Fr Frank O’Dea SSS
We humans use two different ways of making sense of the universe, and ourselves as people. The first way is through mythology. The second way is through science.
People have always craved to know how the world was made, why people behave as they do, what kind of life is there after death. Imagine a group sitting around the camp fire at night. Inevitably there would be discussion about why does the sun go around the earth, why does the moon grow larger then smaller, who made the stars, why are there males and females among humans and animals, why are there good people and evil people, honest and dishonest . . . Answers from the group would be suggested, eventually some kind of consensus could emerge.
These ‘camp fire’ stories were passed on from generation to generation by the gifted story tellers of the tribes. They were changed and elaborated on according to the imagination of the story teller. They were not written down; they were oral. So the indigenous Australians developed their dream time stories of the Rainbow Serpent who made the mountains, rivers and valleys, and how the magpie came to be black and white. The ancient Greeks and Romans developed their gods and goddesses; likewise the people of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Pacific Islands, Asia.
We call these stories mythologies or myths for short. Their strength is they frequently showed remarkable insight into human behaviour.
In this sense they are true.
These mythologies served the tribes well for hundreds of thousands of years – their stories, their songs, their dances bonded the people by making some sense of the world around them and the tragedies and joys of life. They preserved the culture of the tribe for many millennia – in the case of the indigenous Australians for about 50,000 years.
The stories were supplemented by dance and song, very important components of the tribal culture. The combination of story, dance, song is ritual which became religion with sacrifice and worship of the gods and goddesses. The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin ‘re-ligare’ which means to bind together. The beliefs and practices bonded the people into a united group.
There was always the attempt to reach up to the spirit word, to get in touch with the transcendent, the world beyond the material world.
The Jews of the Old Testament also had their mythologies. The creation stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis were probably written during the exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC. They drew on the mythologies of the cultures around them but, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, made very significant changes. These stories are a huge advance in humankind’s understanding of how we should relate to God and to each other.
The first story of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4) teaches us that the one God made the world easily just by uttering words, that he made men and women equal and in the image of God.
The second story of creation (Gen 2:4-5:32) about Adam and Eve tells us that we can be tempted to do wrong and often we fail to resist the temptation; it also teaches us that we don’t live in a paradise, we have to work hard for a living.
The story of Cain and Abel teaches us that we can get so jealous we can kill another, and the killer becomes an outcast while the blood of the victim cries out for vengeance.
The story of Noah and the flood (Gen 6:1-9:28) teaches us that natural disasters can kill many people but God can save those who trust him and who prepare themselves.
From the tower of Babel story (Gen 11:1-9) we learn we can take excessive pride in our accomplishments and come crashing down.
When we read mythologies, the only question we need to ask is:
What spiritual truth is this story telling us?
To ask whether this event actually happened in the way described is to go beyond what mythology is about. These first eleven chapters of Genesis were never intended to be scientific or historical as we understand science and history today.
Many of the stories also try to understand why things are as they are: why women suffer in childbirth, why there are so many different languages, why we are ashamed of our nakedness. The reasons given may seem strange to our way of thinking but they are attempts to find answers to puzzling questions.
The oral camp fire stories of Genesis were eventually written down. Scholars find from the differing styles, there are several authors who put the stories into writing. These authors didn’t want to lose anything so they put in all the stories that had come down to them. This is why there are sometimes repetitions and awkward links between one verse and the next.
Mythology is a very rich mine of truths. It is open to many interpretations as just a brief reading of commentaries shows. For example, what does it mean to say we are made in God’s image? There are many interpretations of this and no one interpretation excludes others.
This can confuse the modern Western mind which has grown up on science and rationality and seeks to know the exact answer.
The Council of Vatican II in the 1960s issued a wonderful document on Divine Revelation (Verbum Dei) which is very worthwhile reading. It points out that the bible has many different styles of writing which it calls ‘literary forms’ and says that ‘truth is expressed in a variety of ways’. There is prophecy, poetry, and other types of speech. Very importantly, it says we should carefully investigate ‘what meaning the sacred writer intended and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words’. I’ve taken these matters into consideration in writing this article.
Let us now look at what science tells us and what seems to be a conflict between mythology and science.
In the first part of this article, I discussed how we understand the universe through mythology. In this part I will deal with what science contributes to the conversation.
People have always been able to think rationally. When the aborigines were hunting kangaroos they devised ways of doing this most effectively. Some of the tribe would gather near the mob of kangaroos and drive them towards others who were hiding. They used their thinking when fashioning spears and throwing sticks.
Their capacity to think complemented their dream time stories around the camp fires at night. All cultures developed their mythologies as well as rational ways of coping with life.
The Greeks particularly excelled in philosophy and produced extraordinary thinkers such as Pythagoras (570-495BC – remember him from geometry?), Plato (427-347BC), Aristotle (384-322BC). In fact, Aristotle’s influence extended right into the Middle Ages. His philosophy was the basis for much of the theology of Thomas Aquinas.
Apart from Thomas, Christianity produced other great thinkers such as Augustine and Anselm, and in modern times Karl Rahner, Yves Congar and Bernard Lonergan. These great minds had no problem harmonising their thinking with the creation stories.
However, this harmony became disrupted in what we may call the modern era. ‘Science’ (from scientia meaning knowledge) largely came under the heading of philosophy. However, the science of Aristotle and other early thinkers was all in the head. There was no ‘hands-on’ science with experiments and observation till around the fifteenth century.
Copernicus (1473-1543) invented a machine to measure the angle of the heavenly bodies as they rose and moved around the earth. He discovered the earth revolved around the sun and said:
My science is more divine than human.
Galileo (1564-1643) built on the work of Copernicus and other pioneers of astronomy. He believed his research was inspired by divine grace. His conflict with the church was not simply the church versus science as is popularly believed. He was in conflict with the whole academic establishment of the time.
These men began ‘hands-on’ science as we understand the word today. They observed, they measured, they experimented, to form their theories.
All these discoveries were a feature of the pragmatic, scientific mind. But slowly, this kind of truth was considered the only truth and mythology became discredited as unscientific and irrational.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) insisted that all truth, even the most sacred doctrines of religion, must be subjected to the stringent critical methods of empirical science.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) synthesised the findings of his predecessors by a rigorous use of the evolving scientific methods of experimentation and deduction. He had no time for mythology saying,
’Tis the temper of the hot and superstitious part of mankind in matters of religion ever to be fond of mysteries & for that reason to like best what they understand least.
Newton became obsessed with the desire to purge Christianity of its mythical doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and other philosophers followed this trend. This era is called the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason.
In 1859 Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species suggesting Homo Sapiens evolved from the same prototype as the chimpanzee. Darwin didn’t attack religion, and at first the response to his theory was muted. However, Thomas Huxley (1825-95) and others used Darwin’s theory to further the conflict that had now developed between science and religion.
Many Christians picked up the idea that if something is true it must be able to be proved scientifically and rationally. So they felt that everything in the bible must be scientifically ‘proveable’. Scripture lost its numinous dimension.
Arthur Pierson (1837-1911), an American Presbyterian minister, wanted a ‘Baconian System’ to study the bible, that is one based on the empirical methods of science as championed by Francis Bacon.
Mrs Humphry Ward (1851-1920) wrote in a novel:
If the gospels are not true in fact, as history, I cannot see that they are true at all, or of any value.
This is the position that many Christians have adopted and has led to a great deal of misunderstanding, even misuse, of the bible. We call this attitude ‘fundamentalism’. All the denominations have been affected in varying degrees by fundamentalism. Many of the smaller sects take the bible absolutely literally and try to ignore the findings of science altogether – a vain pursuit.
The Catholic church has not been affected as much though there are many fundamentalist Catholics who take the creation stories literally and have a lot of trouble reconciling these stories with science.
So how do we reconcile the creation stories with the facts that science now presents to us? How do we reconcile the first creation story that tells of God creating the world in six days with the big bang account that says the universe was created 14 billion years ago and is still changing? How do we understand the Adam and Eve story when scientists tell us that humans evolved from a common ancestor with the chimpanzees?
We can take a cue from the brilliant St Augustine (354-430) who lived well before the scientific age. Yet he had this remarkable insight:
. . . the interpreter must respect the integrity of science or he would bring scripture into disrepute.
The answer to what appears to be a conflict is that we read mythology as mythology, and we read science as science. In the first part of this article, I gave some examples of the religious truths of Genesis.
Sadly, the common belief is that religion and science are irreconcilable. This is not the case.
Mythology gives us the big picture of God’s design for the human race. Science tells us how God has done this. For example, evolution is the mechanism which God designed for bringing about his plan.
The biggest problem is with the extremists on both sides. Those at the extreme end on the science side, such as Richard Dawkins, ridicule the bible stories of creation. The extremists on the bible side, including many of the Pentecostal sects, hold the creation stories are literally true and don’t concede anything to science.
The bible must be used as prayer and read in a meditative way with ample time for reflection to obtain the spiritual meaning of each passage.
There are many who are both practising Christians and scientists. For these people there is no conflict. Francis Collins, formerly atheist/agnostic, headed the Human Genome Project and became converted to Christianity after a seriously ill patient who shared her faith with him, asked, ‘What do you believe, doctor?’
Tragically for the English language, ‘mythology’, shortened to ‘myth’, has now come to mean a lie. What was once a word very rich in meaning has been debased.
My own path along this exciting journey was greatly helped by belonging to the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology (ISCAST). It was at one of their seminars that I first heard of a ‘conversation’ between science and religion rather than a ‘confrontation’. Their website is well worth visiting if you want to pursue this matter.