On Friday, February 7th, the world of biblical studies lost a giant. Father Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, died at the Jesuit infirmary of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, in Weston, Massachusetts. Father Harrington was a biblical scholar of international renown, and to mark his passing, America magazine has published a link to a 1997 article in which he and others responded to the question, “How can I find God?” I commend it to your reading.
Father Harrington’s thoughts on encountering God through the scriptures raise a very important point, namely, that encountering God is the primary point of the scriptures. Last week, a “debate” was held between a scientist and a “young earth creationist” about the validity of such scientific theories as evolution and the origins of the cosmos. The “debate” got far more attention in the mainstream media and on the interwebs than it deserved, which is why I have not commented on it up to this point. I bring it up now only because it is a prime example of what happens when we forget what the scriptures are for.
Young earth creationism is the belief that, based on the timeline of Genesis, the earth was created in seven 24-hour days about four thousand years ago. Subscribing to this belief demands the rejection of all kinds of observed science. While the disturbing implications of such a view for human understanding of the natural world and our relationship with science have been widely commented upon, what has been less remarked upon are the disturbing implications of such an approach for our understanding of and relationship with the scriptures.
The scriptures of the Old and New Testament were never intended to be used as a science book, or even as a history book as we understand that term. The authors of Genesis (and biblical scholars like Father Harrington have demonstrated pretty convincingly that at least four voices are represented in the text of Genesis) simply didn’t think in those terms the way postmodern people do. They weren’t attempting to get at fact, they were attempting to get at truth, and were attempting to do so through the use of stories. They were attempting to give voice to the conviction that God is at work in the world, and that signs of God’s handiwork can be seen in the order of the natural world. Like any sign, whether for an ATM machine or for a men’s room, those signs are important not so much for themselves as for what they point to.
Attempting to use the Bible as a science book or a history book is analogous to trying to use a cordless drill as a hammer, with equally fruitful results. Not only are the results far from ideal, such use also does damage to the tool at hand.
The scriptures are valuable to us only insofar as they point us toward an encounter with the living God. They do that pretty well, when that is what we ask of them. When we read the stories of Adam and Eve, of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Rebecca and Leah, of Moses and Aaron and Miriam, of Joseph and Mary, of Mary and Martha, of Simon Peter and Paul, we read of people encountering the living God breaking into the midst of their lives, and we gain perspective on the ways in which the living God breaks into our own lives. When we read the story of Jesus Christ, we read the story of God’s decisive and irrevocable love in favor of humanity. These are the things we legitimately approach scripture for. These are the things Father Harrington approached scripture for. Thanks be to God for the gift of his work, and for the insights into God’s story (and our stories) that he shared with us.