Since my little break has turned out to be longer than I anticipated, I fear that my blog muscles have atrophied a bit. So let’s start flexing them again by revisiting a familiar topic: Adam and Eve.
Over at HuffPo, Peter Enns makes another contribution to the genre that tries to explain why evangelical Christians should not be troubled by the fact that science completely refutes the traditional understanding of Adam and Eve. He gets off to a good start:
If evolution is right about how humans came to be, then the biblical story of Adam and Eve isn’t. If you believe, as evangelicals do, that God himself is responsible for what’s in the Bible, you have a problem on your hands. Once you open the door to the possibility that God’s version of human origins isn’t what actually happened — well, the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope. The next step is uncertainty, chaos and despair about one’s personal faith.
That, more or less, is the evangelical log flume of fear, and I have seen it played out again and again.
In recent years, the matter has gotten far worse. Popular figures like Richard Dawkins have done an in-your-face-break-the-backboard-slam-dunk over the heads of defenders of the biblical story. They’ve taken great delight in making sure Main Street knows evolution is true, and therefore the Bible is “God’s big book of bad ideas” (Bill Maher) and Christians are morons for taking it seriously. Evangelicals have been on high alert damage control mode.
Then you have the mapping of the human genome. It’s a done deal: humans and primates are 90-something percent related genetically. The best explanation for it, geneticists tell us, is that humans evolved from primates. Since my greatest scientific achievement is doing puppet shows with dissected feral cats in high school biology, I feel I have no right to contest — and I likely speak for many other evangelicals in that regard (sans puppet show). And it doesn’t help things that an evangelical, Francis Collins, was the one who pointed all this out, got the Presidential Medal of Honor for it, and talked about it (twice) on “The Colbert Report.”
If that wasn’t enough, evolution is being used nowadays to explain all sorts of things about us humans — including why we believe in God. If God is a product of evolution, like bipedalism and tool making, well, the jig’s up (and not just for evangelicals).
That’s actually pretty good. If only Enns had stopped there! His blunt statement that evolution flatly contradicts the Biblical account is impressively honest. It rules out attempts to preserve the historicity of Adam and Eve via highly strained readings of the text, such as the one that suggests that Adam and Eve were chosen from a among a large population of unensouled hominids to enter into a special relationship with God.
So what does Enns suggest that evangelicals do?
Evangelicals look to the Bible to settle important questions of faith. So, faced with a potentially faith-crushing idea like evolution, evangelicals naturally ask right off the bat, “What does the Bible say about that?” And then informed by “what the Bible says,” they are ready to make a “biblical” judgment.
This is fine in principle, but in the evolution debate this mindset is a problem: It assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins.” It isn’t. And as long as evangelicals continue to assume that it does, the conflict between the Bible and evolution is guaranteed.
It’s going to be a long night at the debate tournament for the side that has to defend that point of view. If the authors of the early chapters of Genesis were not trying to give an account of human origins, they chose a mighty strange way of expressing themselves. Let’s see what Enns has in mind:
Since the 19th century, through scads of archaeological discoveries from the ancient world of the Bible, biblical scholars have gotten a pretty good handle on what ancient creation stories were designed to do.
Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch — an understandable conclusion to draw. They wrote stories about “the beginning,” however, not to lecture their people on the abstract question “Where do humans come from?” They were storytellers, drawing on cultural traditions, writing about the religious — and often political — beliefs of the people of their own time.
Their creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples.
Likewise, Israel’s story was written to say something about their place in the world and the God they worshiped. To think that the Israelites, alone among all other ancient peoples, were interested in (or capable of) giving some definitive, quasi-scientific, account of human origins is an absurd logic. And to read the story of Adam and Eve as if it were set up to so such a thing is simply wrongheaded.
But it’s not absurd at all, at least not if you take seriously the idea that the Bible is divinely inspired. The Israelites were uniquely capable of giving a definitive account of human origins because they were uniquely in communication with the one true God. An evangelical more conservative than Enns could very reasonably reply, “It’s fascinating what you say about the purposes of the purely human creation stories of other ancient peoples. But since the creation stories in Genesis were ultimately authored by God you are simply judging them by the wrong standard.”
There are other problems with Enns’s argument. It is strange to speak of the purpose for which the Genesis stories were designed, since it seems clear they were not designed at all. They began as part of an oral tradition, presumably evolved a bit through frequent retellings, and gradually assumed tremendous importance to the ancients simply by virtue of having been repeated so often.
More to the point, to judge from the stories themselves it just seems wrong to suggest that the specifics of how humans appeared were just throwaway details irrelevant to the main purposes of the story. For example, the historicity of Adam and his actions in the Garden of Eden are given explicitly as the factual basis for the need of Jesus’ sacrifice. The story of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib is given as the explicit basis for proper gender relations in marriage. These stories are not fables, in which a fictional tale is used to clarify some moral point. This is instead an instance where discarding the factuality of the stories makes it virtually impossible to retain the broader theological truths the stories were meant to convey.
A final point is that nothing Enns says about the purposes of these stories implies that the ancients thought the stories were fictional. Enns writes, “Their creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples.” Indeed. But that would seem to strengthen, not weaken, the claim that the ancients viewed these stories as historically accurate.
Enns now brings it home with this:
Reading the biblical story against its ancient backdrop is hardly a news flash, and most evangelical biblical scholars easily concede the point. But for some reason this piece of information has not filtered down to where it is needed most: into the mainstream evangelical consciousness. Once it does, evangelicals will see for themselves that dragging the Adam and Eve story into the evolution discussion is as misguided as using the stories of Israel’s monarchy to rank the Republican presidential nominees.
Evangelicals tend to focus on how to protect the Bible against the attacks of evolution. The real challenge before them is to reorient their expectation of what the story of Adam and Eve is actually prepared to deliver.
These kinds of conversations are already happening, though too often quietly and behind closed doors. Evangelicals owe it to their children and their children’s children to bring the discussion out into the open.
There are good reasons why mainstream evangelicals are mostly not buying what the scholars are selling. Once you accept that science flatly contradicts the foundational stories of scripture, you seem to have two options.
You could go Enns’s route, and summon forth a tortured model of Biblical inspiration in which God chose to communicate fundamental truths of the human condition in a manner so confusing that normal people cannot read them on their own. Instead they need assistance from the local departments of archaeology and ancient civilizations, and to have it explained to them that what certainly appear to be factual accounts of human origins are actually something else entirely. We are left to sympathize with all those generations of honest seekers laboring prior to the advances of modern scholarship, who simply had no hope of coming to a correct understanding of God’s word.
Against this you have the possibility that the Genesis stories are purely human constructions, and that they seem naive from a modern perspective because they were not written by people with any special insight into much of anything.
Which possibility do you really think is more plausible?