Up from Literalism

I finally got around to reading Paradigms on Pilgrimage, by Stephen J. Godfrey and Christopher R. Smith. Godfrey and Smith began their careers as young-earth creationists. Godfrey became a paleontologist, and Smith, a Baptist minister. Each underwent what they call a “pilgrimage” as the acquisition of compelling, new knowledge forced them to reevaluate their literalist religious belief. Both, however, remained devout Christians.

Godfrey is now Curator of Paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland. In the 1980’s, he enrolled in graduate school, where he studied vertebrate paleontology. One of his first jobs was to search for fossils in sedimentary rocks. These rocks are layered, so the deeper you dig, the older are the fossils you find. Godfrey was most impressed by fossilized footprints and other markings, known as trace fossils, left in the sandstone by earlier organisms. As a young-earth creationist, Godfrey had thought that the sedimentary rocks and the fossils within them had been laid down by the Flood. If that was so, then how could terrestrial vertebrates have left footprints in the sand (which was presumably under water)? Godfrey researched trace fossils and found that they appear at many levels in many sedimentary rock formations all around the world. He could not account for the appearance of trace fossils in rocks that had supposedly been left behind by a flood that killed all the animals that might have made the footprints. Godfrey also found cracked and fossilized mud flats, which he recognized immediately had been baked by the sun and could not have been deposited by a flood. The earth suddenly became much older than Godfrey had imagined.

Godfrey presents further evidence that convinced him that God had not created every species from scratch. Perhaps God had decided to use natural processes for creating species. Why not? The Bible, as Godfrey notes, says that God sends rain upon the face of the earth. Yet no one rejects the science of meteorology or argues that rain is not the result of evaporation and condensation. No one demands that “Biblical meteorology” be given equal time in science classes. Considerations such as these have convinced Godfrey that evolution is no more antireligious than meteorology; both are equally naturalistic explanations of observed facts.

Smith is a Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in theology. He and Godfrey are brothers-in-law and provided each other with positive feedback. Smith’s story, related in the second half of the book, is similar to Godfrey’s, except that Smith became a creationist while in high school. Smith’s trace fossils were a course in Old Testament hermeneutics, in which he was exposed to refutations of day-age theory and gap theory. His professor further introduced him to the idea that the opening chapters of Genesis are poetry, because they include purposeful repetition of vowel and consonant sounds (alliteration and assonance), and display the “rhyming thoughts” characteristic of Hebrew poetry. To Smith, Genesis does not describe how we got here but rather why we got here. Its purpose is to instruct us to follow God’s leadership; it is not a history or a cosmogony. Consequently, because the first chapters of Genesis are poetry and not cosmogony, they do not preclude a very ancient universe.

For Smith, the biblical authors (note the plural noun) saw the earth as a flat disk under a solid, domed sky. Thus, the author of Ecclesiastes thought that streams run to the sea and then recycle the water endlessly, a statement which is barely defensible as a description of the hydrologic cycle. But the author also says that the sun rises and sets, and then hurries back to the place from which it rose, a statement which is simply not accurate. The biblical authors were writing what they saw or thought they saw, not what is objectively true. Why then, asks Smith, do we not interpret Genesis 1 in the same way? That is, why do we interpret Genesis 1 as a cosmogony and not as the description it so plainly is?

The final chapter of Paradigms is written by both authors and is what they call a “close reading” of Genesis 1. The authors make a concerted effort to interpret the chapter as it would have been read or understood by the biblical authors and their readers. I will not go into detail but rather will concentrate on one example. On the first day, God created light, but he did not create the sun until the fourth day. This seeming inconsistency is a problem for anyone who thinks that the account in Genesis parallels modern cosmological thinking.

The authors of Genesis, however, were recording what they saw. And they saw light break where no sun shone: at twilight and on cloudy days. Evidently, say Godfrey and Smith, the biblical authors did not associate the light of twilight and the light they saw on cloudy days with sunlight. Hence, it was no contradiction that God created light on the first day and the sun on the fourth day. Only our anachronistic reading of the Bible sees a contradiction, and then only if we think that the Bible is describing something that is literally true. Godfrey and Smith use this kind of reasoning to show that not every statement in the Bible is factually correct, especially if it is erroneously subjected to a modern interpretation. I highly recommend their last chapter to anyone foolish enough to think that the earth or the universe is only a few tens of thousands of years old.

Oddly, I found the book both too personal and not personal enough. I had little or no interest in most of the biographical details, but I wished they had told us, for example, how other people reacted to their pilgrimage, and how emotionally difficult they themselves found it—did their acceptance of evolution evolve so slowly that they barely noticed, or did they wrestle with it day and night? Finally, I was a bit put off by their Christian particularism, which may unfortunately limit the audience for this important book.

Reference. Stephen J. Godfrey and Christopher R. Smith, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, Clements Publishing, Toronto, 2005.