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Who Lied? Literal Truth and Deception – Part 1

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The myth of the Fall as told in Genesis 2 and 3 is one of the fundamental narratives of Western culture. Even those who completely reject it have to come to an understanding of it because it so pervades our perception of what it means to be human. The common understanding of it is this:

God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, a lush sanctuary where they could live and work in comfort and security. Along with all the trees God provided for food, he placed two special trees. One was the Tree of Life, of which a man might eat and live forever. The other was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, of which God forbade the two to eat, telling them that if they did they would certainly die.

One day the serpent, who was craftier than the other beasts, encountered Eve and asked her, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the Garden?”

“We may eat from any tree except the one in the middle of the Garden. He said if we eat from it or even touch it we will certainly die.”

“You will not certainly die,” said the serpent. “God has forbidden it because he knows that if you eat from it, you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”

Eve believed the serpent. She saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and desirable to make one wise, so she took some and ate it and gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then their eyes were opened. They became aware of their nakedness and sewed together fig leaves to cover their bodies.

Later God discovers them cowering among the trees and finds out that they have disobeyed his command. He pronounces curses on each participant. The serpent becomes a slithering beast who must eat dust. The woman is cursed with pain in childbirth. The man is cursed with drudgery, working very hard just to survive. Then God expels the pair from the Garden and places cherubim and a flaming sword at the entrance to prevent them returning and eating from the Tree of Life and living forever.

First off, it’s worth noting that by any objective standard, God is the villain of this piece. He does not appear as a loving Father but as an arbitrary and vindictive autocrat, punishing an outcome he surely must have foreseen, even if he were of only average intelligence and not all-knowing and all-wise. The hero of the story is the serpent. He risks God’s wrath to bring a wisdom and understanding to the human pair that God had apparently reserved for himself. Like Prometheus giving fire to humans, he defies God and lifts the unwitting humans out of their subservience and into genuine autonomy, by which they become fully human. If God chooses to curse them for their defiance, it is because he is evil, for their intentions were noble: they wanted to be like him.

Yet this is not the common interpretation given to this story. A few visionaries (for example, William Blake) have seen it this way, but for the most part, we all know that God is good and just, the serpent is the devil, and the human pair sinned and brought evil into the world. I don’t want to go into the differences between the interpretations we’ve inherited and the one I just expressed (which might be called a literal interpretation). I want to focus on just one question that we might ask of the story. Who lied?

According to the traditional understanding, the serpent lied. Eve lends support to this understanding when she testifies, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Yet her testimony is suspect because she seeks to deflect the blame that Adam had just cast on her. In fact, if we carefully consider the serpent’s words, we find that everything he said was literally true. God really did forbid eating from just the one Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When they ate, they did not die. God himself testifies later that they had become like him, knowing good and evil.

The one thing that the serpent says which flatly contradicts what God had said is this, “You will not certainly die.” In fact, Adam and Eve did not die. They both lived on for many years—for hundreds of years, if the stories of antediluvian longevity are to be believed. Since what the serpent said was true and contradicts what God had said, it is rather God who must have lied. He told the human pair that they would die, but they did not. By taking God’s and the serpent’s words literally, we have to conclude that God lied and the serpent told the truth.

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Thoughts on Science and Religion

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I’ve always had an interest in science. Even as a very young child, I can remember puzzling over day and night. How does the sun get back to the east to rise? What are the stars? I remember imagining that the night sky was really a huge inverted colander. The sun would make its way back to the east outside the colander, and we would see the sun’s light coming through the holes. My interest in science arose from what I took to be a universal desire to understand the world in which we live. I understood science to be a systematic inquiry into the world for the purpose of understanding it.

One of the things I’ve learned as a parent is that characteristics I thought were universal were merely personal. None of my children has the least interest in science. I do not know why. The desire to understand is so much a part of my very being that I cannot grasp being without it. One of my sons recently told me he hated science. I asked why.

“It’s boring,” he said.

Boring?! How can science be boring?

“It has nothing to do with life,” he continued.

My son is a bright fellow. He knows full well that the technology he enjoys so much comes directly from science. But, as he pointed out, he doesn’t need to know how a computer works—or an iPod or a smartphone—to use it. None of my children have much curiosity about how things work. It is enough for them to know that they do work. Perhaps most people think the same way. I do not know.

As for me, I am always curious about how things work. I also have tremendous faith in my own capacity to understand how things work.

I wrote a while ago about the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. When I wrote it, I was sure that most people can tell the difference between magic and science. Now I am not so sure. Without a curiosity about how things work, why should anyone seek evidence for or against their own thinking? What difference is there in the thinking of most people between belief in electricity, gravity, or the nuclear strong force and belief in fairies, gnomes, or sprites? For those with a purely instrumentalist view of knowledge, the question is not, “Is it true?” but, “Does it work?”

I have to admit, I am more interested in truth than in utility. Not that the truth and utility are necessarily opposed. But they are not the same thing. One can easily imagine investigating the utility of a concept without coming close to discovering its truth. It is also possible, I suppose, to investigate the truth of a concept without discovering its utility. Nevertheless, I believe that the significant advances that have been made in technology result from scientists earnestly seeking the truth about the universe we live in. Technology takes the discoveries of science and makes them useful, but there is no enterprise that takes the usefulness of things and makes them true. So science is preeminent.

Many people who unthinkingly use technology every day criticize science as if its objectives were fundamentally flawed. Among evangelical Christians, for example, it is common to disparage biological evolution as if biologists were motivated solely by a desire to discredit God. Certainly there are some scientists so motivated. However, the desire to discredit God is not fundamental to science; it is fundamental to rebellious man. Biologists are motivated by a desire to understand living things. Out of that desire, mixed with countless hours of observation, experimentation, testing of hypotheses, and all the other activities of science, a consensus has emerged among scientists that all life on earth is descended from the same source, that all living things are connected by heredity. This consensus is not wishful thinking. It is not dishonest or unscientific as some Christians have claimed. It is good science, supported by a wealth of evidence from disciplines as diverse as geology, genetics, paleontology, and biology.

Science is a human enterprise for understanding the world we live in. Understanding is always about truth; you cannot understand something without believing what you understand to be true. (You can, of course, believe something to be true without understanding it, but the reverse is not true.) It is not the only enterprise for understanding the world. Religion also makes truth-claims about the world and also provides a way of thinking about the world and understanding it. But religion concerns itself with spiritual reality, while science concerns itself with physical reality. There are some who deny spiritual reality, as if the capacity to understand were not itself a spiritual reality. Human ideals, philosophy, ethics, love, justice, faith—these all belong to the spiritual world. To deny that world is to deny what makes  us human.

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Myth vs. Fact

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I’d like to recover myth.

Some regard the first few chapters of the Bible as history. Others regard it as myth. Those in the history camp fear that those in the myth camp are denigrating the truth of the Bible. They think the only way for those chapters to be true is for them to be historically accurate. Those who claim that the stories are myth mean to claim something far greater than historical accuracy. They claim that these origin stories tell us enduring truths about the nature of man and the nature of God, the nature of sin and the nature of innocence.

One of the tragedies of our modern era is that we no longer believe in myths. Instead we believe in scientific verities, cold and soulless facts. Myth has two features that facts lack: Myth encapsulates truth in story, and it addresses our hearts not just our heads. We need myth to help us understand the mysteries of the world we live in.

I love science. Anyone who has followed my blog knows that I am a fan of science and of scientific thinking. But science cannot capture everything. Even if it were able to do so, it’s voluminous collections of facts would still fail to move me the way a good story does. Science gives us control or—more properly—the illusion of control. We can make engines do our bidding. We can make computers do massive calculations on our behalf. We can dig great holes, launch great ships, capture the light of galaxies too far away for our minds to grasp the immensity of the distance. We can travel to other planets and shrink our senses down to the perception of individual atoms and molecules. Science gives us the ability to do all these things.

Wonderful as science is, though, it cannot give us control over ourselves—or if it does, we find the cure worse than the disease. We still have widespread conflict over paltry differences like skin color. We still have envy, greed, lust, pride, sloth, wrath, and gluttony. We can no more change our fallen nature than we can change our DNA or the color of our blood. We need truth that goes beyond the facts that science can teach us.

We need the delicate power and transformative whisperings of myth, of story. Look at how much of the Bible is couched in narrative. Feel the way it insinuates its way into your thinking and understanding, so that you become not just a consumer of a fiction but a partaker of truth, an imbiber of intoxicating revelation. This happens even without any appeal to the Spirit, whose mysterious instrumentality is to take the words of this myth and sow them like seeds into your heart, water and nurture them until they grow into a changed life.

We need myth because it is truer than history and more comprehensive than scientific fact. Myth helps recreate us. It instructs us in the ways of a universe otherwise impossibly strange, unaccountable to us, and indifferent to our sufferings. Myth is true, and the truer a story is, the more mythical it becomes, until it becomes a part of the great Story that God has been telling from ages past, a Story of Love and Death, of Pride and Sacrifice, of Grace and Judgment. True myth always illuminates the Story of God.

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