Howard Jacobson (and me) on Creation, New Atheism, and the Bible
Howard takes a turn
Not quite entering head-on into the fray of heated altercations taking place between the Dawkinsians and Creationists, Howard Jacobson tonight on Channel 4 here in the UK offered a view of the creation account of Genesis 1 which enjoys the poetry and even the ‘theology’ of the passage (theology not in this case requiring a religious belief) for its philosophical value and meaning. He undertook this journey and perhaps even reached his conclusions perhaps due to his vaguely Jewish background (which he covered in the programme).
I appreciated it for its friendly middle-of-the-road take, and for his deft observations at the hypocrisy of the new atheists, who so are so clearly guilty of the same sins they condemn creationists for. I’m glad that finally I’ve heard someone else say it, so that these new atheists will realise that it’s not only their arch-enemies the Christians (most of whom they brand ‘creationists’ which is a wildly inaccurate assumption) who will say this but other well-meaning clear-thinking people in the world – and that therefore the accusation itself may come with some gravity.
It does of course now provide the opportunity for critics, reviewers, journalists and bloggers (like myself) to respond to these views once again with whatever arguments we have to present, and so what I am doing here is nothing original, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to speak my own view into this field.
I am a Christian. But as impersonally stated above (and now personally) I resent being labelled as a creationist if I am known as a Christian. My chief concern is Christ, not creation, and so this concerns a side-issue for me. For many creationists it is a central issue.
This terribly ‘schoolboy error’ of mistakenly branding the many with a label given to a few is not the only one made by some of the new atheists but it has caused them to fight with many more people than necessary. One point that fascinates me is that Dawkins very clearly starts his polemical from a point where he says that Christianity was simply part of the culture he was born into – ie. England (could his accent sound any more like china teacups clinking in a rose garden with a string quartet lilting in the background and a game of bowls taking place on the lawn?). Yet the type of Christianity he most virilently attacks comes from America, and I am surprised that a man of his intellectual capacity cannot work out that, beneath the face value of consumerist capitalism, from a religious point of view Britain and America are in some cases worlds apart.
This point safely laid aside, it’s always fun to state again the position of a Christian who doesn’t hold the creationist view, such as was held by one Christian professor from Cambridge, featured near the end of Jacobson’s documentary. Because as Jacobson sensibly asked, are the two fundamentalist positions the only two options available to the thinking world?
As a Christian I believe both in the historical veracity of the Genesis 1 account and its Divine origin. Both of these, I realise, will be contested. The first on grounds argued early in Jacobson’s programme, for which I provide a riposte below (see Jacobson’s blunder). The second, can’t be settled without arguing about faith, which we won’t do here.
So I believe in its authenticity and Divine influence/authorship. But as to its meaning I do not find it necessary to simply subscribe to the school of literalism which has no relation whatsoever to the way Jews think or thought in those days. For one, its many statements cannot converge into one congenial mass of scientific data; it is in fact extremely un-scientific. It is not the language of science, but of poetry. There are several ‘days’ that occur, with ‘light’ and ‘dark’, ‘day’ and ‘night’, before ever there was a sun, which arrived rather unhelpfully in day 4. Day 4 in fact adds to the list of conundrums when it uses the four fatal words ‘and it was so’ which indicate that what God said, happened. So in Day 4 which, of course, was a literal 24-hour period (my tongue might get stuck here in my cheek if I’m not careful) the lights functioned as signs and seasons, days and years.
All, my friends, in a 24-hour period.
Those four recurring words will cause similar, recurring problems throughout the passage when attempting to interpret everything literally. The earth sprouted vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them – all in a 24-hour period. Why would God make it happen like this for the tree in one day, when that is entirely against its natural function? Don’t tell your frustrated gardening neighbour about all this, who wrestles to produce anything even over a year – they’ll give up! Would God do this just to prove to some vocal atheists that they’re wrong?
Most problematically, man (Adam and Eve presumably) was fruitful, multiplied, filled the earth and subdued it, and ruled over every creature on earth – all on literal number day 6 because, ‘it was so’ (verse 30).
Hmm. So having stated what my position is NOT, allow me just to briefly explain that there is a satisfying interpretation which involves the idea that Genesis functions as a prophetic account of the life of creation (creation as descriptive of the birds bees flowers trees, not the act), and of humanity, and of humanity’s interaction with creation. It functions poetically-theologically in that the structure of six days clearly allows first for the forming of the earth (light and dark [day 1], heavens and earth , waters and dry land ) and the filling of it (sun moon stars , creatures in heavens and on earth , the inhabitants and rulers of the dry land and waters ) which correspond and parallel nicely (days 1&4, 2&5, 3&6). Far more poetic than scientific.
It is then meant to convey to us that God was fully in charge of everything that was made, having a right place and time for it. And it was meant to convey to man the sense of gravity about his task as outlined in verse 26, when God commissioned him to rule over the earth and sea. Having witnessed the forming and filling of creation at God’s command, he ought to understand the weight of responsibility and the manner and nature of the stewardship he is to undertake.
I hope this at least helps the reader to glean that there are other ways of understanding this passage. Ways which are far deeper than mere six-day fundamentalism which seeks only to argue on one level against atheism but misses entirely what God was really saying all along.
Earlier in the show Howard Jacobson went on what I would say was a slightly misguided tangent which slightly obfuscated the argument, perhaps, when apparently only in consultation with one Israeli archaeologist and one ‘Biblical Scholar’ also working in Israel, he quickly and roundly concluded for us that monotheistic faith had not entered into the Jewish faith until after 586BC, when the Jews had undergone capture by the Babylonians, and that the creation story therefore was part of a construct formed by them to illustrate how actually they had had one God, and a monotheistic faith all along. It was likely assimilated on board with everything else in the programme by some viewers (for therein is the power of the media) but I think there was a poor case made for this.
For one thing that is a very late date to suggest for such a radical shift in the theological thought of a nation in that period of history. In proposing that then the rest of Scripture was a retrospective and biased composition written merely for the purpose of forming a new identity for them as a people at that time discounts hundreds and probably thousands of historal facts, artefacts, and considerations dating both from before and after the period of the exile. To base this kind of conclusion on one flimsy piece of archaeological evidence which sits amidst a veritable mine of archaeological gold, and on the ideas of a funny (dear) lady who works at the Shrine of the Book, flies rather in the face of much other serious scholarly work.
The archaeologist argued his point using some figurines found on one site in Israel. The figurines represent a fertility goddess and are present in the homes of Jewish people from around the 8th century BC. On this ground, he stated, we can conclude that the Jews were ‘still’ worshipping ‘many’ deities, and weren’t ‘yet’ monotheistic in their faith.
This is the archaeological equivalent of finding one cigarette butt in the home of your friend who, to your knowledge has never been a smoker, and telling them “so you’re STILL on twenty a day then?”
The Old Testament repeatedly warned Israel not to worship the other gods of the nations that surrounded them. Its history too tells of various occasions when the nation failed to live up to this standard, and tried to keep a multiplicity of faiths by worship Yahweh and the gods of the nations around at the same time. This find cannot substantiate the idea that for over a millennia previous to the date given to this finding the Jewish people had a polytheistic faith. It can however verify the facts that the Jews were guilty of worshipping other gods at certain periods in their history, and can helpfully inform us which deities, and when. This argument was fabricated from a misuse of archaeological data – a misuse which could have been saved by a simple contextual reading of the Scripture of the Jews, and of history and archaeology in general.
So on this point I hope it can be laid to rest that the argument for a late monotheistic faith in the Jewish nation and religion is, at least on these grounds, ignorant and insubstantial.