Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Ancient Cosmology, Baraminology, and the Structure of Water (Plus my first day of seminary!)
Anyway, interestingly enough, we talked about Genesis 1. The professor did an excellent job of walking us through the text and helping us read the text as it spoke to ancient Israel.
One thing that the professor emphasized was the cosmology of the ancients, and how tied Genesis is with that cosmology. For instance, the "firmament" that separates the waters above and below was likely thought to be a solid dome, to which the stars and the sun are attached. So when they are put in the firmament, it would conjure up to an Israelite the notion of a light being attached to a solid dome in the sky, kind of, as one student said, "recessed lighting". And because a cosmology such as that of ancient Israel does not allow for such things as Satellites and space technology, we should not use Genesis as a source of scientific inspiration.
Now, to begin with, I am unsure if the degree to which he expressed ancient cosmology as in disparity with modern cosmology is accurate. There is much in the Bible that seems to indicate that ancient societies were more sophisticated than we think. But even granting that the cosmologies were essentially incompatible, I think that this does not render the opening of Genesis as incompatible with scientific usefulness.
To begin with, I would agree with the professor that scripture should not be used as a science textbook. But rather, it _is_ a historical book, and as such can be used to aid in the understanding of science.
The issue is the same with any translation. In any translation, one must translate the categories of one language into the categories of another. People think, talk, and write according to their categories. Therefore, it should not surprise us that in a historical work about cosmology, that ancient Israelites employed their own categories to speak of it. This does not make it untrue. This is the same sort of thing when someone calls a whale a fish. Depending on how your categories are set up, a whale can in fact be a fish. And if you are observing or describing something, you can only report it with the categories that you have available to you.
And it is in this way that I take it that Genesis is true history, merely reported using the categories available to the writer at that time.
I am sure that if Genesis was reported using the categories available to us today, then in another few thousand years, people would have the same criticisms of us that we do of the ancient Israelites. But in fact, since we are treating it as history instead of science, the question is not "are the categories the Israelites using correct" (a question which would always be 'no' no matter what categories were in use -- simply on the nature of categories), but instead, "were the events reported with accuracy using the categories available to them, especially for the questions they are asking?"
[For a discussion of historical works in science, see this post of mine]
In a similar vein, let's look at The state of water in living systems: from the liquid to the jellyfish. In this paper Henry takes us on a fascinating philosophical tour of the role of water in ancient Creation stories. I'm not going to pretend to understand the whole paper (working on that, I'll hopefully have a whole report at some point in the future -- it's a MARVELOUS paper), but there is one part that stuck out:
[following a multipage analysis of water used in Genesis and other creation stories]
Scientists sticking to water as H2O, a tri-atomic molecule made from electrons, protons and neutrons, themselves made of quarks and so on may be quite skeptic about the usefulness of this analysis. It is however worth noting that words have been created for sharing ideas and concepts among human beings and not for assigning unambiguous names to material objects...
Focusing on immaterial attributes of liquid water (ability to flow) instead of its material composition (H2O), allows uraveling the deep wisdom contained in antique writings in deep coherence with other creation myths met around the world.
Anyway, I'm not quite sure how to put all that together, but I think it fits somehow :)
NOTE -- updated slightly from its original posting to correct an ambiguity