Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Genesis: A Prologue

What do you do about a theory of life which you can neither prove nor disprove? Well, it depends. You can completely ignore it, as many people today do. Or, you can act "as if" the theory is true, and base all your actions and ethical judgments on a belief in an unprovable assertion. Is this rational? No, but it may be that irrational behavior is what separates humanity from mere programmable machines. Should all of human existence rest on a foundation of logic? Should reason be valued more than faith? If it were possible to be completely rational at all times, would that even be a desirable way to live? Does everything in our world require definitive proof or rational explanation? If so, are we not doomed to a life of bitter frustration and eventual despair?

For consider the many phenomena of human life that are beyond our control or understanding. Our own birth, our eventual death, random sickness, the catastrophes of nature, our parents, the country in which we were born, our genetic code. How can we begin to rationally explain such human feelings as joy, fear, sorrow, pride, hatred and love? What do any of these things have to do with logical proof? Genesis describes the origin of life, but there are two worlds in which we dwell? One is the natural world of physical bodies in motion governed by the laws of nature or nature's God. The other world is the sphere of human existence, both within ourselves (the realm of psychology) and the external political and social bonds which link us to one another.

We are driven by the urge to know more than we are capable of knowing, and perhaps more even than is good for us to know. Who would choose to know in advance the moment of his own death? If the world were to end tomorrow, would you prefer to have that information right now? If your husband or wife ever cheated on you, but you are blissfully unaware and happy, would you prefer to know the bitter truth. Do you really want to know what other people think of you? Perhaps it comes down to what you value the most. Happiness or truth? Science concerns itself with facts, not feelings. But what about religion? Is it the purpose of religion to make us happy? It doesn't seem so. Genesis certainly gives us reasons to fear the wrath of God. It is not very reassuring to be told that God loves us, but is quite willing to strike us dead if we prove unworthy of grace.

So why should we care one way or the other? Shouldn't we just go about our lives and believe whatever makes us happy at the moment? Is happiness (however you define it) the point of human existence? That does not appear to be the lesson of Genesis. What we learn from the Bible is that God places certain demands upon us that we must acknowledge. If we choose to ignore these demands, we suffer. But notice, please, that if we obey God's commands to the best of our ability, nevertheless, we must still, on occasion, suffer. That is what writers today refer to as "the human condition." A life filled with much suffering and pain, relieved by sporadic moments of joy. This fundamental principle is soon learned by every human who ever managed to escape the womb. Whether the world is God's creation or just random bits of matter floating in the void of space, our human condition remains the same. Whether or not we regard the world as "good" depends largely on the state of our personal circumstances. If we are born healthy and rich, and live in a free society, we probably see the world as a benevolent place. If we are born with spinal meningitis and are poor, or live our lives in a war ravaged country, we might see the world as one long prison sentence. The "goodness" of the world lies in the eye of the beholder.

Is the Bible trustworthy? Does it, in fact, give us vital information on which we ought to base our lives? Many people believe so. But they do not always agree on what parts of the Bible (or what versions of the Bible) give us this essential information that cannot be found elsewhere. So, we have differences in interpretation even among those who regard the Bible as a sacred text. How are these differences to be reconciled? One popular way is to proclaim that your interpretation is "divinely inspired," and thus incapable of error. But if one prophet says one thing and another says something quite different, which one do you trust?

Science exhibits some of the same problems when proposing new theories about nature. But, here final judgment rests on a foundation of verifiable data. Either a theory is supported by empirical evidence or it is not. Theories are modified or discarded as the facts emerge into the light of day. Thus, the world is reinvented (or recreated) as our experience and understanding of it grows. On the other hand, the biblical version of scientific progress is conveyed to us by the gift of revelation. As God chooses to reveal more of himself or his creation, so our knowledge expands. What we don't know remains hidden behind a veil of mystery.

Genesis is all about origins. It describes the beginning of the world and of our own place in the cosmos. It marks the point of departure from which the story of creation proceeds. As such, Genesis cannot tell us everything. It functions as the prologue to the narrative of human history. But it does set the stage for everything which follows. It describes the relationship between man and his Creator. As the remaining books of the Bible unfold, this relationship is further explored, illuminating the path which we (the human race) are intended to follow.


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