Pile #4 The Meaning of Creation by Conrad Hyers

7 Dec

The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science / Conard Hyers.  Atlanta: John Knox Press. 1984. vi, 203 p.  Includes Bibliographic References.

The original Amazon review is found here : “The Meaning of Creation” http://www.amazon.com/review/R20W108MQ5RWE7/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

In the beginning…..

“Where did the world come from?”  “Why are we here?” are two of the oldest questions of mankind, probably asked since he first began to speak and gaze up at the sky.  He has sought answers from theology, philosophy, and nature itself, and has apparently received different answers from all three at different times, no two answers necessarily being in harmony, which of course gives birth to long running controversies.  At least since the 18th century the different answers became confrontational, with science overtaking philosophy and, from the mid-twentieth century, actively overtaking the religious answer, though not without a fight.

In today’s world then, we appear to have two competing answers to the origin of the world, of species, and of mankind itself, one being a religious answer (represented most prominently by the “Creationist” label of Evangelical Christian theology), and the other being a scientific answer going by the label “Evolutionary Theory”. And then there are the “shades of gray” answers that seek to combine the two, such as “Theistic Evolution” or “Intelligent Design” -but they tend to collapse into one or the other of the main two

Controversy?  What Controversy?

Christianity itself is no stranger to controversy -and in truth, the Church has never been free from  conflict with the surrounding culture:  this is as true  of the twenty-first century as the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries A.D. (the period of the first Ecumenical Councils), as it is of even the beginning of the faith’s separate existence (Paul’s conflict with Jewish believers over expected and acceptable behaviour for Gentile believers in Messiah). Every age in fact has its unique set of controversies which Christianity and the Church must work through to proclaim the Gospel. (The current set of controversies just strikes a little closer to home).

The longest running controversy of modernity is this self-same apparent conflict between Religion and Science -the opposition of “faith” to “reason” as it is sometimes styled- and in particular over the question of origins.  From the middle of the 19th century and the publishing of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, portions of Christianity have been fixated on the question of human origins….”Creation” vs “Evolution”  arguments rage back and forth, and the resulting bitterness and entrenching of positions has all too often fueled criticism and rejection of Christian Faith as delusional, irrational and unpractical. Yet it is not a foregone conclusion that “Science” and “Religion” must be at odds, and Professor Conrad Hyers of Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, in his book The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science through a commentary on the two creation narratives in the first part of the Book of Genesis seeks to show how this can be so.

Hyers wants us to leave his text believing that the controversy between Faith and Reason, Science and Religion is a false dichotomy, because the questions asked are not the same -so of course the answers given cannot be the same- that in fact the two ‘sides’ have become trapped in a pit of their own making.

Reading Genesis

Written in 1984, “The Meaning of Creation” offers a different perspective on the conflict, and takes to task the assumptions  inherent in the literalist reading and interpretation of the creation narratives from both the religious and scientific interpreters, as misunderstanding the real issues that the creation narratives wrestled with. Instead of trying to harmonize the Genesis creation accounts with current scientific theory, he puts forward a religious reading of the texts.  Eight chapters, a prologue, and notes  bring his argument to life -that a literalist approach to the creation narratives does a disservice both to and to science, and that such an approach was not what the original authors intended.

The first chapter sets out the difference between religious language and scientific language and applies this difference to the biblical texts for the rest of the book.  Chapters 2-4 bring out the imagery of Genesis 1, and chapters 6-7 do the same for Genesis 2,  Chapter 5, standing between these discussion of Genesis 1 and of Genesis 2 and beyond, introduces symbolic imagination and the religious uses of symbols and the contrast between scientific use of symbols.

The final chapter “The Controlled Accident” is an exploration of three problems that arise out of the creation narratives and the doctrine of Creation:  ,1) chance versus design in nature, 2) the existence of evil and suffering, and 3) the use of patriarchal language, and how their reconciliation can be effected first of all by recognizing that such questions were not addressed by the author(s) of Genesis, and that to truly take in the meaning of creation we must accept both the order and ambiguity that it represents.

Asking the right Questions

For Hyers, it is not a question of reconciling science and religion in the realm of human and cosmic origins, but of acknowledging that the two accounts (biblical and scientific) speak to different audiences using different languages, addressing different issues, and further, that they may not even be asking the same questions, separated as they are by some 2500 years and geography. Hyers maintains, for instance that the primary motivating issues facing the writers of the two creation accounts was the rejection of polytheism and idolatry from within Judaism, and that each account is written from a different perspective: an agricultural perspective (the Priestly account, which celebrates and elevates an orderly creation) for Genesis 1 and a pastoral perspective for Genesis 2 and beyond (an account that critiques unfettered advances of civilization, the Yawhist account).

Dialogue or Commentary?

Hyers sets his book up to be a dialogue between the Book of Genesis and the results of modern science, especially biology and evolutionary theory (along with astronomy) concerning the beginning of the world, and the origins of life, but there is very little of science in the text, even for a work that dates from 1984. Hyers is more concerned to distinguish the different type of questions that Genesis and Science asks and answers, and then spends the rest of the work focusing on the the former, making sense of the  two accounts of Genesis, in effect making the book a a commentary.

Based on the above descriptions, Hyer’s book is best described as a commentary on Genesis, as opposed to a book that seeks to reconcile science and religion on the origins of the world. As a commentator then, he would have done well to remember the modes of interpretation of the text -the 4 senses of the text that Aquinas speaks of-, that the literal-historical sense always had primary emphasis, followed by the spiritual -broken down into the moral, allegorical, and spiritual senses, and not assume that only one mode can be in play for any one particular passage at any one time.

Since the book was written in 1984, and is thus more than 30 years old, the question could be asked why read it now?  The most honest answer is, it was in my reading stack, the title struck my interest

Where’s the Science?

Okay, so maybe I’m being a little harsh on Dr. Hyers. Or maybe I’m not. Dr Hyers is a theologian, not a scientist, true; however, a sketch of the expanding scientific questions and answers would have been helpful for comparison purposes, and not just a theory of scientific imagination, to use as a foil of the Genesis account.

With this in mind, the greatest weakness of the work becomes clear: the paucity of interaction between ‘Science’ and ‘Religion’. His actual discussion of Genesis 1 and 2 (and beyond) was quite meaningful, and helps put many of the subsequent theological themes of the rest of Scripture into context, but this comes at the expense

The closest that Hyers comes to engaging with science  (which in my mind is also the most unique contribution to the “origins” controversy that Hyers brings to the table) is the notion of a dual biblical-scientific literalism that frames the question in the same way, but even this more of a philosophical and literary argument, not an engagement with science itself. He  then raises the issue in the last chapter  (which looks back to the accusation of the dual literalisms previously mentioned) the conflict over chance versus design (order versus randomness) and determinism versus free-will  in creation, and questions whether we demand too much order (following the Taoist critique of Confucian art) in creation both from theologians and scientists at the expense of creative randomness and ambiguity, of whether we view God and creation  in overly masculine terms at the expense of the feminine that is the other half of humanity.

Enriching, if not definitive

Not everyone will be comfortable with Professor Hyers’ treatment of the creation narratives, of course, or of his resolution of the problem (such as it is) and yet, compared with another nearly contemporaneous work that rejects a simple literalist reading of the creation narratives -John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism- Hyers offers a more readable, erudite, and sympathetic argument. Whether or not you  agree with his assessment though, reading his book will enrich your  understanding and appreciation of the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2, even if it does not bring a rapprochement, or even the outlines of such, between Science and Religion.

Until next time then,  Read on my friends, and stay thirsty


edited on 12 December for consistency sake


One Response to “Pile #4 The Meaning of Creation by Conrad Hyers”

  1. aion kinah December 20, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    That is a very good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere. Simple but very accurate info… Appreciate your sharing this one. A must read article!

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