Science, Poetry, and The Meaning of Life

jupiterI often encounter people who are trying to reconcile what they believe in their hearts to be true about science and the origin of life with their Christian beliefs. Is the theory of Evolution incompatible with being a person of faith? Does science discredit the Bible?

I beleive the answer to this question is found in the most unlikeliest of places: poetry.

1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth. – Psalm 19:1-6

When you read this poem, what comes into your mind and heart? For me, it connects my heart to the faithfulness of God. It creates in me great awe, as I contemplate the mysteries of the universe which declare God’s glory.  It brings comfort and strength by reminding me that God is still sitting on the throne. I am once again assured of God’s love for me. Sacred poetry does that; it communicates truth in a way that evokes responses in the soul.

Poetry is the literary context, or kind of literature, of Psalm 19. The poet, in this case King David, used several literary techniques appropriate for this context. For example, he used personification, giving the heavens a voice and giving the sun a human dwelling. Also, the repetition of the sun’s circuit communicates to us with certainty that life is not random and that God is reliable. By describing the sun’s motion from the observer’s point of view, the poet places you and me, who are like insignificant specks of dust in relation to the vastness of the heavens, at the very center of God’s love – at the place of significance and honor. Wow.

King David, inspired by The Holy Spirit, wrote Psalm 19 with the intent to magnify the glory of God, not to describe the dynamics of the solar system. Since the literary context of the Psalm is poetry and not prose, we easily understand that the description of the sun’s movement around the earth is not meant to be taken literally. Therefore, although scientifically inaccurate, it nonetheless communicates absolute truth with authority. We say this because, as Holy Scripture, it perfectly communicates what The Holy Spirit intended to communicate: the glory and faithfulness of God.

In the 17th century, the Pope, failing to understand this literary context, decided that the words of Psalm 19 were meant to be taken at their surface meaning. His conclusion was that the sun and other planets literally revolve around the earth, which was understood to be at the center of the solar system. This put him at odds with Galileo, who had pointed his homemade telescope at the heavens and discovered the contrary. When he requested permission to publish his findings, the church accused him of asserting “that the language of Holy Scripture does not mean what is seems to mean” and of placing the authority of Scripture “at the last and lowest place” below the observations of “natural phenomena.”

They missed the point. In an attempt to use the Bible as a science book, they overlooked the grandeur and mystery in the poem and reduced it to a mechanistic handbook.

In response to the church’s objections, Galileo quoted a famous church leader who explained that in the Bible, “The Holy Ghost intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” This did not go over well, and Galileo spent the rest of his days under house arrest because the church failed to understand the importance of literary context.

Since then, science has continued to observe natural phenomena all around us. In addition to peering upward through the lens of a telescope, scientists have peered downward through the lens of a microscope.

Yet again, the discoveries on the other side of a small lens have revealed complexities beyond our wildest imaginings.

Yet again, these discoveries have resulted in a conflict between science and the religious establishment because they seem to assert that the language of Holy Scripture does not mean what is seems to mean.

Yet again, the solution lies in defining literary context.

Scientists have discovered that humanity, indeed all of life, has arisen through an ancient and elegant evolutionary process. Yet, the first two chapters of Genesis seem to say that the heavens and earth, and all that is in them, were created in in their present form in just 7 days. Is this a conflict between science and the Bible? Absolutely not. The answer lies in understanding the literary context of the first two chapters of Genesis.

The creation account in Genesis is not prose describing the manner of creation – it is poetry describing the meaning of creation.

Some may say that I am just picking and choosing what I take literally in the Bible and what I don’t. I would respond by pointing out that the main goal of Bible interpretation is to determine the author’s intent. Determining the literary context is one of the first steps in doing so. For example, we understand the Gospels to be historical narrative, so that is the foundation of our decision to take the resurrection account literally. We already determine context in every conversation we have every day. In fact, all communication is framed in a context. The Bible is no different.

Understanding the creation account as poetry in no way implies that it is not true! It is true because it perfectly communicates what the Holy Spirit intended to communicate: the way things ought to be.

I love science. I spent my childhood dissecting frogs and insects. I asked for microscopes and test tubes for Christmas. I often read physics books on my day off. However, despite my love for science, I understand its limitations. Science can only tell us what is, not what ought to be. It certainly can’t tell us what the purpose of all this is. We need theology for that.  We need poetry for that.

The Enlightenment gave us modern science. As a result, our lives are greatly improved. From heart transplants to the iPhone in your pocket, we owe it all to the development of the scientific method.

In spite of all the good The Enlightenment brought, it also led to a materialistic worldview: only that for which there is physical evidence is true and real. As a result, the unseen became the untrue because it was not measurable. Ethics, or what ought to be, became an ever-changing and never-reaching pursuit. Purpose and meaning dissipated into thin air.

Rather than challenging this materialistic worldview, the church domesticated the Bible to fit it. Rather than affirming the validity of our faith, which is full of mystery and beauty, we instead capitulated to materialism: “we are logical too – we have evidence.” Then, we turned the Bible into a science book – we tamed it to serve our apologetic purposes, and in doing so ironically weakened our credibility. We also began to rob humanity of the rich theology communicated so profoundly through the creation poem – theology that is absolutely foundational to the Christian faith and deeply relevant to every human made in the image of God.

In my next post, I will take a look at the creation story in Genesis as poetry. Together we will rediscover the many important truths that the Holy Spirit is saying to us – ancient and yet relevant truths regarding the nature of God and the nature of humanity – rich doctrine for which prose simply will not suffice.

3 comments

  1. Denise

    Love this very freeing post, and also the clean new look of the place! Looking forward to more posts.

  2. John Maher

    This is a very interesting approach to Bible interpretation, John. One aspect that strikes me is that it takes humility to “listen” to the Bible, especially listening to the literary form to hear what is being communicated. Listening like that is what helps us to know and follow Jesus. That is a very different matter than reading the Bible to have a “better life.”

  3. Chad Borges

    Greatly appreciate this post John. Your penultimate paragraph really captures the essence of the problem with how the church, at large, has handled the discoveries of evolutionary science. The self discrediting is indeed ironic; I would add sad and pathetic to the list of descriptive terms. We as believers are often eager to point out the conflict of interest that non believers have with the truth, but in this case I think we need to take a careful look in the mirror and, as you have done, carefully evaluate the basis of our own position.

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