Monday, July 7, 2008

Torah & evolution

Last night I had the privilege of attending a lecture by the Rev. Michael Dowd, the author of Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. He's a Protestant minister who has given up pulpit work in order to lecture and teach full-time on this subject.

It's beyond my capacity to reduce his message to a paragraph or two, but I'll say that he's speaking to the large group of people who want to believe in both science and religion. I say "believe" even though Jewish tradition does not emphasize faith—which our tradition largely takes for granted—and belief is not exactly the question for us anyway. The truth content of science doesn't depend on an individual's belief in it, and some of us who are engaged with the religious dimension of Judaism value it for reasons other than straightforward belief.

In other words, his audience isn't the extremists of secular society who hew exclusively to science and find no merit at all in religion, nor is it religious fundamentalists who proclaim the literal truth of Scripture and insist that any science that differs from it is simply wrong. It's for those of us who, in the language of Jewish tradition, will say, "You are right—and you are right."

His basic message, that science and religion express the same truths but frame them in different kinds of language, finds Jewish expression in the religious naturalism taught by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who is usually cited as the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. (We should remember that he remained a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary for all of his career; I think that his original goal was to shake up Conservative Judaism.)

And in fact, Reconstructionist Judaism has become especially attractive to well-educated Jews who fully accept contemporary science and feel a need to reconcile it with their spiritual needs. Many other modern Jews deal with this either by keeping science and religion entirely separate, or by just ignoring the conflict.

As I grow older, I am more and more drawn to Reconstructionist thinking, but as an educator I've seen the difficulties it presents in teaching children. The problem is that it's based on a sophisticated form of reasoning that we d0n't expect children to comprehend. Years ago I had an interview for a job as education director at a Reconstructionist congregation, and I still remember the looks of horror on the faces of the search committee members when I said off-handedly that children should learn Torah. Their idea was that children needed to be insulated from the Torah until they were old enough (and educated enough, probably with a Ph.D. degree) to understand it properly.

But I still believe that children should learn Torah, even though all but the youngest students will ask questions that we, as teachers, are uncomfortable in answering. When a sixth-grade class, studying parashat Noach, asks me whether the flood story is true (by the way, they never ask whether the creation stories are true), I answer that the Torah is not a science book, and not really a history book, either.

I also tell them that there is some evidence of a massive flood in ancient times and that many other cultures also have flood narratives. But I don't use these ideas to attempt to persuade students of the truth of the Torah narrative. If anything, rather the contrary: I focus on the reasons that many cultures might have found a flood narrative valuable enough to preserve.

The idea that the Torah expresses truths in poetic language (Dowd calls this "night language," the language of dreams and visions) is one that sixth-graders can begin to understand. Leading students toward this understanding ought to be a central goal of Torah study beginning at about this age level. I've written more about this in commentaries on parashot Va'era and Bo.

I'm grateful to the First Baptist Church in Painted Post and its minister, Rev. Gary McCaslin, for sponsoring the lecture. If you have the opportunity hear Rev. Dowd speak, I recommend that you attend. Most of his lectures are presented by churches, especially Unitarian Universalist fellowships; his lecture schedule is on his website.


Doug Hoag said...

When I read this post I just had to comment on it! I have read TGFE by Rev. Dowd and found it to be compelling.

I'm a Christian minister (Lutheran) who firmly believes that we have traditionally read the Genesis narratives incorrectly, especially chapter one. We interpret Genesis 1 as a play-by-play account of creation. When I tell people that it isn't such and account, I get funny looks.

I then try to explain that Genesis 1 reflects Israel's interactions with God, nature, and the nations, using cosmic imagery. This imagery served as their "night language" (as Rev. Dowd would say it) to tell their own story as God's covenant people. That God created all things is assumed and understood. To try to argue for a literal six day creation is to miss the point and heavily trivialize the narrative.

I was wondering if you would comment on my thoughts here and talk about what you believe Genesis 1 is saying.

Thank you.

okmoreh said...

When I teach adult groups, I sometimes ask whether people believe that the account of creation in Genesis 1 is factual. No hands go up. Then I ask whether they think we should teach it to children. Everyone raises a hand.

To explain the paradox, I draw a table with two rows and three columns - that is, three boxes in the top row and three boxes in the bottom row. Then I label those in the top row as Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3, and those below as Day 4, Day 5, and Day 6.

It doesn't matter whether you go from right to left or left to right, as long as day 4 is below day 1, and so on. Next fill in what Gen. 1 tells us was created on each day.

The result makes sense. Each day in the top row represents the habitat for what is created in the day directly below it.

In other words, we want to teach this version to children because it presents a world created by Someone who knows what Someone is doing - it's orderly and rational. This view of creation helps children to feel safe in the world.

In contrast, Genesis 2 presents a view of creation that is rather disorderly, even blundering. Where Gen. 1 represents the orderly world that we need to believe in, Gen. 2 represents the world as we ordinarily observe it and explains why things seem so messed up.