Round Table

Round Table: Genesis and the Origins of the Universe

Every worldview must address—either implicitly or explicitly—certain questions about the universe. These include such big questions as “Is there a God?”, “What is reality?”, “What happens after we die?”, and “How did reality come into existence?” These are the inquiries of all minds and the answers to these questions deeply influence who we are and how we view the world. The topic of this month’s Round Table discussion centers on this last question, how the stuff around us that we call “the universe” came into being. Forming a coherent answer to this question has occupied the greatest minds of recorded history. Unsurprisingly, then, the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity also provide a response to how the cosmos was formed: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

However, the precise meaning of this verse—and the two chapters of “Creation Narrative” which follow in the Book of Beginnings, Genesis—remains a hotly debated topic today. Consideration of Genesis 1-2 has often led to extreme responses, ranging from rejection of the Biblical text as useless hokum from an unlearned and backwards age, to overly-detailed analysis of this passage as the key to understanding all of natural science, human learning, and theology. Seeking to find the via media (middle path) between these extremes for this month’s Round Table discussion, we asked our Authors and Contributors to reflect on the following question: How do we interpret Genesis 1-2 with regard to the origins of the universe?

Round Table articles are where numerous writers contribute their various perspectives as a forum for launching thoughtful and civil dialogue on important issues. In order to hear multiple voices, we have asked that responses be both brief and precise. Accordingly, the statements below are intended as starting places for thoughtful discussion, which we encourage you to pursue in the comments section below.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

Guest Author

Possibly no part of the Bible arouses more controversy and strong feeling than its opening two chapters on the creation of the world. In one corner of the cultural boxing ring we have those who regard those chapters as a literal description of how the world was made—with some exegetical wiggle room about the definition of the word yom or “day,” and therefore about the age of the cosmos. In the other corner we have those who regard such Creation Science—as it has been called—as self-evident nonsense, and those who passionately argue for it as medieval obscurantist throwbacks. In this contest, much time is spent arguing for or against “the Theory of Evolution.” I suggest that though it makes for great cultural theatre, both sides are misreading those opening chapters, which can only be read correctly when anchored in their cultural context.

John Walton, Old Testament professor at the evangelical Wheaton College, has done just such an anchoring job, and the results of his research can be found in his books Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament and The Lost World of Genesis One. Following him, I would suggest that the creation stories do not intend to teach science or update the cosmology of its original audience. The Hebrews who first received these stories shared a cosmology similar to everyone else in their day. For example, they believed that the sky was solid—a belief reflected in the Septuagint term for “firmament” in Genesis 1:6, stereoma, defined by one lexicon as “the solid part”—and that it was this solid sky which separated the waters above from the waters below. We moderns know that the sky is not solid, and so like to imagine that “the waters which were above the sky” must refer to clouds. In fact we read our modern cosmology into the text throughout, in a well-intentioned eisegesis. (We see such eisegesis in the visual depiction of the creation in the recent film Noah. There the primordial command “Let there be light” was fulfilled in the original “big bang,” when in fact it was fulfilled in the creation of time. Read the text carefully: the light was called “Day,” and was contrasted to “Night.”)

God was content to leave this ancient Near Eastern cosmology intact. He did not intend to give lessons in geography or astronomy, or teach that the world was round and of great age. These lessons would have meant nothing to their original hearers and done nothing to change or enrich their lives. God had more revolutionary and important lessons to teach in those early chapters, lessons which did not involve proclaiming a new cosmology which would only have bewildered its original hearers.

Foremost among those lessons was this: that their God, the deity worshipped by an obscure Hebrew set of tribes, was the creator, owner, and sovereign over the whole earth. Other pagan cosmologies mentioned a number of gods, and all of these are conspicuously absent from the opening chapters of Genesis. There Elohim (or Yahweh Elohim, as He is called in Genesis 2:4) is the only One involved in the earth’s creation. The other gods, the deities of the rival nations, do not even warrant a mention, doubtless because they were nothings, phantoms, idols. The subtextual message? “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). This message needed to be heard, both then and now, as the People of God felt themselves powerless before greater international forces and mightier tyrannies. Israel need fear nothing, for their God was Lord of heaven and earth.

Another lesson involved the dignity of man. In the other ancient cosmologies, man was simply the provider of food for the gods, the keeper of their temples. The king was made in the divine image, and might be properly regarded as the son of the deity, but the common man—and still more, the common woman—were of no account and of little worth. Against this basic background, the Genesis creation stories declare that both the common man and the common woman were made in the divine image. Humanity did not exist simply to feed the gods; they existed as God’s regents and viceroys on the earth. They existed to subdue the earth and have dominion over it in God’s Name, which is what it meant to be God’s image. And note please: women shared this dominion equally with men (Genesis 1:27-28). The Genesis text proclaimed not only the monotheistic sovereignty of God, but also the revolutionary dignity of the common person. The lowest mud-covered peasant working the fields was God’s image, created to rule in his place. It was a more important lesson than any merely astronomical one, and a lesson we have not yet learned.

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Laura E2Laura Norris

Senior Editor at Conciliar Post

Genesis chapters 1-2 are the prime example of seeking multiple levels of meaning in Scripture. Multiple levels of meaning does not indicate that Scripture says multiple, ambivalent, or contradictory things; rather, there is a surface (literal) meaning to the text and deeper (spiritual) meanings about faith, morality, and God.

The Catholic Church, throughout its tradition, has upheld multiple levels of Scripture. The four most common levels of Scripture—known as fourfold exegesis—are literal, allegorical, moral, and eschatological; all spiritual ways of reading Scripture in relation to what it teaches us about faith, doctrine, morality, heaven, and Christ. The literal reading of Scripture, which most American Christians believe is the only way to interpret Scripture, only scratches the surface. A solely literal reading of Scripture is like looking at a church and remarking upon its architecture, without stepping inside, where there’s even more beauty and more opportunity to encounter God in worship.

When we approach Genesis 1-2 on a literal level, we read about God creating the earth and all its beings in seven days, and then specifically read an account of God creating the first man and woman. Thus, the literal meaning of Genesis is that God created the world in seven days, in the exact order as recounted in Genesis. Let’s step inside the reading now to examine the deeper, more spiritual meanings.

The Catholic Church supports theistic evolution, which is essentially the belief that evolution, as science describes it, happened—except that humans were uniquely created by God, rather than evolving out of different species. We believe that God created the universe and guided it throughout millennia of evolution. The fact that creation occurred over thousands of years does not negate the truth of Genesis. The truth of Genesis is that God created the universe, the earth, and humankind. Let us recall the Psalm that proclaims that a thousand years are like a day to God. God exists beyond of human constructs of time, therefore he creates beyond human understanding of time.

A more spiritual reading of Genesis 1-2, then, presents the truth that God created us because of his loving goodness. This spiritual reading points us beyond the technicalities, beyond the Jewish etiological storytelling of Genesis, to see that God is our Creator. We belong to God. By our very nature of being human, we are bonded to God, directed towards our Maker as our telos. Because God is our Creator, it is right and just that we praise him.

Furthermore, a deeper spiritual reading of Genesis 1-2 presents us with the ontological truth about humanity: God saw us and proclaimed us very good. Even as we live in a post-lapsarian world struggling against the temptations of sin and the forces of evil, humans are still, at the very root, good. Humankind is made in the image of its Creator, a Creator who is goodness, mercy, beauty, and love itself. Genesis 1-2 call us to see ourselves and fellow humans in this light.

Many of the Church Fathers urged Christians to avoid a literal interpretation of Genesis and to read the creation narrative in a more spiritual light. Saint Augustine warned particularly against a literal interpretation of Genesis, for those who wrongly used Genesis as science would risk putting off others to the Christian faith. The following quotation from Augustine’s “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” illuminates this point, which wonderfully summarizes how we should interpret Genesis 1-2 on the origins of the universe:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics…If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

Mike McHargue Headshot Outdoor - CopyMike McHargue (Science Mike)

Guest Author

Genesis is not a record of the creation of the Universe. Every attempt to paint it as such in the last 1,500 years has been undermined by a new storybook: the night sky. The Church once believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and this belief was essential to how people understood God. Geocentrism was a physical manifestation of a theological concept: God cared for humanity and made the universe to nurture his prized creation.

Nicolaus Copernicus shattered this view in the late 15th and early 16th centuries AD by demonstrating that the sun was the center of everything, and that the movement of objects in the sky were more elegantly described by an earth that orbited the sun and rotated on its titled axis. In doing so, Copernicus laid the foundations of modern science—and its tendency to challenge popular worldviews with data. Galileo stood on the shoulders of Copernicus with a telescope and cemented heliocentrism with rigorous observation, to the dismay of the religious leaders of his day. Newton then climbed on Galileo’s shoulders and created a new from of mathematics that demystified the actions of planets and stars–and ushered in the relentless march of modern science.

Read as a book about our origins, Genesis is absurd. Genesis talks about two original humans, while the historical archives stored in the DNA libraries of our cell nuclei say it’s unlikely there was ever less than 1,200 humans on this planet. Genesis tells us that trees weren’t made from stars, while receding galaxies and radiometric decay tell us that trees are made from the guts of stars that exploded long ago–paving the way for us.

Of course, there are some tantalizing reflections of modern science in these ancient pages. A universe that emerges from a formless chaos is not all the different than a universe that emerges from a singularity in a big bang—or more accurately, rapid inflation. Genesis also treats light as fundamentally important. We know that light speed is a constant critical to space-time and that the universe was quite chaotic in those early 380,000 years when it was too hot and dense for light.

Still, Genesis clearly reflects an ancient and outdated view of how the universe came to be. That makes a lot of sense because its authors were pre-Enlightenment and pre-science. Genesis was a story tied to the people who told it—a tribe seeking to differentiate themselves from the major powers of that era. While mighty Babylon told stories of a universe born from a great battle between gods, the ancient hebrews told of a God who made it all with nothing but words.

Genesis also talks about a God who formed us with special care and gave us a spirit in the form of breath. Genesis begins by pondering what’s different about us versus other animals, and what’s different between living things and other parts of creation. And God sets creation in motion, tasking it with creating more. Trees make more trees, fish make more fish, and mankind is left to steward it all—a prescient prediction giving our current globe-spanning infrastructure.

Genesis leads us to wrestle with the burden of ethical and moral insight, compared to our more-free animal companions on the planet. We have tasted the fruit of knowledge and can never turn back to that prior innocence. Most powerfully, Genesis speaks to our innate need for companionship—it is not good for us to be alone. We still need suitable helpers to walk through our gardens today.

We don’t interpret Genesis in regard to the creation of the universe. We interpret it in regards to being alive and aware in the universe, and it whispers to us across thousands of years. Genesis says that others have walked this road, that others have looked up at the night sky in rapture and wonder, trying to know “why?”

And those people met God—just as we have. They, too, felt naked and exposed when they pondered the Glory of the Source of all.

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Ben WinterBen Winter

Author at Conciliar Post

Johannes Kepler published the Astronomia Nova in 1609. Its purpose was to provide evidence that “the earth is moved and the sun stands still.”1 Yet one of his first concerns is not scientific in nature. In fact, he dedicates more than half of the work’s introduction to Biblical exegesis. Why? To show that a heliocentric universe is not contrary to the revealed truth of Scripture. There were many in Kepler’s time who believed that the Bible—particularly passages such as Ps 93:1 and Josh 10:12—definitively placed the earth at the center of the universe.2 To them, Kepler stated: “Holy Scripture, when treating common things (concerning which it is not their purpose to instruct humanity), speaks with humans in the human manner, in order to be understood by them.”3 You’ve probably heard the phrase, “The Bible is not a science textbook.”  Kepler not only advances this sort of argument, he also provides a viable hermeneutic for interpreting difficult passages: God speaks to humans in ways that they can comprehend.

Let us consider the context of the Joshua 10. It would have made no sense for Joshua to petition the Lord to “make the earth stand still.” When this miracle occurred, Joshua naturally assumed what is now recorded in Scripture, that the sun stood still. This is, after all, what he observed! God understood what Joshua was asking for, and God allowed the Sacred Text to record something astronomically incorrect in order to pass on the more important message of God’s providence and care. As Kepler brilliantly asserts, we should “regard the Holy Spirit as a divine messenger, and refrain from wantonly dragging Him into physics class.”4 Today, the rotation of the earth around the sun has been firmly established. So why bother rehashing old arguments? Because Kepler’s principles, expanded in light of the current teachings of the Catholic Church, are also applicable to Genesis 1 and 2.

How to read Genesis 1 and 2—this is first and foremost a question of how to read the divinely-inspired Word. In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), the Second Vatican Council Fathers maintain a delicate balance between divine and human agency in the process of inspiration: “God chose men, and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.” (11) The authors of Scripture write in human fashion and are, like us, conditioned by their cultural contexts and by their knowledge of this world. Because the Bible as a whole transcends and illuminates those contexts with its salvific message of God’s love for humanity, it will never lose its freshness, and it will never cease to speak to humanity.

The primary purpose of the opening chapters of Scripture is not to give a literal account of the origins of the universe. For one, these passages do not even agree on whether human beings or animals were created first (see Gen 1:24–26 vs Gen 2:18–19). More importantly, what they do show is that God is the creator of all things, that God has ordered all things rightly, and that God and humanity share a special relationship. The fact that no human being can wrap his or her mind around the origin of the universe—a philosophical quandary quite separate from theories of growth in time—takes nothing away from these truths. Lest we become like the geocentrists of Kepler’s day, who were forced to separate “truths of faith” from “truths of science,” let us defend the value of our Sacred Text with poise and precision, remaining sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit, in and through human words.

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Round Table discussions offer insights into important issues from numerous Conciliar Post authors. Authors focus on a specific question or topic and respond with concise and precise summaries of their perspective, allowing readers to engage multiple viewpoints within the scope of one article.

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