On the Genre of Genesis and a Strange Little Question

Fr. Robert Barron has well noted that the Bible is not a book, it is a library. Contained within its pages are works of history, poetry, prayer, prose, theology, liturgical instructions, cosmology, philosophy, parables, moral tales, genealogy and so forth. How exactly to read its pages and understand them is often a matter of understanding the genre.

The word Genre is from French, genre, meaning “kind” or “sort.” It also stems from Latin: genus  and the Greek: genos, γένος). Genre is the term for any category of literature, as well as various other forms of art or culture e.g. music, based on a set of stylistic criteria.

Now some one may ask you, “Do you read the Bible literally?.” Fr. Barron points out, that’s like someone asking you, “Do you interpret the library literally?” Of course you would say, it depends on what section I’m in. If I’m in the science or history section I may read the book there literally. But if I am in the poetry or novel section, or in the children’s storybook section, I would not likely read the books there literally. I would understand that they are using stories and images to make a point, but not like science or history does.

So we know how to exercise some sophistication when it comes to the library. But many loose this sophistication when it comes to the Bible. Often we can fail to distinguish literary forms and thus force a book or passage to be what it is not.

The Book of Genesis, especially the early chapters suffer a lot of this sort of failure to appreciate the literary forms. Many want the creation stories to be science or exact history when in fact they are more poetic and theological, than scientific. They advance the real and true point that God alone created everything there is out of nothing and did so in an intentional and systematic way in which he is involved at every stage. This is the sacred and theological truth set forth by the Genesis accounts.

But this does not mean the text proposes to be in the form of a science textbook. Take, for example, the accounting of the “days” of creation. Although light is created on the first day, the Sun and moon are not created until the fourth day. So what does it mean to speak of a “day” when the very sun by which we measure a day is not even existence for the first three “days?” Further, the notion of light apart from the Sun, is somewhat an abstract concept.

If some one asks me if I read the account of creation literally I ask them, “Which one?” This usually leads to a puzzled look. But but the fact is that Genesis sets forth two accounts of creation that are very different.

  1. In the first account (Gen 1:1-2:4) we see a period of seven days which begins with the creation of light, then the sky and the ocean, then vegetation, then the sun and the moon, then, fishes and birds, then the animals and finally Adam and Eve.
  2. The second account of creation (Gen 2:4-25) does not mention days or a time frame. It begins with the creation of Adam, then the planting of a garden, then the animals, then the creation of Eve.

Hence, we have two very distinct versions of the creation. In no way can they be harmonized yet, neither are they in absolute conflict. They both describe the same event from a different angle and with a different focus on detail. Neither account alone contains all the details. But, together they contain all God wants us to know about the creation of the cosmos. If asked to describe my recent visit to the Holy Land I could start at the beginning and give a day by day account. Or I could choose to start at the end or culmination and work backward. Or, I could just give highlights. Or I could sort out the trip along themes such as Old Testament sites and New Testament sites etc. I might also select the data for a given audience and present different aspects to different audiences. And so, the options are quite many. Now all of what I say is true, but it is selective and thematic based on the audience and my purpose.

So here again, a little sophistication is required in dealing with the accounts of creation. If we have a literalistic and wooden notion of history we can err by trying to make Genesis what it is not. It does not conform to the modern genre of historical writing which tends to be strictly chronological and comprehensive. These Genesis accounts are quite willing to speak to us poetically and selectively of creation and even to reverse the timeline. This is because their purpose is not to give us a blow by blow account of exactly how God did everything. Eaxact times and dates are not the point. God as purposeful sole and sovereign creator is the point. God who is present and active at every stage is the point. The dignity of the Human person are also the point. The first account accomplishes this by making man the culmination of the creation story. The second account makes this point by beginning with man and having every formed around him and for him.

The catechism of the Catholic Church says of these accounts:

Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation – its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the “beginning”: creation, fall, and promise of salvation. (CCC  # 289)

This all leads to an odd little question that was asked on Fox News not long ago. Fr. Jonathan Morris was asked a question: “How did Adam and Eve’s kids have kids?” The questioner seems to imply that since only Cain and Abel are mentioned (no girls) how could there be other kids? Father Jonathan Morris usually is well prepared and gives good television interviews on a variety of subjects. In this case he does a poor job but essentially makes the point that there are just some things that Genesis doesn’t cover and hence we cannot really answer the question.

But notice the premise of the question: The questioner presumes Genesis is an exact and fully inclusive history like modern histories. Therefore, since only Cain and Abel were mentioned, then only Cain and Abel existed. But this premise is flawed since Genesis is not proposing to be a complete, seamless and chronological account. Hence, just because daughters are not mentioned, does not mean that they did not exist. Genesis 4:17 does mention the wife of Cain and other women are mentioned in the genealogy that is in Genesis 4. (Now the problem of incest is too long for here and will be the subject of another post. It is wrapped up in the question of monogenism and polygenism).

I think if Father Morris had handled the question based more on the nature of the Genesis account his answer would have made more sense. The fact is, that Genesis does not propose to give us all the details or answer all our questions. Something is left to the reader and to ordinary sophistication which recognizes that Genesis is historical but not written in the form of modern histories. Hence we cannot expect all the details and must presume the presence of other children (esp. daughters who were born to Adam and Eve).

So, in the end, how about a little sophistication in our understanding of Scripture!

Here is the video of Fr. Morris struggling fro an answer. Again, please note he is usually better prepared. I suspect it was late at night, given the title of the show: “Red Eye” which I have never seen.

The Day Hawking Blew It

 Msgr. Pope did a great job introducing us to the pastoral letter on the New Evangelization and we will continue to write about it as it becomes a way of life for Catholics in the archdiocese.

One dimension of the New Evangelization is engaging people in conversation and not missing an opportunity to propose that the Catholic faith has the best answers to life’s biggest questions.

In the Beginning

This came to mind, when I saw the news about Stephen Hawkings new book. I started to write something about it and realized I would not be able to make sense of the argument in the space of a blog, but, I knew who could do it. Alfred Turnipseed is the Coordinator of Christian Initiation for the archdiocese and a former astronomy major. Alfred has a real gift for taking complicated concepts and breaking them down in a way that not only makes sense but that you can remember the next time it comes up in conversation.  So, Alfred is my guest blogger today. I will be happy to pass any questions along to him for answers.

From the desk of Alfred Turnipseed

That day began like any other workday: I arrived at work, turned on my desktop computer, and waited what seemed to be a thousand years for it to boot up.  Thus I began my daily “ritual”: After checking my emails, I opened Internet Explorer so as to peruse the headlines on Yahoo’s homepage.

That’s when I saw it: “God did not create the universe, says Hawking”.

At first, I thought it was a joke.  When I clicked the link, I fully expected to be taken to a page at The Onion.  And that’s when I discovered—this is for real.  “He finally did it,” I said to myself.  “He just had to go ahead and blow it all, dagnabbit…!”

He, by the way, is Stephen Hawking, British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, the recently retired Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge (a post once held by the great Isaac Newton), and author of the internationally best-selling A Brief History of Time—the Most Celebrated Scientist In The World.

My “dagnabbit” (or some such term denoting extreme irritation caused by grave scandal) spontaneously came to mind because Hawking is also a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, who famously once wrote, “If we discover a complete theory [of the universe], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we should know the mind of God.”

(It would seem that for Hawking, science has proved that God is so unnecessary as not to exist at all.  So much for “knowing the mind of God.”)

Okay.  So what did Hawking actually say during this, his most recent “declaration”?  His words, taken from his new book, The Grand Design—words which stir new passions in me every time I read them—are as follows: Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Now, I admit it: ever since I gave up my astronomy studies (at Cornell, no less) for philosophy (and eventually, theology), I’ve had a slight case of “scientist-envy.”  After all, theoretical physicists can get away with saying things that—were I to say them—would get me at least puzzled stares and at most laughed out of the room!  I mean, the most eminent cosmologist on Planet Earth has declared that our 13.7-year-old, goodness-knows-how-big universe just popped into existence (1) from nothing, (2) by itself, and (3) that this was all a result of gravity.  Let’s look at Hawking’s statement point-by-point.

1.          From Nothing:  These words should be familiar to all well-catechized Catholics.  The Latin term is ex nihilo.  Indeed, Catholics do believe that the universe and everything in it came into existence out of nothingness (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 296-298), or in the words of Bible, “I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things…” (2 Maccabees 7: 28).  So far, so good.

2.         By Itself: Now here’s where things start getting ugly.  There is an old saying in Latin—ex nihilo nihil fit—”nothing comes from nothing”.  Now, here, we must be careful.  As stated just above, Catholics clearly believe not only that something can come from nothing, but that everything comes from nothing; that’s what creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) means.  For Catholics, then, “nothing comes from nothing” must express something (pun intended!) more sublime—namely, that by itself, only nothing can come from nothingness.  To speak somewhat more subtly—nothingness, in and of itself, does not provide sufficient reason for anything to exist.

3.         Everything is a result of gravity: Nevertheless, Hawking does seem to think that nothingness can provide sufficient reason for the universe to exist, and for him, this reason is “gravity”.  But here’s the rub: whatever gravity is (whether a force, a law of physics, a mathematical reality, etc.), it is definitely not nothing.  In other words, whatever Hawking means by nothing (physical nothingness) he can’t mean what the Catholic Church means by nothing (metaphysical nothingness).  For the Church, nothing doesn’t simply mean “no matter,” “no energy,” and “no forces”; nothing means nonexistence (once again, read 2 Maccabees 7: 28 above).  Now, even Hawking would have to agree that gravity possesses some type of existence.  So whatever Hawking means by nothing, he can’t mean nonexistence, since gravity exists.  What, then, is Hawking saying?  He seems to be saying that in the beginning, there was gravity (which, in Hawkingspeak, exists, but is also nothing), and from gravity, all things that now exist, exist.  Does this make any sense to you?  Yeah, I didn’t think so!

Hawking’s statement denying the existence of, and even need for, God, has caused something of an uproar among those who care about the (seemingly) competing claims of science and religion to explain everything.  In Great Britain, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, and prominent Jewish and Muslim leaders have condemned Hawking’s “scientific atheism” as yet another case of physics overstepping its bounds.  After all, as implied above, physics is the science (or philosophy) of matter and its motion, energy, and forces.  Metaphysics (“beyond physics”), on the other hand, is the philosophy (or science) of being and existence.  So, as soon as one starts making declarations about existence, one crosses the line from physics into metaphysics.  Given all this, it really makes no sense to apply the laws of physics—or the principles of mathematics—to questions of existence.  In fact, from the perspective of genuine metaphysics, there is Being/Existence itself, and that which comes into existence or derives its existence from Being/Existence itself.  The former is God, and the latter are the principles of mathematics, the laws of physics, and ultimately, the entire universe (including space-time and non-spatial/non-temporal reality).  The point: God doesn’t “set the universe going,” as Hawking seems to think believers believe.  Rather, God causes everything to be, including the mathematical principles and physical laws that “set the universe going.”

(Note: it makes no difference whether there are, in fact, many universes or even an infinite number of universes—all derive their being from God.)

What does all this demonstrate?  Only that Stephen Hawking has no more disproved the existence of God than he has proved the existence of the extraterrestrial intelligent life forms that he so firmly believes in!  (Talk about “blind faith”!)

A final thought: If you’ve been reading between the lines, you’ve realized that “proving” or “disproving” the existence of God is not like proving or disproving the existence of some thing.  God, after all, simply IS.  In other words, “proving the existence of God” is like proving the existence of Existence.  I mean, once you realize that for any thing to exist/be, there must be EXISTENCE/BEING, you simultaneously realize that any discussion about God puts you in a whole new territory of thought (theology … ha!).  In fact, if you start thinking (actually, praying) about this really hard, you might cross into deep spirituality­—and you’ll “see” why so many saints and mystics could say that “God is nothing,” because God is not “a” thing, because God IS … and since God IS, in him, we will live forever.  “Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shapes each man’s beginning, as he brings about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life…” (2 Maccabees 7: 23).

“The mathematics of the universe does not exist by itself, nor … can it be explained by stellar deities.  It has a deeper foundation: the mind of the Creator.  It comes from the Logos, in whom, so to speak, the archetypes of the world’s order are contained.  The Logos, through the Spirit, fashions the material world according to these archetypes.  In virtue of his work in creation, the Logos is, therefore, called the “art of God”….  The Logos himself is the great artist, in whom all works of art—the beauty of the universe—have their origin” (Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI).

Things We Can Learn From Dogs

I grew up with dogs. Dogs, generally speaking, have a great outlook on life. This list is an oldie on the internet but, if you haven’t read it, it is really rather instructive. Dogs DO have a lot to teach us. God teaches us not only out of the Bible but in creation. In that spirit here are

Fifteen Things We can Learn from Dogs:

  • 1. Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joy ride.
  • 2. Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.
  • 3. When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
  • 4. Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory.
  • 5. Take naps and stretch before rising.
  • 6. Run, romp, and play daily.
  • 7. Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.
  • 8. Be loyal.
  • 9. If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
  • 10. When someone is having a bad day, be silent. Sit close by and nuzzle them gently.
  • 11. Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
  • 12. Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
  • 13. When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
  • 14. No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout…. run right back and make friends
  • 15. Delight in the simple joys of a long walk.

And here is one of the most amazing videos I have ever seen. It’s about “Faith the two legged dog”: