Biblical scholars laud intelligent design rulingReleased on December 20, 2005
Contact: David E. Nathan 781-736-4203 or firstname.lastname@example.org
By Marc Z. Brettler and Bernadette J. Brooten
The decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III that Intelligent Design “is not (science), and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents” is a victory for the millions of Christians and Jews who do not use their faith to hinder the advancement of human knowledge and who do not read the Bible literally.
Nothing in the biblical accounts of creation in the first chapters of Genesis suggests that they were meant to be read literally or were intended as scientific accounts of the world’s origin. These chapters narrate the creation in the same manner as other creation myths; they establish values and the broad structures of the world in a metaphysical, rather than a physical sense. Much of classical Jewish biblical interpretation does not take them literally, but rather expands upon them in a wide variety of highly creative ways. The same is true of Christianity: For most of Christian history, theologians and biblical scholars saw literalism as the lowest form of biblical interpretation and instead tried to discern the deeper, spiritual, and even allegorical meanings of biblical passages. Intelligent Design is the product of Protestant Fundamentalism, which did not arise until the 19th century in response to Darwinism, to the U.S. debates over slavery, and to the historical study of the Bible. Thus, although Fundamentalist biblical interpretation presents itself as the only true form of Christian biblical interpretation, it is a relative latecomer on the stage of Christian history.
Numerous readers of the Bible benefit from learning how they can understand the Genesis creation narratives within their proper genre and what these narratives may have meant in their own time. Today, we can tell the difference between a poem or the lyrics to a song, an article in a scientific journal, and a newspaper editorial. We would never mistake the words of a poem for the results of a scientific research study – although both can be true; these two types of works are of different genres and must be read differently. Some ancient scientific treatises have come down to us, which include the acute observations of Babylonian astronomers and Greek mathematicians. But the Jewish and Christian communities did not choose to include such scientific treatises in their Bibles. Instead, they included deep spiritual poetry, law, moral challenge, their understandings of the past, their struggles to understand God, and stories of great tragedy and hope. Further, throughout history, Jews and Christians engaged in all branches of science, advancing our knowledge of the natural world without seeing any conflict with their faith.
When religious authorities have tried to stem the advances of human knowledge of the natural world, as when the Vatican condemned Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, they seriously harmed both the church and natural scientific research. Pope John Paul II finally sought to undo the harm by apologizing for that condemnation.
Judge Jones’ ruling is also a victory for religious pluralism, since millions of religious people in this country not only do not support Intelligent Design or Creationism as scientific theories, they also do not subscribe to the Bible at all. U.S. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and others hold their own views on the origin of the universe and on the relationship between religion and the natural sciences.
But even the Jewish and the Christian Bibles are more diverse than most people think. They are both anthologies that encompass a broad range of differing laws, understandings of history, and theological views. The Pennsylvania Intelligent Design case makes painfully clear that we need to educate our students in the best of science, but also to create a citizenry with a deeper knowledge of religious history, including biblical studies. Citizens who have studied comparative religion and both traditional and academic biblical interpretation will be better equipped to go beyond a surface interpretation of the Bible. The Bible, with its multiple voices, can and should serve as a key text in the life of the U.S. and can complement science in significant and important ways – if we can deepen our knowledge of how to read it.
Marc Z. Brettler is Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University, and author most recently of How to Read the Bible. Bernadette J. Brooten is the Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis, and author of Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism.