Genesis and Science

This morning at University Lutheran, in our weekly Morning Forum, we had a discussion of the interaction between the law (specifically, the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution) and the teaching of science (specifically, evolution in the classroom). The discussion was led by Tara Grove, Climenko Fellow Lecturer on Law from Harvard Law School, and Sasha Keyel, Provost Fellow in Biology from Tufts University.

They both did a great job presenting the issues in a Christian context, with Tara focusing on past case law from the Scopes Trial to Kitzmiller v. Dover and Sasha discussing the scientific method and evidence supporting the theory of evolution, such as the phylogenetic development of feathers in dinosaurs. There are few people that I know who get as excited about case law and science when speaking as Tara and Sasha :oD. After their initial presentation, the forum opened up for discussion, with various members of the congregation joining in with questions.

One of the most interesting comments was from Dr. Helmut Koester, Professor of Divinity (Emeritus) at Harvard Divinity School. I am paraphrasing as best I can from memory, as I didn’t think to record the discussion:

The account in Genesis 1 is in some ways a scientific document from 2,500 years ago. It was an attempt to demythologize the natural world: the sun is not a god, it is a lamp placed in the sky to light the day; the moon is not a goddess, it is a lamp placed in the sky to light the night. Similarly, it says that there is an order to the animals: things that fly, things that swim, things that walk on two legs, on four, and so on. We shouldn’t see it as an opponent of science; it was part of the demythologizing at the advent of monotheism.

It’s a viewpoint I hadn’t considered exactly before. I recall when I was preparing a statement of faith for confirmation, about 10 years ago now (!), that I made a point along these lines: the theory of evolution is not incompatible with the creation story, because the Genesis story (at least, for a non-literalist like myself) merely reflects the best scientific understanding of the nature of the world at the time the story was written down. I do not believe that it is impossible to see science as the “how” and God as the “why” of the Universe.

Darwin, even on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, remains at the center of a legal and cultural battle, at least in the United States. I love that UniLu is a religious community that has open and heartfelt discussions on issues like this, especially when the focus is on the side of science, which is all to often ignored or rejected (selectively, it seems) by many American Christians. I hope to see a lot of debate in this area this year as Darwin’s birthday is celebrated.