the religious world quakes. ok, no, not really.

October 14, 2009 — Leave a comment

Now, I’m sure this will come as a shock to you, but sometimes, editorial decisions in major media outlets are made on the basis of how much controversy they could generate. This is why the Telegraph eagerly reported theologian Ellen van Wolde’s conclusion that a single word in the Book of Genesis was translated incorrectly and this seemingly slight oversight makes the God of the Old Testament just a deity rather than the creator of the universe. Instead of making the heavens and the earth, he simply separated them and the first sentence of the ancient holy text isn’t the beginning of time and space, but is actually just the beginning of the narration which continues ancient storylines revolving around monsters nefariously writhing in dark, primeval waters.

elemental god

Oh pity the poor deity. Once the undisputed, omnipotent creator of the cosmos and everything it contains, he’s being constantly challenged and demoted as of late. I’m not just talking about the steady rise in atheists and religious skeptics who are becoming ever more organized and vocal. Theologians trying to counter the tough questions being asked by prominent doubters have been constantly reducing the scope of God’s powers. In the old days, he could intervene in human affairs on a whim, punish the heretics with plagues and disasters, and send prophets. But his contemporary version has to rely on evolution and astrophysics, hiding behind the laws of nature. On top of that, the book cataloguing his exploits is no longer supposed to be taken as a literal or authoritative account of ancient history. The entire first chapter of Genesis becomes just a mangled set of metaphors for the last 13.7 billions years.

As odd as it may seem, Professor van Wolde isn’t so much questioning God’s powers as joining the ranks of religious scholars who seem to be slowly turning him from the deist Great Architect into Mr. Deity. And as you may expect, there’s already an indignant reply from The Telegraph’s religion editor, George Pitcher, based on a rather bizarre argument that raises more questions than it tries to answer

Genesis is a transcription of ancient Hebrew creation myth. Calling it a myth doesn’t mean that it’s “untrue”; it means that its truth is contained in the timeless quest to understand transcendental things like God’s provenance over time and space, the mystery of why something exists in the universe [...], human responsibility for stewardship of the planet and the origins of life.

Well, following this line of logic, then we’d have to say that calling all the myths from ancient Greece, Egypt and Sumer untrue would also be wrong since their truth lies in our ruminations on the world around us. How does that work? It’s like the Wizard of Oz asking us not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain while we keep working away on solving the big questions. And what happens when we find answers that contradict what the creation myth says? What use does it have if we’re ignoring it? Just to add to the confusion, Pitcher throws in a spirited but meaningless rebuke to everyone who wants to take a stance on the myth’s value…

Sorry Creationists, it isn’t and was never intended to be a piece of reportage about the first week of the universe. And, sorry secularists, a mistranslated Hebraic word doesn’t mean there is no God. Good. Glad to have cleared that up. Now for the problem of evil…

Besides mixing up atheists who think that the theistic interpretation of the universe is wrong, and secularists who simply want to prevent churches from exerting pressure on governments, he’s further diluting the value of the very book he wants to defend. If it’s useless to creationists who use it as the basis for their attacks on the theory of evolution and modern cosmology, and says nothing certain about the existence of God and what role the deity plays in our lives, shielding it from scrutiny by atheists, why even have it around? You can’t make any kind of prediction from it. You can’t use it to justify your position. You can’t make any conclusion from it. What’s the point of reading it other than taking in translations of ancient religious punditry? What will be Pitcher’s shot at theodicy at this rate? Just to say that it doesn’t matter?

[ illustration of an ancient spirit by Neil Blevins ]

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