Galileo

CNS PHOTO | MARCO BUCCO, REUTERS

Galileo

March 26, 2012
DENNIS LAMOUREUX
SPECIAL TO THE WCR

I attended an excellent Catholic boys' school during the late 1960s and early 1970s, College St. Jean in Edmonton. My favourite instructor was both my hockey coach and my biology teacher. He was a man of deep faith and I can remember him telling me directly that evolution did not have to undermine my belief in God.

But it took only one course on evolutionary biology in my first semester at a public university to destroy my faith. My parents were informed that I had stopped attending Mass and they wanted to know why.

I can remember what I said to them like it was yesterday. "Mom and Dad, science and the fossil record prove that living organisms evolved; the world was not created in six days like it says in the Bible."

This encounter has happened a number of times, too many times, in other families as many of my students at St. Joseph's College have revealed to me. In listening to their stories, I have found a common theme similar to the problem I presumed with Christianity years ago. It deals with how they relate Scripture and science.

There is an implicit, or better, a tacit assumption that in some way the Bible and modern scientific facts should align. After all, God created the world and he also inspired the Scripture. To expect some sort of correspondence is reasonable. In theological circles, this is known as "concordism."

But here's the question, is concordism a feature of the opening chapters of the Bible?

THREE-TIER UNIVERSE

The answer to this question is found in the diagram. To the surprise of most Christians, the Scriptures feature a three-tier universe. In order to reveal the spiritual truth that God created the universe the Holy Spirit descended to the level of the inspired writers of the Bible and employed their understanding of the structure of the world.

In other words, the science-of-the-day was used as a vessel to deliver this message of faith. We don't have to go far into Scripture to find some of these ancient understandings of nature.

On the second day of creation God said, "'Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.' And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament 'heaven'" (Genesis 1.6-8).

The original Hebrew noun rqîa' translated as "firmament" refers to a hard dome, and it holds up a heavenly sea of water. Of course, most today are completely puzzled by such an odd idea.

But this is the key in reading any ancient texts like Scripture. We have to think like an ancient person and visualize the world through their eyes. What would they have seen? A large domed structure overhead. What colour is it? Blue, like water.

What about the sun, moon, and stars? Don't they look like they are positioned in front of the blue waters in the firmament? That is exactly what is stated on the fourth day of creation. The diagram features a number of verses for other ancient conceptions of nature. Have a look at them and see if you can think through an ancient mindset.

The Roman Catholic tradition is a rich source of theological thinking by some of the finest minds in history and in recent years it has dealt directly with the problem of concordism.

In Scripture and Science (1981), Pope John Paul II admonishes, "The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe.

"Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer."

Acknowledging that Scripture includes an ancient understanding of the structure of the universe, John Paul underlines that the purpose of the Bible is spiritual and not scientific. The purpose of Holy Scripture is to assist us in developing our relationship with our Creator.

GALILEO'S RESPONSE

The tradition also offers us a wonderful document on biblical interpretation written by the famed astronomer Galileo. In the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615), which I encourage every Christian to read, Galileo popularized Cardinal Baronio's well-known aphorism: "The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, and not how heaven goes."

Updating the language for those like me who have struggled with evolution, "The intention of the Bible is to teach us that God is the Creator, and not how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created."

(Denis O. Lamoureux is an associate professor of science and religion at St. Joseph's College in the University of Alberta. A book chapter entitled "The Bible and Ancient Science" can be found at: www.ualberta.ca/~dlamoure/ilj_ancient_science.pdf)