A scripture blog -- Archive
A friendly commentary on the Bible from an atheist. Warning: My only loyalty is to the texts themselves, not to any particular interpretation of them. Orthodoxy not at all guaranteed!
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July 19, 2009
The Bible proved right again
The revelation came to Professor Andrew Parker during a visit to Rome. He was in the Sistine Chapel, gazing up at Michelangelo's awesome ceiling paintings, when a realisation struck him with dizzying force. 'A Biblical enigma exists that is on the one hand so cryptic it has remained camouflaged for millennia, and on the other so obvious one cannot miss it.' The enigma is that the order of Creation as described in the Book of Genesis, and so powerfully depicted in the Sistine Chapel by the greatest artist of the Renaissance, has been precisely, eerily confirmed by modern evolutionary science.
Such was the starting point of Parker's jaw-dropping new book, The Genesis Enigma: an astounding work which seeks to prove that the ancient Hebrew writers of the Book of Genesis knew all about evolution - 3,000 years before Darwin. It takes a journey back through aeons of geological time, and also into the minds and imaginations of the ancient Israelites.
Andrew Parker is a leading scientist in his field: a research fellow at Oxford University, research leader at the Natural History Museum, and as if that weren't enough, a professor at Shanghai's Jiao Tong university. As a scientist he never paid much heed to the Book of Genesis, assuming, like most of his colleagues, that such primitive mythology - which is believed to have been compiled from several sources between 950 and 500 BC - has long since been 'disproved' by hard scientific fact. But after his Sistine Chapel moment, he went back to look at Genesis in more detail. And what he read astonished him. It was even, he says, 'slightly scary'.
Somehow - God alone knew how - the writer or writers of that ancient text had described how the evolution of life on earth took place in precise detail and perfect order.
It is always disturbing and haunting to encounter an ancient wisdom that seems to anticipate or even exceed our own. More fanciful writers immediately start to theorise wildly: that those who built the pyramids, or Stonehenge, must have been guided by super-intelligent aliens, that sort of thing.
Andrew Parker, a scientist and proud of it, has no time for such twaddle. But he does gradually come to understand, in the course of his investigations, that our ancestors of thousands of years ago, though they may not have had iPods and plasma-screen televisions, nevertheless possessed a wisdom that was, quite literally, timeless: as true now as it was then.
In the Book of Genesis, God first and most famously creates heaven and earth, but 'without form', and commands: 'Let there be light.' A perfect description of the Big Bang, that founding moment of our universe some 13 billion years ago, an unimaginable explosion of pure energy and matter 'without form' out of nothing - the primordial Biblical 'void'.
He then creates the dry land out of the waters, but it is the water that comes first. As Parker points out, scientists today understand very similarly that water is indeed crucial for life. When 'astrobiologists' look into space for signs of life on other planets, the first thing they look for is the possible presence of water.
On the third day, we are told: 'God said, "Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so."' Now factually speaking, grass didn't evolve until much later. In the Triassic and Jurassic epochs, the dinosaurs knew only plants such as giant conifers and tree ferns. But since grass did not in fact evolve until much later, a sternly literal-minded scientist would declare the Bible wrong, and consign it to the nearest wheelie bin.
But wait a minute, says Parker. If you take 'grass, herb and tree' to mean photosynthesising life in general, then this is, once again, spot on. The very life forms on earth were single-celled bacteria, but the first truly viable bacteria were the 'cyanobacteria' - those that had learned to photosynthesise. As a result, they began to expire oxygen, creating an atmosphere that could go on to support more and more life. They were the key to life on earth.
Naturally, says Parker, 'the ancient Israelites would have been oblivious to any single-celled life form, let alone cyanobacteria', but 'grass' as a loose description of life forms that photosynthesise?
On the fourth day, Genesis famously becomes confusing. On the first day, remember, God has already created light, and made Day and Night. But it isn't until day four that he makes the lights in heaven, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser the night. Hang on - so he made 'Day' three days before he made the Sun? Houston, I think we have a problem.
Yet the writers of Genesis were just as well aware as us, surely, that the sunrise causes the day. You don't need a degree in astronomy to work that one out. What on earth did they mean? Here, The Genesis Enigma comes up with a stunningly ingenious answer. For Parker argues that day four refers to the evolution of vision. Until the first creatures on earth evolved eyes, in a sense, the sun and moon didn't exist. There was no creature on earth to see them, nor the light they cast. When Genesis says: 'Let there be lights... To divide the day from the night,' it is talking about eyes.
'The very first eye on earth effectively turned on the lights for animal behaviour,' writes Professor Parker, 'and consequently for further rapid evolution.' Almost overnight, life suddenly grew vastly more complex. Predators were able to hunt far more efficiently, and so prey had to evolve fast too - or get eaten. The moment that there were 'lights', or eyes, then life exploded into all its infinite variety.
And yet again, that's what Genesis says happened, and in the correct environment too. In the sea. For on the very next day of Creation, the fifth day: 'God said, "Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life."' That is exactly what happened. Life that had hitherto been lived in the dark, by simple, slow-moving, worm-like creatures, erupted into dazzling diversity. We know all about it from the world famous Burgess Shale fossils. They were discovered in the summer of 1909 by one Charles Doolittle Walcott, on holiday with his family in the Canadian Rockies. Walcott began to chip away at the shale with his geological hammer, and quite by chance stumbled upon one of the greatest finds in all science.
For the shale records what happened on our planet around 508 million years ago, long before the first dinosaurs: the 'Cambrian expolosion,' which most scientists now think was indeed the direct result of the evolution of vision. The life-forms discovered look like nothing else: fabulous, phantasmagoric, alien beings. One had five eyes, and a long wavy snout with jaws on the end. Another looked like an octopus with its head stuck in a beaker, and another can only be described as 'a swimming pea with a pair of beady eyes, bull's horns, a pair of "hands" and a fish's tail.' Others resemble balls of spines, vase-shaped pin-cushions, or badminton shuttlecocks with chameleon-like tongues. Anyone who doubts the power of evolution by natural selection only has to look at the Burgess Shale fossils.
How does Genesis describe the teeming aquatic life of the Cambrian explosion? 'And God said, "Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life." ' Immediately following the creation of vision.
How did the writer/writers know that life suddenly diversified into this rich and staggering variety, under the oceans, not on land? Why would a very much land-based people, pastoralists and shepherds, even think like this?
After the Cambrian come the Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian periods - or the appearance of 'great whales', as Genesis succinctly puts it. How better to describe those epochs which gave us such monsters of the deep as Dunkleosteus, a carnivorous armoured fish whose appearance, says Parker, was 'simply terrifying'. Some 35ft long, 'the size of a small coach', with massive, bone-crunching jaws, even its eyes were armoured.
And after the sea monsters come the birds, the animals, cattle, and finally, homo sapiens. All present and correct, and all still in the right order. Once again, 'In describing how the planet and life around us came to be, the writer of the Genesis narrative got it disturbingly right'....
July 01, 2009
THE PISHON RIVER--FOUND!
by Calvin R. Schlabach
Where was the Garden of Eden? Every believer in the Bible has wondered at one time or another about the location of this idyllic home of our first parents. Moses wrote that it was "in the east, in Eden" (Gen. 2:8), and he named four rivers that converged there: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates (2:10-14). The courses of these last two are known to all, but the other pair have been impossible to identify--that is, perhaps, until now.
The Pishon River (2:11-12) has been variously identified by scholars with the Nile, the Indus, the Ganges, or other rivers. The lack of any general agreement stems from the fact that no known river matches Moses’ description: "it flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. The gold of that land is good; the bdellium and onyx stone are there."
"Havilah" itself is of uncertain location, but is generally associated with the western or southern regions of the Arabian peninsula. "Bdellium" is usually understood to be a fragrant resin, found in abundance in Arabia, as are various types of precious and semiprecious stones (the identification of the "onyx stone" is uncertain). The only known Arabian source for "good gold" is the so-called "Cradle of Gold," (Mahd edh-Dhahab), located about 125 miles south of Medina, in the Hijaz Mountains, which currently produces more than five tons of gold a year.
The problem is that there is no river flowing today from this area toward the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. But once it was different. A scientist from Boston University, Farouk El-Baz, taking clues from alluvial deposits in Kuwait, carefully examined satellite photos of the Arabian peninsula. There he spotted the unmistakable signs of a river channel cutting across the desert. Originating in the Hijaz Mountains near Medina and the Cradle of Gold, the ancient waterway, currently concealed beneath sand dunes, runs northeast to Kuwait. Dubbed the Kuwait River by its modern discoverer, it once joined the Tigris and Euphrates at the head of the Persian Gulf. Then because of climate changes, it dried up, the archaeologists say, sometime between 3500-2000 B. C.
The agreement of all of these details of the Kuwait River with the biblical description of the Pishon, has led some scholars to make the obvious connection. James A. Sauer (former curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum, archaeologist, author, and a research associate at the museum), a man who describes himself as "a former skeptic," wrote that "the Kuwait River . . . may well be the Pishon River, one of the four rivers, according to the Bible, associated with Eden." That such a near-confession could be coaxed from a reputable archaeologist is nothing short of amazing. Those of us who believe that the Bible stories are literally true will show much less hesitation in the identification.
Does this mean that the Garden of Eden itself can now be located? Probably not. When we understand the destructive and scouring effects of modern, limited floods, we realize that whatever of the Garden remained in Noah’s day was certainly erased by that catastrophic, worldwide Flood. We may, however, with some degree of confidence suggest that the territory at the head of the Persian Gulf (where Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran meet) is the general locale of the Garden.
The real importance of this discovery is in the confirmation of the accuracy, historicity, and literal veracity of the Bible. While many scholars feel no compunction about relegating the stories in the Bible to the realms of fable and myth, this find substantiates the literal, historical nature of the records in the Scriptures. Many people have long doubted it, but the Bible is true.
(For more information, see James A. Sauer, "The River Runs Dry," Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August, 1996. In addition, see articles on "Pishon," "Havilah," and "Eden" in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, and The Illustrated Bible Dictionary.)
June 30, 2009
The Church of England and Die Judenfrage
I should have mentioned yesterday that the "learned" British judges who ruled that Jews are a race do have on their side one authority who is much respected to this day in academe: Karl Marx. Marx was of course the original self-hating Jew. He was furiously antisemitic. But Marx was a sponger. He rarely earned enough to keep himself and his family so was always "borrowing" money from someone. It was initially his father (Heinrich Marx was a real gentleman, a lovely man. How he ever had such a monster as Karl is hard to imagine) and he was in later years supported by Friedrich Engels out of the proceeds of the Engels family business. One therefore imagines that when he wrote a letter to his Jewish uncle in Holland he had in mind ingratiating himself for future borrowing. The letter was about Marx's excitement over the American civil war and his contempt for Benjamin Disraeli but in the course of his comments about Disraeli he does refer to "our race".
As I briefly touched on in the opening sentence to my post yesterday, I am not wholly unsympathetic to self-hating Jews. It must be appalling to realize that by the accident of your birth you are a member of a widely suspect and even hated group -- regardless of what your personal characteristics might be. Distancing oneself from that could even be a perfectly healthy reaction. But it is when such Jews extend the dislike of their origins to undermining Israel that they really get my goat. Why do they have to be so extreme? Why not simply become an Anglican, as Disraeli did? The Anglicans (Episcopalians in the USA) have lovely buildings, colourful services and the sermons demand nothing and in fact mean nothing at all. Why not just treat it as a pleasant Sunday morning time of relaxation and have a whole new identity to show for it? Many Anglican bishops are barely-disguised atheists so you certainly don't have to believe anything to be an Anglican. It is sometimes said that the only requirement for being an Anglican is good taste.
By the way, "Die Judenfrage" is German for "The Jewish Question" and is an expression used by both Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler so there is an allusion to history in the title I chose yesterday and today. It is actually a bit of a tease. Any stray Leftist coming by my writings would expect something antisemitic under that title -- but, as you can see, such an expectation would have been disappointed.
In my peculiar position as a atheist with an interest in religious matters, I take a continued interest not only in Jews but also in the Church of England. And I have recently put up on my Paralipomena blog an article by a Church of England bishop that makes doleful reading. He notes the steady decline in adherents to his church and suspects that his church will not exist at all in 30 years' time. But he has no real answer to that problem. So will the Church of England eventually disappear up its own backside? I think not. The problem, as I see it, is that they have somehow become dominated by dress-up queens. People go there for a show rather than for a boost to faith.
But amid such desecration of a great heritage, real faith does survive in patches. The Sydney diocese is the most vivid proof of that. Their churches are full and their seminary is overflowing with people with a religious vocation. So how do they do it? Simple. They have returned to their roots. The original faith of the New Testament is a mightily powerful one and the closer you get to that the more empowered you will be. And the 39 "Articles of Religion" that were the original definition of Anglicanism are a very powerful expression of early Protestant faith -- a faith that was very Bible-based. So my expectation is that the show-ponies of Anglicanism will wither away eventually and a core of real believers will remain.
They may even evangelize. Priests ordained in Sydney already do. They go into neighbouring dioceses and set up "Family Churches", much to the irritation of the local bishops. The Sydney priests end up having more people in their pews than the local Bishop does! So the vitality is there if you drink from the waters of the original New Testament faith. The knowalls may dismiss such faith as "old-fashioned" and "irrelevant to the modern world" but it still has a great power to bring blessings to its people.
June 29, 2009
I'm at it again: Die Judenfrage and religious identity
Most Jews must be heartily sick of being forever singled out for discussion and scrutiny but it seems that it was ever so and ever will be. And in my utter folly, I am once again going to voice a few thoughts on one of the most hotly contested topics among Jews: Who is a Jew?
My present thoughts arise from the "wise" British judges who recently decided that Jews are a race. Since there are Jews of all races -- including black ones -- that is arrant nonsense. Yet it is also partly true -- in that various genetic studies have shown that many Jews do still have in them some Middle Eastern genes. So for Jews as a whole it is true that Israel is their ancestral home as well as their religious home.
Nonetheless, it seems clear that Jews are a religion, not a race. And the test of that, it seems to me, is that Jews do accept converts. Try converting yourself into another race: It can't be done.
But many Jews are atheists or something close to it, so how can Jewry be a religion? The easy answer to that from an Orthodox viewpoint (with which I am broadly sympathetic) is that being Jewish is not a matter of belief but of practice. A Jew is someone who follows Jewish law (halacha). What you believe is very secondary. Deeds speak louder than words. Christianity is belief based but Judaism is practice based.
But there is also a much simpler answer: MOST religion is hereditary. And those who inherit it are often not zealous practitioners of it. My late father, for instance, always put his religion down on official forms as "C of E" ("Church of England") and had no hesitation in doing so. He in fact seemed rather proud of it. Yet in all the time I knew him, he never once set foot inside an Anglican church.
So why cannot Jews be the same? Even if you are not religious, you can still have a religious identity.
Because I am an atheist, I never bothered with getting my son Christened but I considered that a knowledge of Christianity was an important element of his cultural heritage so I sent him to a Catholic school -- in the view that Catholics still had enough cultural self-confidence to teach the Christian basics. And they did. And my son greatly enjoyed his religion lessons -- as I hoped he would.
When he was aged 9 however, he said that he wanted to become a Catholic, which of course I was delighted to arrange. So he was baptised and subsequently had his confirmation lessons and was confirmed. These days many years later his beliefs seem to be as skeptical as mine -- which I also expected -- so what motivated his desire to become a Catholic? He wanted to have a religious identity. There was no pressure on him but he was greatly impressed by some very faith-filled people in the church and he wanted to identify with that. And I imagine that he still puts himself down on forms as "Catholic".
So a religious identity can be quite a significant thing for many people, not only Jews. It is a part of belonging -- and that is a very basic human need. Jews in a way are lucky there. No matter what their beliefs are, they still know that there is always one place where they belong, if they ever want to acknowledge it.
Once or twice a year I still attend my local Presbyterian church (at Easter etc.) and I certainly feel that I belong there. I feel at home with all aspects of it. My mother was a Presbyterian of sorts so that was where I was sent as a kid for Sunday School -- and that has stayed with me even though I no longer believe. So, again, one can have and value a religious identity even if one's beliefs have very little to do with it.
And the lady in my life -- Anne -- is only very vaguely religious but her background religion is Presbyterian and there are many habits of mind she has which I know well from my own family, and with which I am therefore very much at ease. Sometimes when she speaks, I hear my mother and my aunties speaking too. She has a Presbyterian mind, or a Presbyterian way of thinking -- perhaps Presbyterian assumptions. I think that in a similar way, most Jews probably have a Jewish mind too. Attitudes and habits of thought may in fact be the most important parts of a religious heritasge.
I am sure that everything I have said above will be mumbo jumbo to most Leftists but, if so, that is their loss.
June 25, 2009
The Decline of John Calvin
As I was brought up in a Calvinist faith, this has some relevance to me -- JR
HE is a byword for bigotry cast in the role of the austere, humourless and cruel preacher of an austere, humourless and cruel God. He was held responsible by Max Weber for the rapacity of late capitalism. He is remembered as the persecutor of his opponents, including the hapless heretic Michael Servetus, for whose burning John Calvin is held responsible.
Calvinism, the form of Christianity he spawned, allegedly shares its fatalism with Islam. It is a church of prigs and wowsers, of Talibanesque idol-smashers and woman-haters, of middle managers and bean counters. It is a faith that broods on the depravity of humankind rather than celebrating its glorious capacity to build, to create and to redeem. It is the religion of Ned Flanders and the ironically named Reverend Lovejoy.
In his famous series of novels, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman placed the headquarters of the demonic anti-church in Calvin's city, Geneva.
But if this is how we think of Calvin, it is only because we are happier with the cardboard cut-out version of history mainly written by Calvin's detractors than with what history actually records. It is like accepting a biography of Kevin Rudd written by Malcolm Turnbull (or vice versa).
The real Calvin was a scholar steeped in the humanist intellectual culture of his day. In this he followed the great Erasmus. He was a man of texts, of the original sources read in the original languages. He was expert in classical literature as well as in the Bible. Not only did he learn Greek but also Hebrew and he consulted Jewish scholars about their interpretations of ancient writings. He was no obscurantist, no anti-intellectual.
Calvin's great work was his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which must surely count (with the Bible) as one of the great unread classics of Western thought.
It was translated into English as early as 1561 and has been of inestimable influence in Anglo-Saxon politics, science, liturgy and literature since. The God of the Institutes is not the remote, harsh deity who delights only in his exercise of arbitrary willpower. Actually reading the text, you encounter everywhere a tender-hearted father-figure, a divinity overflowing with love for his creatures. Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote: "Any reader of the Institutes must be struck by the great elegance, the gallantry, of its moral vision, which is more beautiful for the resolution with which its theology embraces sorrow and darkness."
Calvin is a moral realist. For all their created nobility, human beings are tragic figures, impaled on their own pride. That is why, although Calvin upheld the freedom of the individual conscience, he was also an advocate of collective and democratic decision making. It is not accidental that his followers have been some of the greatest promoters of republicanism and democracy in the modern era.
Calvin was not without flaws, some of them serious. Yet if we are to judge him cruel, we are failing to recognise that he was a man of remarkable moderation in an age of often extreme judicial cruelty. If we are to judge his view of humanity too bleak, we are seriously overestimating our own capacity for moral heroism. If we are to celebrate the waning of his influence, it is quite possibly because we have accepted too lazily the caricature of his critics. As Robinson reminds us: "There are things for which we in this culture clearly are indebted to him, including relatively popular government, the relatively high status of women, the separation of church and state, what remains of universal schooling and, while it lasted, liberal higher education, education in the humanities. How easily we forget."