The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom
Gerald L. Schroeder
Adam and Eve are placed “in the Garden of Eden to work it and to keep it.” No complaint about the work—it seems Adam did not expect a free lunch. “And the Eternal God commanded the man, saying, From every tree in the garden you shall eat.” The one request was that “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen.2:15-17) It was all too tempting, Adam and Eve ate and God expelled them from Eden. The rest is history.
Adam and Eve had two children, Cain and Abel. In the biblical account of human life to this point, these four are it. Cain murdered Abel (Gen.4:8). That doesn’t say much for producing a society steeped in brotherly love. God exiled Cain. Adam and Eve restarted the process with their third son, Seth.
Perhaps the most encompassing Divine retuning of all was the Flood: “And the Eternal saw the wickedness of man was great upon the land....And the Eternal repented that He had made upon the land....And the Eternal said I will wipe out man whom I have created from the face of the soil, from man to beast to creeping animals and to winged animals of the heavens, for I repent that I have made them” (Gen. 6:5-7).
What can you say after that?
At each stage, God withheld control to a greater or lesser extent. This allowed the world to develop to the laws of nature created at the beginning and the moral responsibility implanted by the human soul (animals being amoral). A limited experiment was underway. If it failed, Divine retuning (a flood for example) redirected humanity. When it worked, God was pleased: “It’s good.” This aspect of nature had achieved its divine purpose. (Nahmanides on Gen. 1:4, 10, 31).
The eighteenth-century kabalist, Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, was intrigued by the Godly lack of universal control. He framed his book, The Knowing Heart (ca.1734), as a debate between the worldly intellect and the ethereal neshama (the human soul). The intellect, being a product of nature (Gen.1:26), understands that God (Elokim) works through the coordinates and constraints of time, space, and matter. Those are the ways of all existence in our universe. But those very constraints allow for deviations from what might otherwise be perfection. The neshama, being a direct creation (Gen.1:27), is confused. Why bother with the deviations, she (the neshama) asks him (the intellect)? Why not just lay down a perfected world having the Eternal totally in control. Through their debate, the paradox of an infinite Creator imposing less than infinite control over the products of creation is resolved. The laws of nature provide direction, but within that direction there is leeway, meanderings contingent upon the immediate environment, just as a river’s meanderings are contingent on the local terrain. Though occasionally it may leave in its path an isolated bow lake, the flow eventually reaches the sea. These excursions in the flow of events might be seen as the vicissitudes inherent in an evolutionary process having within it a general direction. In humans, these meanderings are called free will.
The Bible documents one evolutionary change in a physical trait, the trait of longevity (Genesis 5 and 11). The biblical data record a transition that might just as well come from a modern text on animal husbandry and breeding.
Prior to the flood at the time of Noah, the life span of the persons being discussed ranged from 365 years to 969 years, with the average being 840 years. Sexual maturity (the age at which a women first gives birth) was reached at 65 to 187 years (average 115 years). Both averages are approximately ten times the current values for developed countries, obviously far from today’s reality. Whatever one may think of the pre-Noah longevity, by the time of Abraham, just ten generations after Noah, life span had so decreased that the Bible required an explicit miracle for Abraham, age 99, and Sarah, age 89, to conceive a child (To be named Isaac, from the Hebrew word for laugh, as Abraham did when the angel said he and Sarah would be parents the following year: (Gen.17:17).
The cause of this dramatic decrease in life expectancy is not stated.. However, the actual age data in the Bible are instructive. Prior to Noah there is no strong trend either increasing or decreasing longevity. Following Noah, as trend is clear. Life span becomes shorter through the generations. The biblical concept is that change takes place over time and through generations, just as did the development of the world in the first chapter of Genesis.
The trend of shortening life span and more rapid sexual maturity is similar to that observed in domesticated animals. After generations of breeding, broilers now reach slaughter size in thirty days instead of three to six months, and beef cattle in about a year instead of two. Both Maimonidea in the twelfth century and Nahmanides in the thirteenth suggest that changes in the environment following the flood favored (“selected for” in modern terms) shorter life span. The scatter in the pre-Flood data, both in sexual maturity and longevity, reveal that a range existed from which the shorter spans could be selected. Today this type of selection forms a basis for breeding and population genetics.
The gradual evolution of a trait that only slightly alters the morphology of the animal is referred to as micro-evolution. The change in longevity for post-Flood humans is micro-evolution. It is observed regularly in farmyards and biology laboratories. It finds no dispute in the Bible. Macro-evolution, the evolution of one body plan into another—a worm or insect or mollusk evolving into a fish, for example----finds no support in the fossil record, in the lab, or in the Bible.
So how are we to understand creationism? Biblically, creation is a divine act of tsimtsum, contraction—a spiritual contraction by which the Creator removes part of Its infinite unity (Hear Israel the Eternal our God the Eternal is One,” Deut. 6:4). Complexity now appears where there had been the undifferentiated simplicity of One. The greater the tsimtsum, the more extensive the complexity and the greater the corresponding potential for imperfection.
Isaiah in two sentences clarifies this concept: “I am the Eternal, there is nothing else. I make light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil” (Is. 45:6,7). The infinite source of light withdraws and darkness is created. The infinite source of peace (shalom, from the root shalaim meaning whole, complete) withdraws and evil (lack of perfection) is created. The first biblical tsimtsum (Gen. 1:1) allowed the physical complexity of the universe with its laws of nature to emerge. Then followed the creation of the nefesh----the soul of animal life----allowing animals choice strongly dictated by instinct and inclination(Gen.1:21. The third and final creation was the human soul----the neshama----instilling free will in humans (Gen. 1:27).
We humans choose within constraints contingent upon our surroundings. The meanderings of nature and of society produce challenges to each person contingent upon her or his locale. How we react to those challenges provides them with spiritual significance. The moral choices of a German in 1996 are easier than those of a German in 1936. Though man cannot control his environment or even his destiny, his conduct is altogether in his hands.
With each act of tsimtsum, the Bible tells us, the channel through which all nature flows broadened. Its license to meander increased.
The conflict between science and the Bible is ironic. Throughout the Bible, knowledge of God is compared with the wonders of nature. As stated so well in Psalms (19:2):”The heavens tell of God’s glory and the sky declares his handiwork.”
Eight hundred years ago, the medieval philosopher Maimonides wrote that science is not only the surest path to knowing God, it is the only path, and for that reason the Bible commences with a description of the Creation. In some communities that thought was sufficient to burn his books.
I am not so naive as to claim that current scientific opinion can explain the workings of all events described in the Bible, or that biblical wisdom foresaw all that modern science has discovered. However, in biology, paleontology, cosmology, among a sweep of topics the confluence is remarkable.
Maimonides’ claim has proven itself. God is back in the discussion of science, and with good reason.
The perception that religion requires faith alone is a misperception. Religion requires belief and belief is built on knowledge. For knowledge we live in an opportune era. The discoveries of the past few decades in astronomy , high energy physics, and paleontology have revolutionized the understanding of our cosmic genesis. They have taken us to the threshold of time and the beginning of life.
We have learned that there was a time before which there was neither time, nor space , nor matter. Discoveries related to the explosive development of life have forced a re-evaluation of the process and direction of evolution.
Although the popular impression is otherwise, within the professional scientific community, most of us realize that the Bible is not about to be replaced with a formula that can fit on a T-shirt. The quintessential admission of this appeared in an article written by Harvard University professor Stephen Gould: “Science simply cannot adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature.” Knowing the plumbing of the universe, intricate and awe-inspiring though that plumbing might be, is a far cry from discovering its purpose
The flow of time and events from the big bang to the appearance of humankind is summarized in the thirty-one verses with which the Bible begins: (Gen. 1) These few hundred words describe sixteen billion years of cosmic history, topics about which entire libraries of books have been written.
With a superficial reading of Genesis, and certainly with a superficial reading of the text in translation, we haven’t a prayer of understanding the details. But then, superficiality is a loser in all endeavors. If we relied on casual observation of nature, we would still believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth. That is certainly the simple perception we derive, day by day, from sunrise to sunset.
Unlike abstract concepts of faith, biblical religion has a track record that can be evaluated. As Paul Johnson articulated so incisively, the Bible is the earliest identifiable source of the great conceptual discoveries essential for civilization: equality before the law, sanctity of life, dignity of the individual, individual and communal responsibility, peace as an ideal, love as the foundation of justice.
Might it be, as Einstein and Ben-Gurion concluded at their meeting so many decades ago, that a contingency, an ingenious coherence transcending and joining all aspects of existence does pervade the scientific maze we call our universe?
Rather than merely just discarding such a premise as just rubbish, or embracing it as the logical and obvious truth, the Bible and science both have the identical response: study the data and form a position of knowledge determine the probability of this coherence having happened by an unguided nature.
Let’s look at the universe, its cosmic genesis, and see if we can discern hints of a transcendent Creator historically active in the creation. If we do, we can move on and investigate how we might capture the all-too-rare rush of joy sensed when we chance upon the transcendent. Instead of waiting passively for it to happen, imagine being able to have that joy as a permanent partner in life. That would be called getting the most out of life.
In the following chapters, I attempt to avoid the subjective tendency of bending Bible to match science or science to match Bible. To accomplish this goal, I cite only scientific opinions appearing in these leading science journals. The theological sources are primarily restricted to works that predate by centuries the discoveries of modern science. Those will be primarily the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud (a collection of commentaries on the Hebrew Bible redacted in two stages, 300 and 500), and the thirteenth-century kabalist, Nahmanides. Nahmanides is not only the leading kabalistic commentator on the Book of Genesis (and the entire Torah), but also one of the earliest kabalists whose commentary is written in a readily understandable Hebrew.
The Science of God deals with the Book of Genesis, the heritage of all Western religions. Because of the book’s nonsectarian nature, it employs the abbreviation B.C.E., for “before the Common Eras,” instead of B.C. and C.E. for “during the Common Era,” instead of A.D.
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