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My online friend Mycroft claimed to be puzzled by the differences in the accounts of creation contained in the various holy books.
“But Mohammad,” he said, “gave three different versions of the origin of man (he was made from clay, from water, from the “semen of despised water.”
My friend’s statement is, to me, an example of binary thinking. To illustrate, there is a point in the Gospels at which Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples what the coming of the Kingdom of God is like. In Luke 13:18-21, he says it’s like a great, sheltering tree growing from a tiny seed, and then that it’s like a woman kneading leaven into flour—specifically, three measures of flour.
There are at least two and maybe three ways to approach these statements. One can:
- Say “Well, which is it? It can’t be both.”
- Choose a description, and take it literally, supposing that Christ meant God would incarnate himself as a woman and literally knead leaven into flour, somehow magically bringing about the promised Kingdom.
- Recognize that a material example is being used to describe something non-material, and ask “what do these two metaphors have in common?” In this case, what they have in common is that both the cultivation of the tree and the kneading of dough are organic processes that take time and effort.
So, what do Muhammad’s examples have in common? They are all physical elements that have long been associated with the human body—clay and water; solid substance and fluids, which every human body is composed of.
Scientists today talk about us being made of ”star stuff,” meaning, not that we’re going to put out tremendous light and heat and go nova someday, but simply that our bodies are made up of the same elements the rest of the universe is made up of. The phrase ”star stuff” is one of the many metaphors used in scientific literature, and used for the same reason that metaphor is employed in religious revelation: because we lack the capacity to directly understand a thing and/or we lack the language to describe it.
Scientists also talk about stars being born in cocoons of interstellar gases, of black holes, of super strings, of fields. Science uses words such as noble to describe certain gases. These words are used differently than in a non-scientific setting, but pause to appreciate what happens if someone takes those metaphors literally. They might believe that stars are like butterflies and are born in cocoons afloat in space, that the phenomenon we call a black hole is really black and really a hole, that there are strings floating in fields in space (Elysian fields? Fields of dreams?), and that some gases are literally more noble than others and therefore the other gases are subservient to them.
When a new discovery shocks the sciences, we deem it rational to adjust our worldview to incorporate new information. Think of the concept of Ether, which was accepted, fell into disrepute, then was re-affirmed under a different and more nuanced understanding in the realm of quantum mechanics. I would think that my friend Mycroft and others who share his worldview would be gratified to see religious thought being similarly refined and adjusted by the new discoveries we make about our world and ourselves.
Alas, such is not the case. What is considered rational behavior in one context is seen in the other as irrational dithering.
In the Baha’i teachings, Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha wrote copiously about reason and the importance of the acquisition of knowledge—both spiritual and scientific. Religion is revealed in these writings as an organic thing, meant from its very inception to evolve even as humanity and everything else evolves.
The assertions of the Baha’i teachings about the nature of the universe and religion caused me to study the scriptures I had grown up with in a far more comprehensive and rational way than I had before. I read the biblical texts—especially the words of Christ—with an eye to extracting knowledge and understanding more about human life. I realized, as I never had before, that Christ (and indeed, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammad and other claimants to divine revelation) had also tried to frame the teachings of their faiths as part of an evolving process.
Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore [their] revelation must be progressive and continuous. … Sciences of former ages and philosophies of the past are useless today. Ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions …
In view of this, shall blind imitations of ancestral forms and theological interpretations continue to guide the spiritual development of humanity today? Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason? – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 140.
When it came to my discourses with my atheist friend Mycroft, I was bemused to discover that he—the atheist—was the one who insisted that all scripture must be taken literally and that, therefore, to any religious person, evolution was a non-starter.
Irony can be pretty darned ironic.