Category Archives: Q & A

Who What Why Wednesday: Genesis 1-11

The Who What Why Wednesday series will answer questions I get, either online or in person. Leading off the series will be a question about the first 11 chapters of the Christian Bible. 

Question: Many Christians believe Genesis to be a literal historical account, inspired by God. What is your opinion of Genesis, particularly chapters 1-11, which deal with Creation, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel.

 My position is that textual analysis indicates that these chapters are not meant to be read as history.  Genesis 1-11 does not read like anything remotely resembling a literal, historical account. It is literature, encompassing varied genres such as allegory, myth and legend. It opens with a myth, which covers the origin of the world, giving way to fable, which teaches a moral lesson using elements such as talking animals and symbols from nature—trees in this case, giving way to legend, in which people with human attributes accomplish extraordinary things giving away to something much closer to the general Western notion of history in later chapters.

The text has a man called “Human,” a woman called “Mother” a talking animal specifically named as being the Devil elsewhere in the Bible, a tree that can grant everlasting life, another tree that can grant knowledge, an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God that walks around in bodily form and says that he is surprised and what appears to be two completely different creation stories. Then, it has Cain who upon killing Abel is already worried about being an and having his life put in danger (by who?) before going off to found an entire city of people whose origins are unexplained, and who simply “exist.” Soon afterward, there are angels sleeping with human women and creating some kind race of giants who conveniently get wiped out in a world-wide flood without leaving any evidence behind.

Few would think the accounts were historical if they encountered them for the first time in an archeological dig. If we found something like this in China or North America, everyone would agree that the work should be compared to similar literature from the same general geographic location and time period, yet some people want to exempt anything in the Christian Bible from such scrutiny.  The early chapters of Genesis have all the hallmarks of traditions that are told around the campfire from one generation to the next until differing traditions are merged into a more canonical written form.

Further, I don’t think we’re giving the ancient Israelites much credit if we take their literature as history or prophecy and any other such thing.  It would be like future generations digging up tales of Paul Bunyan and claiming that we really believed that a giant lumberjack and big blue ox roamed the upper Midwest in a bygone era. Even without contrary science, the literal view fails on textual analysis alone in my opinion. 

Finally, the historical angle is just not supported by the evidence.  Fields of study as diverse as biology, physics, chemistry, climatology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, anthropology, linguistics, archaeology and genetics have found it to be every bit as far-fetched as the Book of Mormon’s notion that Native Americans are descended from Israelites.  This is not some one-off miracle where you have to decide whether or not the eye-witness accounts concerning an empty tomb are reliable.  Everyone knows that such a thing does not generally happen, but many accept that it could have happened once.   A world in which Genesis 1-11 actually happened, however, would be fundamentally different from the one we observe. It is far more reasonable to work back from what we do know than to simply believe and stop searching. 

Which First Amendment?

The Obama administration ruled on a policy. And as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, the conservative talk-shows are lit up with (feigned?) outrage over what is being construed as a Constitutional travesty. The past few years have shown us that there is perhaps nothing the President can do without drawing fire. Tell kids to work hard and stay in school? Indoctrination!  Stoop down to shake the hand of a shorter king? Treason! Order Dijon mustard on a sandwich? Too French. Go home to see family for Christmas? Waste of taxpayer money.

Despite all the crying wolf (and deer and bird and caterpillar), I can at least see where the Religious Right are coming from this time. Secretary Sebelius of the Department of Health & Human Resources has clarified that all employers receiving federal money must comply with the mandate in a duly passed law that employees be provided with insurance that covers women’s health services and products, including birth control pills. Contraception control of any kind is prohibited by the Catholic Church, so naturally they are claiming discrimination.  There is an exception carved out for strictly religious organizations, such as individual churches, but not to large institutions like hospitals and colleges, both of which benefit substantially from federal money in the form of Medicare or Student Loans and grants.

When an organization has long gotten its way, it is understandable that it will feel slighted when asked to change. In response to the requirement, Catholic Church officials essentially making two arguments: First, they are claiming that this has never been the case in the past. Second and more interestingly, they are claiming that this is not only discrimination, but a violation of the First Amendment to the (U.S.) Constitution. The first point is easily dismissed. Argumentum ad antiquitam (Appeal to Tradition) is a logical fallacy. Defending a policy simply because it has always been the policy is a logical fallacy. Despite the sentimental appeal of such arguments, they are not a reasonable justification for passing laws or ignoring mandates. The second, I think, derives from a misunderstanding of the First Amendment.

Anyone with strong religious convictions likes to think that the First Amendment is primarily about free speech and freedom to practice religion. And most of us are grateful for that part. There is simply nothing quite like the U.S. protection of speech and religion anywhere else in the world. A person really can say almost anything, no matter how vile, discriminatory, critical, or just plain weird through any number of media and be protected on the federal level. Persons can also practice any religion, whether it be one of the “big five” of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism, or one for a few or one practitioners, or, my favorite, no religion at all. Simply put, the government cannot prevent anyone from practicing his or her own religion. This is the argument on which the Catholic position lies.

But there is another part of the Amendment; one that prohibits establishment of a state religion, which has been determined to also extend to favoring one religion or another. This is the part where the Catholic argument fails. Indeed, the government cannot prevent anyone from going to Mass, praying the Rosary, writing religious songs, or even attempting to convert others. The government also must allow Muslims to build mosques and pray as freely as Christians do, and accommodate religious attire to the maximum extent possible. Sometimes this goes so far as to allowing Sikhs to carry ceremonial daggers into places where weapons would otherwise be prohibited.

These actions all have something in common—they are positive expresses of faith, by individuals or groups. The protections of religious actions follow necessarily from the freedom of speech. However, a religious policy designed to prevent legal behavior or established rights for religious and only religious reasons, cannot be protected without running afoul of the First Amendment. Catholic Hospitals and Universities employ people of all faiths and genders—people who are guaranteed to have the same options for healthcare as anyone else. The argument against the Administration is legally and logically backwards. Discrimination lies in telling non-Catholics that they must give up rights that the Church does not acknowledge. One cannot expect to use taxpayer money to pay the bills on one hand while working against the larger citizenry on the other.

I think the Administration has a winning argument based on a whole, rather than selective reading of the Constitution. That does not mean it has a winning political argument. Already, there is talk of finding a compromise or amending the policy so as not to offend conservatives. It is an election year after all.

What do you think? Who is discriminating against whom here? Does the Catholic Church have a winning argument from a Constitutional, rather than political point of view? Should the President stick by a sound policy or would it be better to simply pick another hill to die on?