The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom

Gerald L. Schroeder

Here we come to a basic tension between religion and science: biblical literalism. Haven’t those who demand a literal reading of Genesis noticed that Genesis is literally filled with contradictions? How can such a strange and poetic text be read literally? Two millennia ago, long before paleontologists discovered fossils of dinosaurs and cavemen, long before data from the Hubble and Keck telescopes hinted at a multibillion-year-old universe, the Talmud stated explicitly that the opening chapter of Genesis, all thirty-one verses, is presented in a manner that conceals information. The kabalistic tradition has come to elucidate that which is held within those verses. Kabalah is logic, not mysticism, but logic so deep that it might seem mystical to the uninitiated.. Literalism is simply not an effective way to extract meaning from the Bible.

Consider this example. The account of each of the first three days of the creation week closes with “...and there was evening and there was morning...”(Gen. 1:5, 8, 13). Nothing unusual about that until we arrive at the fourth day to discover that only now does the author produce a sun (Gen.1:14-16). Having evening and morning on the first three days without a sun might have encouraged the adult reader to look beyond a simple reading of the text.(as we do later).

Here’s another: Adam is told”Of every tree of the garden you can eat freely. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.(Gen.2:16,17) The verb in the Hebrew text is doubled to emphasize the certainty of the punishment for transgression, hence “surely die.” So what does Adam do? As typically human, he eats of it. And he lives another 930 years (Gen.5:5). Did I miss something? I thought he was to die on the day he ate from the tree.

Has the author, divine or otherwise, forgotten what was written a few passages before? With a literal reading, the second sentence of the Bible contradicts the first sentence. Whether we see the Bible as the direct word of God, divinely inspired, or totally of human origin, its subtleties and pathos have kept the Western world’s interest for ages. The author was smart. These contradictions are not by chance and not errors. They are beacons urging us to seek the deeper meanings held within the text just as we seek meanings within the subtleties of nature.

The first step in a rapprochement between science and Bible is for each camp to understand the other. Distancing the Bible from a few misplaced theological shibboleths will do wonders in furthering this mutual understanding.

I have already treated several. Earth need not be at the center of the universe for biblical religion to survive. As Genesis 1:1 stated, first came the heavens and then came Earth. Western religion has learned to forego its misplaced dream of a universe revolving around Earth, to accept gravity as a part of nature and not the machinations of a perverted mind, and most important, to read the Bible, as Moses insisted three times on the day of his death, as a poem, as a text having within it a subtext harboring multiple meanings (Deut. 31:19,30;32:44)

The mistaken shouts of protest against the imagined heresy of gravity have faded to distant echoes. As later chapters argue, the same will happen with the more recent theological cries directed against evolution. The biblical account of animal life’s development, which amounts to a mere eight verses, will have no problem with the final scientific understanding of how animal life evolved. What is needed on both sides is patience, not the diatribes of a T. H. Huxley or the sophistry of biblical literalism.

The scientific concept of evolution has already come to embrace what Darwin himself, and a century later John Maynard Smith and now Stephen Jay Gould, insist upon: a flow of life channeled by laws inherent to the universe. The level at which this channeling dominates and where it gives way to uncertain meanderings contingent upon local factors remains to be determined. But a channel, confining the biology of evolution to a limited range, is obvious even to avowedly secular scientists.

Approximately 250 million years ago, 95 per cent of all marine species suffered a massive extinction. The ecology was wide open for innovation, yet no new plans evolved to fill the ecological space. Why? Almost four billion years ago, an exquisite, efficient system for encoding and transmitting the information needed to guide an organism’s development from seed to adult appeared. That same system, the double helix of our genetic DNA , to this day guides all forms of life, from algae to oak trees, from microscopic bacteria to massive elephants and humans as well. Is only one genetic system workable? Can only a few body plans satisfy the laws of nature? Based on all biological and paleontological data, that seems to be the case. But Why?

These constraints are not by chance. They reveal a limit, a definition, in fact a channel, for the breadth of choices available to the development of life. Discoveries in molecular biology and paleontology deepen the channel almost daily. (For example, the same gene has been discovered to control the development of all visual systems in all phyla. Again only one option seems to be viable; a topic for consideration in later chapters.) The great schism between science and religion which has characterized the past five hundred years may at last be narrowing.

Obviously, the biblical concept of an infinitely powerful Creator demands that in this infinity, it can produce and control all of life at will. But there is not a hint in the Bible that this control is constantly exercised. Instead, to quote Nahmanides once more, “the world (channeled by the laws of nature) functions according to its natural pattern.” Consider just three episodes of the many that make this so clear.

1. To aid in the conquest of Canaan, God promises to send hornets in order to make the enemy flee.(Deut.7:20). Here’s God controlling nature. Just two verses later (Deut. 7:22) , we read “And the Lord thy God will cast out those nations little by little (why little by little?)...lest the beasts of the field increase upon you.” Notice the problem? If God can control the hornets to drive out the nations, why doesn’t God also keep the beasts from multiplying? Nature is given free rein at this level.

2. Of the twelve tribes of Jacob, only the tribe of Levi was to serve directly in the Temple. For this they must be physically fit. The Bible provides a list of birth defects which disqualify a Levi from fulfilling this potential (Lev. 21:17-23). Why have birth defects? The biblical concept of an infinite God is a God that could make all births perfect. I imagine if I were God I would, But the world as described in the Bible does not function according to our demands. Most children are born healthy and physically normal., but not all. Nature has its level of freedom.

3. “And God saw the light, that it is good” (Gen.1:4); “And God saw that it (The oceans and earth) is good” Gen. 1:10); “And God saw that it (the origin Of plant life) is good” (Gen.1:12); and on and on and on. God sees that “it is good “ seven times in the thirty-one verses of the first chapter of Genesis---- The creation chapter. Almost a quarter of all those verses are devoted to God’s discovering that “It is good.” Didn’t God realize from the start that it would be good? Perhaps. But this is not explicit in the text.

Time and again, the Torah implies that the infinitely powerful biblical God withheld control and allowed the world to follow its own course. With this godly approach to world management, the results were not always “good.” The Creator then redirected the flow.

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