs 30 does); but it is also true that we (or at least ancient people did) experience them as wise.
Consider Genesis 1:24-25, where God creates land animals. They are organized into three groups: cattle, wild animals, and creeping things. This is hardly a scientific taxonomy. Instead, it divides animals into groups according to their relationships to human beings: animals suitable for eating and sacrificing, dangerous animals, and miscellaneous other animals that are neither edible nor dangerous. It’s obvious that human concerns–Which animals are for eating? Which animals may eat us?–have driven this description. It’s senseless to try to read a scientific motivation into it.
The Bible thus sometimes describes natural things from the perspective of the way in which we experience them.. Scientific knowledge, on the contrary, results from trying to minimize, or even eliminate, human subjectivity from knowledge.
So, I now want to look at a couple of other passages:
You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting (Psalm 104:19, NRSV)
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years (Genesis 1:14, NRSV)
In these passages, sun, moon, and stars are described, once again, according to their importance for human beings. They exist to determine the calendar. Absent is any scientific interest in what they are made of or why or how they move. The celestial bodies are important because they serve a purpose that is vital to human beings.
To conclude: I started this series with a discussion of Galileo’s view that science and the Bible cannot conflict because they are about different things: science is about things in nature, the Bible describes the way of salvation. This view is, I think, wrong.
It’s not that the Bible is not interested in the natural world, but instead that the Bible talks about the world from a certain perspective. That perspective is human interest. The Bible portrays the natural world in so far as it bears on matters of human concern or provides an illustration of something that humans are interested in.
There are several lessons to draw from these observations:
- First, contrary to the view of Fundamentalists, the Bible does not provide us with scientific knowledge. Attempts to extract information that can inform scientific views is fruitless. Fundamentalists’ fantasies about using Genesis to construct an alternative science is hopelessly misguided.
- Second, Galileo’s view that the Bible is about salvation is overly narrow. The Bible is too big to be contained by any single category.
- Third, the Bible can perform a useful service for us by reminding us that there is more than one way to know something. In our culture, it is not uncommon to hear representatives of the scientific community claiming, expressly or implicitly, that scientific knowledge is the gold standard of knowledge, and perhaps the only sort of knowledge that deserves the name. The Bible’s attitude toward nature reminds us that there are varieties of knowledge, differing ways in which we may relate to things in the world. The scientific project provides us with one way, but it is preposterous to imagine that it is the only or the best sort of knowledge.
This is where (some) scientists and Fundamentalists both go wrong–assuming that there is one sort of knowledge. Some scientists, armed with this belief, criticize and reject the Bible for failing to exhibit this knowledge. Fundamentalists, with the same belief, try heroically but futilely to squeeze the Bible into a scientific mold.
In our current cultural situation, in which rationality is increasingly channeled into one course–science–it is good to be reminded that we relate to worldly objects in many ways. Scientific knowledge is only one of those ways.