By Fr. Andrew Younan
Fr. Andrew Younan is a priest of the Chaldean Catholic Church. He has translated much of the Chaldean liturgy from Aramaic into English. He teaches at John Paul the Great Catholic University. Fr. Younan is the author of Thoughtful Theism: Redeeming Reason in an Irrational Age.
I personally believe (along with most other Christians) that the God who created the world, the God of Genesis, the cause of the Big Bang, the First Mover, and all the other things described by Aquinas’s proofs, can work miracles. But I also believe that this is not his ordinary mode of operation. Ordinarily, God works through the natural world he made. Miracles are done in reference to human beings and in the context of revealed faith, and are by definition extremely rare. This is exactly why it is misguided to expect to discover a miraculous God within the workings of nature, or through a scientific test (the kind of thing Dawkins describes in a subsection titled “The Great Prayer Experiment” in The God Delusion). What can be discovered through human reason is the God of nature; the God of miracles is discovered through faith in revelation, which is an entirely different topic.
Genesis is clear that God created both the world and life. The question isn’t whether God did it, but how. Does the book of Genesis indicate that God created life by means of a supernatural miracle, or through some natural process?
I think the wording of Genesis strongly implies the latter: “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures. . . . Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds . . .” (Genesis 1:20, 24). The translation here (the Revised Standard Version, for those wondering) is accurate enough for our purposes. In both of these verses, the “waters” and the “earth” are the subjects of the verbs following them, the verbs indicating the production of living things. God is speaking; he is commanding, so to speak. But it is the waters and the earth that are “bringing forth” living things. This is no direct, supernatural, miraculous intervention. This is certainly God’s work (a few verses later in both cases we have “God created . . .” and “God made . . .”), but God’s work within and through nature, not above or beyond it.
It is not until later (verse 26) that we have “Let us make man . . .” Here God is the subject of the verb, not water or earth. This indicates the special place the human being has in the cosmos, but the second creation account in Genesis, gives us some pause before we exalt ourselves too highly. In that account, the human being is made by God, and breathed into by the same, but originates firstly in dirt (Genesis 2:7). Actually, to be precise, the male is made of dirt, and the female made from his rib, being a step away, perhaps, from her husband’s earthly origin.
Is this a radical, postmodern, liberal interpretation of Genesis, a knee-jerk reaction to Darwin, an act of despair to do anything possible to salvage an antiquated and irrelevant text from the destruction of scientific inquiry? Not in the least.
This isn’t my personal fancy. This interpretation of Genesis has the seal of approval of arguably the two most definitive thinkers of Western Christianity: Augustine and Aquinas. For those of you counting, Augustine lived in the fourth century AD and Aquinas in the thirteenth, fifteen and four centuries before Darwin, respectively. As I said earlier, quoting Aquinas who quotes Augustine should make my point well enough, otherwise this becomes a study in the history of thought, which is a different topic.
Let’s start with the question of biblical interpretation itself. While commenting on the six days of creation in Genesis, Aquinas makes this clarification:
I answer that, In discussing questions of this kind two rules are to be observed, as Augustine teaches (Gen. ad lit. i, 18). The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing. (ST I, q. 68, a. 1)
In other words, Scripture is true, but it can have many “senses” (what we might today call “interpretations”), and we should be ready to “abandon” an interpretation the minute it is proven to be false. Aquinas, addressing himself to believers here (and citing Augustine as an authority), warns them that if they fail to do this, they will be responsible for obstacles being placed before the faith of others.
Thomas Aquinas didn’t know anything about the Big Bang. Neither did Augustine. Neither of them knew about the speed of light, and the fact that much of the starlight we see in the night sky is (from our perspective) millions of years old. Neither of them knew about the evolution of life, or its immense timescale. But without any of this, they both knew that a literalistic interpretation of the six days of Genesis needed to be, in their words, “abandoned.” Their reasons for doing so aren’t relevant for our purposes, but had they known what we know, they would have abandoned it all the more quickly.
So if the six days aren’t literally six days, what are they? Augustine thought they were symbols of the different levels of goodness in nature, culminating in the human being. Other early authors cited by Aquinas thought each day could have represented some immense amount of time. Hardly anyone seems to have thought each day represented a period of twenty-four hours, and there is no indication that any authority in the Catholic Church ever thought it was an important question in the first place. Certainly nothing like heresy was ever attached to any side of this question. Most of the time, Aquinas simply presents what earlier writers thought and says all are fine interpretations as long as they don’t contradict reason, so take your pick.
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Thoughtful Theism: Redeeming Reason in an Irrational Age is more than a defense of the existence of God. It is an attempt to remind us that belief in God is at its root rational. Drawing from years of experience as a priest and a teacher of philosophy, Fr. Younan presents the fallacies that often accompany thinking about a concept as difficult as God.