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After we discussed the role of science in the life of humanity (Mycroft: science is savior; Me: science is a tool), my online friend turned to the subject of religion.
Mycroft wrote: “The major organized belief systems are incoherent. Half of mosaic, christian, and muslim theology over the last millennia is devoted to the task of belatedly producing some kind of consistency—often by declaring something impossible a “mystery”, or adding afterthoughts.”
I couldn’t disagree with Mycroft about the incoherence of some belief systems. The obvious irrationality of many of the beliefs I held when I was younger actually led me to look for truth and value it, both in the scriptures that were alleged to form the basis of that belief system and in sources outside those scriptures.
But here’s the thing: The belief systems current in many religious communities today are no less irrational than our political belief systems, our personal belief systems, our pseudo-scientific belief systems. They are no less irrational than any other area in which human beings make things up to explain, rationalize and make themselves comfortable with cognitive dissonance in a world that seems to change too fast to keep up with.
There is a difference, however, between what the scriptures say and what we interpret them to say, filtered through societal factors and personal desires. Over the valid objections of atheists, we also extend the pronouncements of scripture into areas they were not intended to address.
One example of this is the biblical book of Genesis. This was taken by the people to whom it was given as a symbolic history of the Jewish people, not as a literal, material history of humankind. This is why the Talmudic story of Lilith, and the idea that “sons of God” married the “daughters of men” didn’t perturb Jewish scholars. Only later was the metaphorical account interpreted out of context by non-Jews and taken as a literal account of creation, as opposed to a spiritual metaphor for material realities the people of the time had not the language or intellectual tools to comprehend.
In some sectarian theology, Genesis is commonly taken to be an “age appropriate” metaphor for the creation of life, and not a literal description of the creative or evolutionary process. The fact that two separate thumbnail sketches of creation appear in the same book with two different timelines is more than suggestive of this.
Nor is Genesis the only creation story in existence that is meaningful to huge swathes of humanity, and it makes no sense to insist that—taken as a metaphorical model—any of these narratives usurp the role of science. They are not science. They are a human way of interpreting revealed knowledge and/or describing for posterity things they lack the language to describe.
The late Ursula Le Guin wrote that the job of a writer was to put into words what could not be put into words. The job accorded the prophets of God is even more daunting, because they are tasked with explaining spiritual verities using only the crude tools of material language.
Christ acknowledged this problem when he explained to the Pharisees why he changed the law of divorce: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” – Matthew 19:8. God’s idea about marriage didn’t change—humans evolved. New wine requires new wine skins.
This common thread runs among all revealed religion—the idea that revelation is continuous and periodic. That is, there are connections between the various revelations that we may fail to see, even when they are contained in the same set of holy books. Moses was not an isolated point in history, nor was Christ, nor were any of the prophets that connected the two. The book of Deuteronomy records twice that God would send a prophet like Moses to the Jews (Deut. 18:15). Christ claimed that he was that prophet spoken of by Moses (John 5:45-47), then tells of ”another Advocate” who would come after him. Pull the camera back and you see that Krishna said:
For the salvation of those who are good, for the destruction of evil in men, for the fulfilment of the kingdom of righteousness, I come to this world in the ages that pass. – Bhagavad Gita 4:8.
You see that Buddha, appearing millennia later in the same land, reminded his followers that he was not the first Buddha, nor would he be the last.
As human beings, we understand that learning is continuous and that knowledge always builds from the simple to the complex. What was ”age appropriate” for one period of history must be built upon for humankind to reach greater levels of understanding. Baha’u’llah summarized this thread of religious thought this way:
The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 213.