How did we come to believe in a world that makes sense?
A universe from violence: ancient gods in mortal combat. (Babylon, 900 BC)
TYalaA, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Enuma Elish, Babylon’s ancient founding myth, opens with the words,
When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name …
When no gods had been brought into being …
Enuma Elish (meaning ‘when on high’) echoes on in the first chapter of the Bible. There are parallels between the Babylonian flood story Atrahasis and Noah’s Ark. And like Genesis, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh grapples with the loss of innocence and our desire to live forever.
Similarities aside, what sets Holy Scripture apart from these ancient Near Eastern myths?
First of all, Genesis proclaims one God. He is neither in competition with other deities nor synonymous with nature. Surrounded by cultures which worshipped multiple gods, the writer of Genesis chapter one paints a very different picture of the divine, of humans and the universe.
In Enuma Elish, conflict lies at the heart of everything. Before he could create the world, the god Marduk had to slay the goddess Tiamat (see image above). Were people trying to deal with life’s perplexities and nature’s unpredictability, by telling stories about gods who were violent, at loggerheads and who treated people like slaves?
On the other hand, the God of Genesis 1 is sovereign and wise. The world he creates is a thing of beauty, and human beings are the jewel in the crown.
Surrounded by Canaanite and Mesopotamic religions, the Hebrews developed their own, distinctive faith and identity.
Christianity emerged from Judaism, but this time, the Roman Empire, heavily influenced by the Greeks, provided the cultural and religious backdrop. Just like the Babylonian creation stories of old, Greco-Roman mythology blamed an unpredictable world on the moods and foibles of the gods. True to their Jewish roots, Christians, on the other hand, insisted that there was only one God, and that he was not just powerful but consistently righteous and wise.
There appears to be a direct link between theology and science. Despite the Greeks and Romans having been great technological innovators, our own understanding of what science is, owes less to them than to our Judaeo-Christian heritage. How come?
In Greek mythology, tsunamis depended on whether Poseidon was having a bad hair day. In Genesis the sea had no divine rights but behaved according to the natural constants which God had established at the moment of creation. In other words, both Genesis 1 and modern science take as fact that nature is not random but subject to laws.
Also, according to Genesis 1, humans reflect something of their creator’s mind. Likewise, scientists operate on the remarkable assumption that the human mind is able to make sense of the universe.
For sure, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) tried to discern principles in the world around him. Clearly, he used reason to draw conclusions from what he observed. But at the dawn of modern science, it became clear that some of Aristotle’s most enduring claims were fatally flawed. The early modern scientists abandoned his method of devising grand theories based on everyday observation and common sense. They believed that assumptions required rigorous testing. The age of experimental science – science as we understand it – had begun.
These natural philosophers, as they called themselves, understood science as a theological undertaking. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) believed that experimental science would help to restore some of the perfect understanding of nature which Adam had possessed in Paradise before he fell from grace. Nature’s God-given laws had been revealed to Adam long ago, and it was up to scientists to rediscover them.
Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), whose mathematical genius paved the way for Newton’s magisterial law of universal gravitation, defined astronomy as thinking God’s thoughts. Robert Boyle (1627–1691), the father of modern chemistry, wrote: ‘The rational contemplation of nature is philosophical contemplation of God’.
There is much talk about science versus faith these days. The fact that the pioneers of modern science were motivated by Sacred Scripture and its distinctive stance on Creator and creation, is easily missed.
For reflection and discussion:
The Catechism (section 290) states that creation ‘depends on the one who gives it being’. How do you understand God sustaining your life? What does dependence on him mean in practice? Where does free will come in?
Christian philosophers and scientists look for rational clues to understand better and explain their faith. How about you? Do you find abstract thinking helpful? Or do you tend to rely more on intuition, mystery and experience?
Modern Physics and Ancient Faith,Stephen M Barr, University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.
The Territories of Science and Religion, Peter Harrison, University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Quote: ‘Nothing comes out of nothing.’ René Descartes