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Obstacles To Teaching Genesis 1-3

November 16, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

By ARTHUR HIPPLER

(Editor’s Note: Dr. Hippler is chairman of the religion department and teaches religion in the Upper School at Providence Academy, Plymouth, Minn.)

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I am saying nothing shocking or even surprising when I observe that most young Catholics believe the opening of Genesis to be legendary, even mythological. Informed by modern science and fearful of looking like ignorant fundamentalists, young Catholic have largely given up believing that the creation account, the description of man’s creation and fall, have any historical content.
These same students do not realize that essentials of the faith are lost if Genesis is the stuff of legend.
One way that well-intentioned religion teachers (both in the parish and the school) have enabled this confusion is by emphasizing that Genesis is “not literal” and “not a scientific account.” While these statements are both true, one must always remember the scholastic principle “that which is received is received in the mode of the receiver.” The teachers may intend one theological point, but the students receive quite another.
When students hear “Genesis is not to be read literally,” they are not so much thinking of the distinction between “literal” and “figurative” as they are between “real” and “fictional.” When you say “not literal” they hear “not true” or “not real.” And once it is fictional, it is not informative. I have had students tell me that the creation account is “merely a parable.” When I ask, “What is the message of the parable?” they are unable to tell me. “Parable” is just another way of saying “imaginary poetry.” Once it is merely a figurative account, a “parable,” it ceases to be worth considering.
Those who find who have a background and love for literature find symbolic and figurative meanings add depth to a text — for most young people, “symbolic” neutralizes and empties it.
Further, it is misleading to say “Genesis 1-3 is not be read literally” without explanation. Plainly some parts are to be read literally. It is a dogma of the Catholic Church that an original human pair sinned and passed on the effects of that sin to the entire human race. Whatever one wants to say “figuratively,” original sin is “literally true.” And while there is a rich symbolism at work in the creation account of the “six days,” plainly the text does intend to convey that God truly created the world ex nihilo and declared each part of it “good” and the whole altogether “very good.”
Further while it is true that to say that the creation account is not “scientific,” by itself, this is misleading. For Catholic young people, science is not only the highest form of knowledge, but even the only valid form of knowledge. To declare something “not scientific” in their ears translates to “mythology” or “fiction.” (For those who have a literary or poetic outlook, “myth” can be a beautiful and informative thing. But most young people don’t see it that way. “Myth” is a term of condemnation, as in “myth” versus “fact.”)
Rather, one must explain that Genesis asks and answers questions that science generally does not ask, even if individual scientists ask them.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this well in its “Catechesis on Creation” (nn. 282-289). The natural sciences concern themselves with “the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man,” that is, “knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared.” Theology, however, considers a different set of questions: “Is the universe governed by chance, blind fate, anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being called ‘God’? And if the world does come from God’s wisdom and goodness, why is there evil? Where does it come from? Who is responsible for it? Is there any liberation from it?”
Genesis is then a response to positions that are theological or anti-theological, philosophies or belief systems such as materialism, dualism, pantheism, and deism. Theology does not consider the material ingredients of the universe and the course of their development. Rather, it considers the larger questions of what the origin and development of the universe tell us about its purpose and meaning.
Modern science, at least for its current practitioners, does not address “meaning” or “purpose.” Indeed they often hold the philosophic view that the universe has no “meaning” at all. (I say “philosophic” because it is a view that does not come from the evidence science provides, but on the contrary is often believed before the evidence is examined.)
Simply put, Genesis is not a scientific consideration because it is asking more fundamental and therefore more important questions. It is not “below” science or “pre-scientific” in an intellectually inferior way.
Rather, Genesis considers the more basic question of the relation between the universe and its Creator. Many cultures believed that matter pre-existed the gods, or that divine beings were indifferent to human happiness or that the universe was the product of an evil divinity. Genesis, in a narrative both subtle and concise, describes how our universe was made by a loving God who willed the goodness of His creatures, but then how those creatures endowed with free will abused their freedom and brought evil and suffering into the world.
The challenge of teaching Genesis is helping our students see that the natural sciences are not the only sources of human knowledge. Because Genesis has a narrative account with figurative language, they are prejudiced against the text. Truth should look like the science book from school. And for our young people, the questions that science asks are the only questions worth asking. No one has helped them understand the more important questions about the universe, questions of meaning and purpose.
Teaching Genesis effectively requires a reflection not only on the mode of the communication from Sacred Scripture, but also on the prejudices that our students unknowingly bring with them.
As Allan Bloom once observed, “Reason transformed into prejudice is the worst form of prejudice, because reason is the only instrument for liberation from prejudice.” Our students cannot access the treasure that is divine Revelation because the prejudices of the modern scientific outlook prevent them.

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