Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Galileo, Darwin, and Moses


Chances are you believe that the earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun. Why do you believe this? For one thing, it is what you were taught. For another, it so accurately describes the workings of our solar system as to be obvious.

But is it?

Actually, if we go by simple observation, the earth appears to be fixed in one place. The sun, moon, and stars seem to revolve around it. From our point of view, the earth is the axis around which everything else turns. This is what ancient peoples, for the most part, believed.

The problem is that this earth-centered (geocentric) model does not account for everything that can be observed. If you trace the courses of the stars closely you will observe that some of the brightest lights occasionally stray from the orderly procession of the night sky. They actually reverse course sometimes and go backwards for a short time. These lights were called "planets" (literally "wanderers") by ancient astronomers.

Various attempts were made to account for these wandering lights but no explanation was completely satisfactory until Copernicus came up with a mathematical model in which the earth and planets revolved around the sun (heliocentricism). Copernicus's ideas were later confirmed by Galileo's observations with a telescope.

Copernicus's work and Galileo's observations were slow to catch on. This was partly due to the fact that they contradicted Church teaching and partly because these ideas are not easy to grasp. Let's face it: we prefer easy explanations.

The notion of Special Creation, i.e. that God created everything just as it is in six days, is easy to grasp. This is why Young Earth Creationists like Ken Ham can hold an audience. Like geocentrism, however, Creationism does not account for all of the data. The idea that life on this planet evolved is more difficult to understand and it contradicts traditional Church teaching. But...

It accounts for the facts.

A shrinking minority reject the theory of evolution. Like those who rejected the work of Galileo and Copernicus, their days are numbered.

I was talking today with a friend and colleague about biblical interpretation. We both subscribe to the idea that the Pentateuch (i.e. Genesis-Deuteronomy) was compiled from several sources. We both admit that we cannot always keep the sources straight. The final redactor did a good job. The "Documentary Hypothesis" (as it is called) is complex. It is not the kind of simple solution we prefer. The idea that Moses wrote the Pentateuch at the Holy Spirit's direction is easy to grasp.

Here's the problem: Mosaic authorship, like gecentrism or Special Creation, does not account for all the facts. The Documentary Hypothesis is difficult to grasp but better accounts for the facts as we have them.

The moral of this piece: Don't settle for simple answers that don't account for all the facts.

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