Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Same as if it Were

It was the fall of 1990, and I was in a new member class led by Pastor Saresky at Faith Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in Penfield, NY. He was discussing Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, the celebration of that Last Supper Jesus celebrated in the Upper Room with his closest followers and commanded that they continue in remembrance of Him. It seemed to me that my new pastor was presenting a quite different view than what I had learned in my Southern Baptist and Presbyterian backgrounds so I asked, “You aren’t saying that the bread and wine are literally the body and blood of Christ, are you?” He answered, “No, but it is the same as if they were.”

That was one giant step in my journey from young Baptist to elderly Catholic. Pastor Saresky was expressing Lutheran doctrine, a theology of “the real presence” of Jesus, “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine. I believe that is a bit divergent from Luther’s position which, even for the time of the Reformation, was a bit at odds with Catholic teaching. Luther apparently believed that the 12th century doctrine of Transubstantiation was an unnecessary attempt to explain the divine mystery and that it was adequate to just say that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ.

But, all that is just an introduction to what I want to write about. There is a bit of an uproar going on now in social media about Trump supporters, even some of the picks for his administration, taking the early chapters of Genesis, those that cover the prehistoric events before historical figure Abraham appears on the scene in Chapter 12, as literally true. Such believers are sometimes referred to as Young Earth Creationists, a handy label used to disrespect and marginalize.

Those early Genesis events include two divergent creation stories, the story of Adam, Eve, Eden, and that nasty serpent, the first shedding of blood in jealousy, rapid population growth and the spread of wickedness, the story of Noah and his family, a couple of conflicting stories about a great flood covering the earth, and the Tower of Babel story about why there were so many languages and about the desire of humans always to be God, or at least to worship themselves.

Here is the problem. Many people who would never think of taking the words of Jesus in John 6 literally, want to take the stories in Genesis 1-11 literally. There is no way to submit the John 6 teachings to any kind of scientific investigation. Whether we believe those words is simply a matter of personal faith. But we know from scientific investigation that the earth is not just a few thousand years old. And, given the way continents have shifted position and risen and sunk, we may not be able to prove scientifically that the land masses comprising the highest mountains were never under water, but we do know they were not under water in the last five thousand years.

I recall another former pastor, maybe 25 years after the Saresky lesson, saying that when we ask difficult questions sparked by literal understanding of those first 11 chapters of Genesis, questions such as, “Where did the wives of Cain and Able come from?” or “Where did the waters in Genesis 1:2 come from?” we are simply asking the wrong questions. The questions we should be asking are about the theological truths taught in those ancient stories. Nothing we have learned from scientific investigation of the origins of the universe and humankind takes anything away from those lessons.

Those ancient stories, first written down perhaps 3000 years ago, represent hundreds or perhaps thousands of years of oral tradition, stories told and retold in an attempt by the people to explain how things were, and why they were that way. Where did the earth and its people come from? Why did they have to work so hard? Why was there so much sin and suffering? Why were people selfish and jealous? Why did people want to be God? And, as a believer in the One Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, active in the lives of people from the beginning, I accept these stories as part of Sacred Scripture revealing spiritual truth. In other words, theologically speaking, “It is the same as if those ancient stories were literally true.”

The thing that concerns me, the reason for this little essay, is that when we Christians take the position that the ancient stories refute what we have learned through scientific investigation, with our God-given intelligence, about creation, we lose credibility and fail to help people understand the great spiritual truths taught in both Old and New Testaments, the truths that lead us to The Church, the Body of Christ. We make an easy target for those who want to ridicule and discredit the Church. Some non-believers even argue that, when we insist on such literal interpretations, we are worshiping the Bible, the written expression of the Word of God, instead of The Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We should not let that happen. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and, according to Catholic teaching, Sacred Scripture is all about Him.

It is interesting to reflect on the words at the beginning of Genesis and at the beginning of the Gospel of John, the theological or spiritual gospel.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” – Genesis 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” – John 1:1-4

And, by the way, the two most basic spiritual and eternal truths taught in the ancient stories are these:
  • God created and it was good (but we don't know exactly how)
  • Humankind has a strong tendency to be bad and to blame somebody else for it

And one final thought: Efforts, such as this one to “prove” the Bible is true seem to me to completely miss the point and, for me, would be an expression of lack of faith. They ignore not only the characteristics of ancient writings but the simple fact that Christianity is a spiritual matter of personal faith. After all, if we could "prove" that everything in the Bible is true, no faith would be required.