Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Which Day for Dinosaurs?

This is a post written by Mary Daly.

From the perspective of a literal reading of Genesis 1, dinosaurs seem to have two days for their creation, for some lived in the water (they were too heavy for land, so they swam) and maybe some even flew; in either case, this would put their creation on the 5th day, while others were definitely land animals, making them 6th day creatures.

This is an example of the awkwardness of trying to put the information of our times into the schedule of an ancient account of creation, as if it were a zoological history.

Consider this logically: we are not called to a greater or qualitatively different faith from that of the sacred authors, at least with respect to their writings. If an idea was, for cultural reasons, entirely natural to them, and if the same idea is, for cultural reasons, very problematic for us, it is reasonable to ask ourselves whether it is really an issue of changing culture, rather than faith. Of course it might be argued that one culture has more faith than another; in such a case, the less faith-filled culture is rightly challenged to rise to the standards of the other. But if the difference is just cultural, it is not a challenge to faith and it is wrong to claim that it is.

How can we know which it is?

Let me suggest four principles to consider in evaluating whether an idea is truly a matter of faith, or merely a matter of culture.

1) God always makes it reasonably clear what He wants us to believe; it has content. He doesn't ask us to believe that ploggles are on top of bumpties, because this is just noise, not thought; there's nothing to believe; there is no meaning, no content.

2) He always calls us to faith because the mysteries of faith support our minds and hearts as we seek salvation. It is not a matter of faith that grass is emerald green, not only because it can be red, blue, and brown, but because colors are not matters of salvation.

3) God is honest, just as He calls us to be honest. He is not free to say a hornet is a dog because even though He could have made them any way He wanted, He has made them as they are in their particularity, and it is for us to learn of them humbly, in obedience to that reality.

4) Normally, the faith to which we are called has the same basic content as the faith to which the sacred authors were called.

­So, first of all: When fundamentalists ask us to embrace a 6,000 year time frame, and to divide dinosaur creation into two different sections of the creation story, they do not have a clear and definite idea of what they are asking for. Are we supposed to believe that there were no dinosaurs, just bones to trick us? Are we supposed to believe that there were dinosaurs, but the dating systems we have used for some things don't work for other things? Are we supposed to believe that God reburied all the land dino bones below the birds so we couldn't date them? Are we supposed to believe that radioactivity used to be different? Just exactly what are we supposed to believe? There can be no agreement about this because everyone in the Christian-not- Catholic camp believes that each person interprets the Bible on his own, so the line between Biblical information and natural information is always shifting. There is, therefore, no content to the fundamentalist demand that we believe that dinosaurs were created on the Genesis timetable. It is not clear what we are to accept on faith.

Secondly: None of this dinosaur stuff makes any difference to the way we live our faith from day to day. It doesn't change the nature of charity, or the sacrifice of Jesus. It's just a way of reading the Bible, about which Protestants have agreed to disagree (since each does it on his own) so it will always be chaos to ask the sciences of measure to depend on Biblical information. Our hearts are not supported, and our minds are confused by this demand.

Thirdly: If God does things like putting bones in the earth to test our faith, then he is doing just the sort of thing that makes some people distrust their earthly fathers and friends. This would make it hard to truly respect God and love Him. We could still obey Him, but the heart of man is not drawn to dishonesty of any kind. Inevitably, many would give their highest allegiance to Abraham Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi, not to God; it is already happening! Even if God sent them to Hell for it, they would not be able to believe heaven would be a nice place anyway, being run by a thoughtless tyrant. The Pope, in Regensburg, just said some very trenchant things about the problems with a God who doesn't have to be consistent. It's not a good picture of God, so how can it be right, if He truly is Good? We must commit ourselves to belief that God is Good, without equivocating about goodness (letting it have a double meaning, so that God can be bad and still be called good.) Even if our heavenly Father is sometimes beyond the reach of our natural understanding, he is not insultingly contradictory of it.

Fourthly, the burden of maintaining "faith" in a God who created the sea dinosaurs and the birds before the landward dinosaurs, falls disproportionately on geologists and paleontologists. These are the scientists who study rocks and fossils and have received from their Creator and Father a vocation to understand these elements of creation. All that understanding is contradicted, not insightfully, but chaotically, by the fundamentalist claims about faith.

Furthermore, what is asked of the geologist – that he ignore what he sees so clearly in the rocks he has studied – was not asked or even imagined by the sacred author, and is often beyond the understanding even of contemporary theologians who have not studied the natural sciences. It belongs to a different culture from the culture of the Biblical origins, and the new concept of the origin of dinosaurs has been raised in our culture by an increase in observation, not by a loss of faith. The first geologists were certain that their studies would prove the truth of the Bible, and were frankly surprised by the recognition that their interpretation of scripture had to be adjusted. Asking them to think like Moses is not fair. Moses was not a geologist; we can only guess what he would have said if he had had the information that has been collected in the last few hundred years.

It is quite different with the resurrection of Jesus; both we and the original authors are equally amazed by this return from the dead, equally aware that such a thing is entirely outside the realm of ordinary possibility.

I think it best to conclude that the geological and paleontological interpretation of rocks is theologically neutral and that dinosaurs were created before the birds and the mammals, but after quite a number of other land animals of the amphibian and reptilian phyla. Our Church permits this latitude in the interpretation of Genesis, and, considering the evidence, encourages it, in that she definitively calls us to believe that Truth is One.

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