Authority in Scriptural Interpretation: The Value of Science

I keep on getting caught up in debates on other sites (The River Walk and There’s a Thing Called Biology come to mind) that tend to end with charges against my intellectual integrity. The progression goes something like:

  1. I observe that the people that wrote the Bible were recording experiences that they lacked the scientific understanding to describe accurately.
  2. I propose alternative interpretations of the events in modern scientific terms.
  3. I am told that the events recorded in the Bible could not have happened because they violate scientific knowledge.
  4. I suggest that science is not as iron-clad as many believe, and direct the conversation to my “New Physics” page.
  5. The responder offers the unsophisticated interpretation of the Biblical record (i.e. – Creation occurred in seven days) as evidence that people that believe in God do not understand science, and accuses me of being a poor scientist.
  6. I offer that my personal experience of God contradicts their science, and re-iterate that that I have offered models that integrate science and spirituality for their consideration.
  7. I am accused of intellectual dishonesty and ignoring scientific truth.
  8. I break off the discussion.

This may seem like just whining, but there’s a really fundamental point that nobody seems to have grasped just yet: the reason that religious authorities offered an “unscientific” understanding of scripture was because they didn’t have enough science to interpret scripture. Receiving a document through a long chain of translation from dead languages, they interpreted the words as literal truth because they had nothing else to guide their understanding.

But we do have science as our guide. So why not make use of it?

Given what we know about paleontology, for example, we can clearly interpret the days of creation as the history of biological development, running from single-celled organisms that learned to use light as a source of energy, and ending with the mammals and man on “day” six. Along the way, the development of eyesight replaces “light” with the more specific sun and moon.

Similarly, the trumpets of Revelation are seen to correspond almost exactly with the ancient mass extinctions. The era of giant insects is noted, and the final extinction episode (involving a meteor strike, volcanic vents and egg-eating mammals) describes distinctly the mechanisms that terminated the age of the dinosaurs.

Scripture and Darwin don’t contradict each other, they support each other. In the other direction, I think that the most powerful tool we have to advance our understanding of fundamental science is not the billion-dollar satellites and particle accelerators, but rather the well-documented record of spiritual experience.

Really, I would think that we’d be getting together to shake hands and pat each other on the back, not trading barbs.

The Soul Comes First

Particularly during life’s difficult moments, religion is a source of comfort for us. When a child dies, when we lose a job: we are sustained by the relationships and wisdom that we develop in worship, study and charitable work.

Because this aspect of religion is so important to us, we seek in scripture for meaning that applies to us in our lives as human beings. We tend to emphasize that part of the story, and when we don’t find what we’re looking for, maybe even expand our searching into parts of the story that don’t really apply to us.

But if spirit is a part of the natural world, a form of consciousness woven into the very fabric of space, why should intelligence have manifested only here on Earth, in humanity? If spirit began evolution when the universe formed, or even earlier, it stands to reason that it’s got a long history of its own. What would coming to a planet be like? How would spirit go about learning about a new world? How would it go about improving itself through that investment?

When I re-read the Bible after developing a physical model of spirit (not really a theory, because the mathematics needs to be elaborated), I saw it in this light. The Bible made a whole lot more sense to me than it did when I turned away from it as a teenager.

That understanding is captured in The Soul Comes First, which you’ll see as a link on my sidebar.

Now the Bible is a complex book, with a lot of ideas in it. Summarizing it in seventy pages, even when looking at it from 30,000 feet, means compressing a lot of ideas into very few pages. So it’s heavy going. Here’s the short skinny:

  1. This reality was designed as a place of healing for souls infected by selfishness.
  2. The creation myth in Genesis records the investment of a collection of such souls as they explored the Earth through the evolving senses of living creatures.
  3. The founding of monotheism through Abraham is about creating masculine strength in a culture dominated by powerful women.
  4. The Old Testament, from Exodus on, records the expansion of monotheism as a national culture. The investment made by God at this point was in creating a capacity to reason through adherence to the law. The experiment failed for various reasons – the most significant being the desire of the people to centralize human authority. This eventually led to demotion of spiritual leadership in favor of political leadership, and destruction of the nation.
  5. Jesus came to demonstrate that love will overcome any system of tyrannical laws. Not only did he demonstrate the power of love through miracles, he trained a collection of men (the Apostles) to emulate his mastery.
  6. The Book of Revelation is exactly what John said it was: he was taken up to heaven, where the angels shared with him their relationship to and experience of Christ.. The visions of the seals are interpreted as the forms of selfishness that the infected angels brought to the Earth with them; the trumpeted disasters are the extinction episodes revealed to us by paleontology; the bowls describe the exhaustion of the natural resources humanity is exploiting.

Items 2 and 6 establish that paleontology and evolution science have revealed things that were known to the ancients long before we had the science to study them.