Lesson 93- Adam, Eve and Biblical Interpretation
As I ended my last program I was analyzing the argument taking place between the Christian churches and the evolutionists. Before continuing my analysis, let me review and “flesh out” some of the pertinent points that I made in my last talk.
First, the accepted theory of creation before Darwin’s theory of evolution was Special Creation, which held that God created each species individually through the power of His Will. In other words, like a magician, he simply waved his hand and elephants, cows, horses, and humans appeared instantaneously and complete.
Second, Darwin, who like other people of his time, accepted this theory began to doubt it when, while part of an expedition to the Galapagos Islands off the west coast of South America, he saw animals belonging to the same species who had differences that corresponded to their need to survive in slightly different environments. He theorized that there was a mechanism of Natural Selection in nature that selected those members of a species who were able to adapt to the changing conditions in their environment. From this observation came the Theory of Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest.
Third, Darwin’s theory was received with mixed feelings. Many scientists and naturalists, especially those who were opposed to the Christian churches and the Biblical account of creation, became the liberal forces that pushed the theory for all it was worth. Eventually, the theory seeped over into other areas of thought and led to corollary theories like Social Darwinism which was used in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to justify the social inequities and the poor working conditions for factory workers. Thus, it was argued that if workers became sick or died from pneumonia while working in near freezing conditions, it was because they were unfit. Those that survived were the fit and those that died were the unfit and to improve the heating conditions was to violate a natural law. This was the argument of factory owners who saw the theory as a justification for not spending the money to improve working conditions. On the other hand, intellectuals saw the theory as a justification for developing eugenic programs designed to create superior human beings. If we could create better dogs and horses through selective breeding, why couldn’t we create better human beings?
Thus, in the United States, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, used the Social Darwinist theory to propose the elimination of inferior humans beings by encouraging them to reduce or eliminate their numbers through birth control and abortion. And if that didn’t work there was always the alternative of forced sterilization. During this period, it was later discovered that some Southern states were sterilizing welfare recipients and in the North, people like my mother, who belonged to the underclass of the poor Irish, was advised and encouraged to have her “tubes tied”. Sanger, who is often portrayed as a great humanitarian who was motivated by love for her fellow humans, was often motivated by the fear that we would be overrun by inferior human beings in the form of poor “Blacks”, Irish, and other immigrant groups.
In Europe, there were scientists and intellectuals who bought into the same theory Social Darwinism. This was especially true in Germany where the idea of eugenics or scientific breeding gained great support. Thus, following World War I, when conditions in Germany were chaotic, Adolph Hitler found the perfect conditions for establishing his utopian vision of a Third Reich that would be peopled and ruled by a Master Race. Once he gained the power, he ordered the elimination of all “useless mouths” who ate but made no contribution to society. The mentally retarded and orphaned were the first to go, followed by the sick and the handicapped, and, eventually, homosexuals, Jews, gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, and finally, anyone who didn’t come up to Hitler’s standard of a “blond, blue-eyed Arian”. At the same time, “breeding camps” were established where teenage boys and girls, who were selected because of their Arian characteristics, were encouraged to produce babies for the Master Race. The babies were to be raised by the state where experts in child development would shape them into the “kind of humans” that were “fit” dominate everyone else. In 1945, when World War II ended, the world witnessed in the Nazi concentration camps the results of the application of Darwin’s theory to human beings.
However, not everyone received Darwin’s theories with the same enthusiasm. The churches, as I mentioned in my last program, immediately saw it as a threat to the Biblical account of creation. Evangelical Protestant churches, who believed in “solo scriptura” or the “Bible alone” as a source for truth, condemned it immediately and set out to oppose it wherever it was taught. Thus, we had the Scopes Trial in 1925 where conservative religious forces charged a high school teacher with breaking a Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution. This confrontation, by the way, was set up by the ACLU who had advertised for a teacher to break the law so that it could be tested in the courts. Many of these conservative evangelical church, because of their commitment to a literal interpretation of the Bible, still continue to reject the theory with arguments that sometimes border on the absurd. In my last talk, I mentioned two: one, that the devil planted the fossil evidence to purposely mislead us about the age of the universe; two, that the universe, based on the “begots” in the Bible, is only six thousand years old. Arguments like these hurt rather than help the cause of religion because they are pitting their interpretation of a religious revelation against a scientific theory. In doing so, they are arguing “apples and oranges” because logically you can’t compare unlike things. You can compare a religious revelation to another religious revelation or a scientific theory to a scientific theory but you can’t compare them to each other because their criteria for truth is different.
On the other hand, liberal Christian churches who prided themselves on their intellectual superiority over their more naïve conservative brothers, bought into the theory and began to see everything, including moral laws, as evolving. Thus, in their eyes, moral truths like the traditional opposition of the Christian churches to abortion, homosexuality, fornication, divorce and birth control were no longer applicable because we had evolved beyond their usefulness. New challenges meant new responses, and new responses meant new moral laws, and new moral laws often meant a reversal of “good and evil.” What was formerly “good” was now evil and what was formerly “evil” had now become “good.” Obviously, they had forgotten the Old Testament’s warning of “Woe to him who calls evil good and good evil.” Like liberals everywhere they went rushing after change and began to lose their connection with the past to the point that they strained the very definition of what it meant to be a Christian.
The Catholic Church, as often happens, took the middle ground. It neither rejected nor accepted the new theory. The Church questioned it and withheld any final decision until its experts and time had provided more information and evidence either for or against it. Since the Church was not tied into “solo scriptura” or the literal interpretation of the Bible, it was able to consider the possibility that evolution was just another one of those “natural laws” of the universe to which the Church had traditionally subscribed. After all, the Bible said that the natural world was a reflection of God and thus both it and the Bible were sources for understanding the mind of God. If there appeared to be a conflict between the two, then it was the job of the Church to find a way to resolve it. The only sure position to which the Church was committed was that whatever laws or mechanisms scientists discovered in the natural world, they were put there by our God and were not the result of accidental forces. This leads us to my next point.
The theory of evolution does not contradict the Bible and, in many ways, is compatible with it. A problem arises when Christians misunderstand, misinterpret, or misuse the Bible. The Bible is a religious revelation that tells of the Hebrews encounter with God and the growth their understanding of His nature and His expectations for us. It is a book about relationships: God’s to humanity, humanity’s to God , and humanity to itself. It is not a science book and we misunderstand and misuse it when we try to use it in this way.
Like all written material it is subject to interpretation and misinterpretation. It has 72 books written at different times by different persons under different circumstances, and sometimes in different languages and it contains things that are to be understood literally, figuratively, and, sometimes, both ways. For example, there are historical books that tell of things that happen to the Hebrews in their search for God and the Promised Land. These should be interpreted literally. Then there are mystical books like the Book of Revelations that are full of symbolism and poetic phrases such as, “And He will raise you up on eagles wings, carry you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand”, that should be interpreted figuratively. And there are some things that could go either way. For example, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Obviously, there had to be an original source for the human race and Adam, which means’ from the earth”, and Eve could either be symbols for that source or the real source. The Garden of Eden could be a real place or a symbol for a state of being or condition that we once had with God or nature. For example, I quoted Eric Fromm in a previous program who, as a Jewish intellectual, saw the Garden of Eden as symbolizing a time when humans, lacking reason, were living in harmony with the rest of the natural world. Then, when they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they disrupted this harmony by acquiring the ability to “reason.” Reason, he says, was both our blessing and our curse because it removed us from the realm of instinctive knowledge, which is intuitive, subconscious and inborn, and placed us on the path of factual knowledge, which is logical, conscious, and acquired through struggle and effort.
So how should we interpret the Biblical account of Adam and Eve. According to the Church, you can interpret it either way. You can interpret it as a literal account in which everything happened exactly as stated or you can interpret it as an account full of symbols that are designed to convey great existential truths.
Those who interpret it literally believe that God actually created Adam from the dust of the earth; those that interpret it figuratively believe that God made us from the chemical compounds that are found in the dust of the earth; literalist believe that Eve was created from a rib from Adam’s side; figuratists believe that Eve, like Adam, was created from the same chemical compounds and that “of my rib” was a Hebrew term that symbolized a relationship that was so close that the “two were one flesh.” Literalists believe that there is a geographical location between the Tigres and Euphrates rivers where the Garden of Eden existed; figuratists believe that the Garden of Eden was a symbol for a “state of being” which once existed when humans lived in close harmony with God and the natural world. Literalists believe that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, like an apple tree, was an actual tree; figurativists believe that it was a symbol indicating the birth of rational thought, which allowed Mankind, like God, to create his own objectives based on his own premises. Literalists believe that Eve was tempted by Satan in the form of a serpent who told her that she would be like God once she had the “Knowledge of Good and Evil”; figurativists see the serpent as a symbol for the sin of Pride in which the creature aspired to replace the Will of his Creator with his own will. Literalists believe that until this event, there was no death, or sin, or nakedness in their world; figurativists believe that these were always present and that it was their awareness of them that changed. Literalists believe that once Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden their life became a struggle for survival and for finding their way back to God; figurativists believe that the emergence of rational thought put Mankind on a linear path of development towards higher forms of life, civilization, and harmony with its Creator that involved a great negentropic struggle.
So what does the Church say about these two ways of interpreting the story of Adam and Eve? Its position is that we are free to interpret it either way or both ways. In other words, the Church has made no infallible statement concerning it except to say that it contains deep truths about God and our relationship to Him. Personally, I think that the story, when interpreted on the literal level, creates a lot of practical problems and, when interpreted on the figurative level, reveals great intuitive truths. In fact, I think that most things when interpreted on the figurative or symbolic level contain greater truths than those interpreted on the literal level. The reason is that the literal level allows for only one conclusion while the figurative or symbolic level allows for many interpretations and levels of meaning. Of course, both levels have their own problems. Let me explain.
Most of us, when we were children, interpreted Adam and Eve as a literal story, only to discover upon deeper thought that there were practical problems with it when it was interpreted in this way. For example, when I was a child, my aunt told me that men had one less rib than woman because Eve had been created from a rib of Adam. I was shocked to learn later in anatomy that this wasn’t true. I was also told that it was an apple that Adam and Eve ate. Obviously this is a real fruit and it was hard to understand why it was a “forbidden fruit” since it was a normal part of our diet. Later, when I read the story myself, I discovered that it wasn’t an apple tree. It was the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” and this sounded more like a symbol for something than an actual tree. Also, the serpent in the story had legs and, because he had tempted Adam and Eve, God punished him by removing his legs and telling him that from that day forward he would crawl on his belly and eat dust. Now, although it is true that snakes crawl on their bellies, they don’t eat dust. It only looks like that because they are continually flicking their tongue out since this is their method for smelling. The story also states that death, sin, and nakedness entered the world after they ate of the “forbidden fruit.” Upon deeper thought, one comes to the realization that death is an essential part of the natural world because if nothing died, after a short period of time, there would be no room for anything to be born. Furthermore, life survives by feeding on life. Even the plants we eat are living beings. If Adam and Eve and all of the creatures never died, then we have to imagine them as being anatomically different from our present world. They wouldn’t have teeth, or digestive juices, or stomachs, or bowels since all of these are part of our digestive system that is related to our need to eat living things in order to survive. Obviously, whatever we eat has to die. Also, once we understand that “sin” means to “miss the rational purpose or target” for which a thing was made, it becomes obvious that animals, who are sinless, often sin. They steal, fight, rape, murder and do all sorts of things that we would consider sinful, yet we don’t hold them morally responsible because they lack a moral sense. In other words, they never ate from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The same is true of infants and little children who are also capable of acts that, if performed by an adult, would be considered morally reprehensible. Thus, if a three or four year old child, takes another child’s toy, we don’t brand him a thief and thrown him in jail. We correct him and, at the same time, excuse him because he is too young to understand the significance of what he is doing. According to most churches, we can’t sin until around seven-years-of age” when we reach “the Age of Reason.” Thus, the innocence of Adam and Eve and of animals and young children is the innocence of ignorance, not the innocence of sinlessness. What all of this implies is that there is an essential connection between rational understanding and the concept of sin. If this is true, then sin was always a part of our world. It was moral responsibility that happened once Adam and Eve ate from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” And what about the issue of nakedness. What the Bible says is that they became aware of their nakedness and felt shame. Even today there are human beings living at the primitive level who parade about naked without any shame. However, with moral beings, shame is connected more to behavior than to the lack of clothes.
And what about the Garden of Eden itself? Is it a place, a symbol, or both? Even if we say it is a place, it is certainly one that carries a great symbolic significance. In a sense, it is the womb of Mankind to which we all want to return when the struggles of life become too great, but, as the Bible tells us, an angel with swords has been placed at its entrance with orders to allow no one to return. Mentally ill people who find that reality is too much for them to handle will sometimes curl up in the fetal position indicating through non-verbal means, their desire to return to their mother’s womb. But it too has a barrier that prohibits re-entrance. The path of life moves forward and upwards for those who are willing to face the crosses and difficulties that it presents. It is a constant struggle against the entropic forces that are pulling us back towards death and disintegration. Only those who are willing to enter the negentropic struggle against the tide, will ever experience the “fullness of life” that is promised to those who persevere. Jesus was right, “ If you want life and want it fully, then pick up your cross and follow Me for I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
But, you might say, if the story of Adam and Eve can be interpreted on the symbolic level, then doesn’t that undermine the truthfulness of the Bible? Not at all! Truth comes to us in many forms and some of the deepest truths can be stated and understood only on the symbolic level because, as I have already stated, symbols allow for levels of meaning and understanding. Every time you think that you have mined every ounce of truth from them, you discover a new vein through meditation. For example, Moses leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt, through the desert, to the Promised Land of Canaan is interesting as a literal historical fact but Moses leading the Hebrew people out of slavery through the Wilderness of Sin to freedom is more than interesting, it is inspiring and has a wider application to our lives.
Why we might ask would God inspire the writers of Genesis to tell us a symbolic story rather than a literal fact? First of all, we don’t know for sure which way it should be interpreted. We only know that when it is looked at symbolically, it contains many insights that it doesn’t contain when looked at literally. However, part of the answer to my question may be that the further we go back in history, the more we find myths, stories, and parable being used to convey information. The reason for this is that the further you go back in history, the more right hemispheric the general population is. If the Biblical account of creation had been aimed at the left lobe of our brains, it would have sounded like this:
“In the beginning there was an Event Horizon which had no linear dimension. At that point, the whole universe was compressed into a dot smaller than an atom. When it reach the point of “critical mass” it exploded and a linear time dimension was begotten. At first there was only the chaotic sub-atomic level consisting of neutrinos, quarks, and quantum beings. Then the Logic of God utter the first word, hydrogen, and out of the chaos of the sub-atomic world, came the first type of organize energy when a positively charged proton united with a negatively charged electron Upon variations of this atom, the whole creation was built… etc…”
If this is the truth, then it is a truth that the right hemisphere of the brain is incapable of understanding because it contains very few pictures and a lot of abstract concepts and words. And since most of the human race was operating on a dominant right lobe, the only way to convey any truth to them was through mythical stories that contained symbols representing deep truths. Even Jesus couched His truths in parables that were stories that contained important moral insights and principles. Therefore, we would be wrong to believe that just because something is a myth, story, or parable that it doesn’t contain truth. Yet, most of us continue to believe that unless something is literal, it isn’t true. As I have shown, we run into some real practical problems when we take something that was meant to be figurative and symbolic and treat it as being literal.
However, if a literal interpretation of the Biblical account of Adam and Eve raises some practically problems, the figurative interpretation also contains some dangers. Because this level is open to such a wide interpretation, it is also open to a wide range of misinterpretation and that is why we, as Catholics, need an authoritative Magisterium, with the power of “binding and loosing” to guide us through the maze of competing interpretations. Through it, we believe that, despite their human frailty and sinfulness, Jesus has promised that the Holy Spirit of Truth will watch over and guide their decisions so that we will not wander down paths that are inconsistent with the Truth. Left to our own private interpretation, we could easily end up in a maze of conflicting interpretations that would undermine the unity that Jesus asked His Father to grant His Church. The Church says that we are free in our private prayers and meditations to seek creative insights into the words of scripture but when it comes to dogmatic statements that are applicable to the whole Church and the “deposit of faith”, then it is up to the Magisterium to make that decision. Perhaps that is why Jesus instructed his Apostle to establish a church rather than write a book. A church is a living, developing organism that is able to restate old truths in a new form to keep up with the growth of human knowledge. A book, although valuable, is unable to explain itself in the same way that a human organization can, and therefore leaves its readers with the task of interpreting it themselves. The results will be a babel of conflicting interpretations.
My analysis is a good example. Although I have presented many creative insights into the reading of the story of Adam and Eve and, I believe that I have stayed within the position of the Church, I submit the final decision to the Magisterium of the Church. It is they who have received the “Key to the Kingdom” and have the power of “binding and loosing” not me. So for the final answer to how it should be interpreted look to them. Even if my insights and interpretations are correct, this may not be the time for their acceptance because the Church in general may not have reached the point where they are able to synthesize them. Thus, my advice to you is to meditate on what I have said but reserve the final judgment until the Church speaks.the
If this talk has upset you because it has questioned some of your childhood assumptions, remember that the Church says that you can interpreted either way or both ways. My own position is to interpret it both ways. However, we should also remember what St. Paul said: “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I spoke like a child, and I acted as a child but now that I am fully grown, I have put away the things of childhood.” If Christians are ever going to present a challenge to the present interpretation of the theory of evolution we are going to have to develop adult arguments based on facts, philosophy and logic.
And that is the next issue that I want to address. I have spent most of this program on Biblical interpretation and the story of Adam and Eve only to pave the way for a fuller discussion of the theory of evolution from the point of view of facts, philosophy and logic. Until we get over the “Biblical hump”, we can’t address this issue without fearing that we are going to undermine our religious faith. It should be clear to us now that there is compatibility between the theory of evolution and biblical revelation so long as we understand both properly. Once we accept this, we can focus on the real issue between the churches and the evolutionists: that is, whether evolution is the result of an accidental process or whether it is the result of rational design.
Most evolutionists, whether they admit explicitly or not, act implicitly as though it is the total result of accidental forces. They do this because they see examples of accidental events that seem to indicate a lack of direction. Species come into existence and go out of existence. Some species seem to have reach evolutionary dead-ends that are inconsistent with the general flow of the evolutionary process. Relationships seem to occur on the chemical level purely by accidental chance. Two atoms of hydrogren (H2) bump into one atom of oxygen (O1) and water comes into existence. A male dog copulates with a female dog without any thought or knowledge of reproduction or any final end. Thus, the whole process, they say, is accidental and non-rational.
Religious forces, on the other hand, argue that evolution is a totally rational process because it exhibits forms of rational intent. From the beginning it has been moving, no matter how erratically, towards higher expressions of life. There are a limited number of atoms suggesting, like a recipe in a cake, that they are the ones necessary for future steps, while other possible combinations never seem to take place. For example, three atoms of hydrogen don’t seem to have any inclination to form a relationship with nine atoms of oxygen. Each level seems to be a preparation for what will be needed on the next level. How, they ask the evolutionists, can an accidental process create the conditions that are necessary for the process to move to the next level of development? How can an accidental process can go from a hydrogen atom to a human being? How can an accidental process create all the intricate relationships that are necessary for the survival and advancement of the system. For example, just take human reproduction. The male sperm, since it has only 23 chromosomes instead of the 46 in the rest of the body, would be attack by the body’s immune system except for the fact that there are special large nurse cell that exist to protect them. If these nurse cells didn’t exist, the sperm cells would be destroyed and our species would have never developed. Now if evolutionary development is the result of minor adjustments of organism to changing conditions, which came first, the sperm cells or the nurse cells? And how did the human race reproduce itself before this intricate relationship was formed. These are significant questions that need to be asked and require an answer?
In fact, it is easier to imagine and evolutionary process creating individual changes than it is to imagine the same process creating intricate logical systems. And that is exactly what biological bodies are. They are a system of inter-related organs that depend on each other for their individual existence. This seems to require logical thought and direction so the whole process must be the result of “intelligent design.”
So what is the answer? Is evolution an accidental or rational process?
Well, that will have to wait for my next program because I see that my time is up. Here’s Dom!