IS GENESIS TRUE?
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
Once again we start reading the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. And once again the question comes up, is Genesis true? Can we believe a book that speaks of six days of creation? A Garden of Eden? A talking snake? People who lived over 900 years? Or a great flood that wiped out almost all life on earth?
So often I hear that the stories of Genesis are nonsense. Therefore, religion is nonsense. It is time to accept science and reject religion. I hear this argument from countless people who tell me why they will never set foot in a synagogue (or church or mosque). I hear it from people who ask me, how can I be religious when I have a PhD and teach college philosophy. One teenager told me, in life you must make a choice, science or religion, and he chooses science.
My answer too these challenges is quite simple. Scientific truth is different from religious truth. This was best explained by the wonderful scholar of religion Karen Armstrong in her book, The Case for God. In the book, Armstrong speaks of two kinds of truth, logos and mythos. Logos is scientific truth, logical truth, that corresponds to reality. Logos would teach us that snakes cannot talk. But mythos is a different kind of truth. It is stories, myths, traditions, and rituals that help humans understand their place in the world. A talking snake may represent an inner voice that encourages us to do what we know to be wrong. We all have this kind of inner voice or talking snake within us. In my mind, as mythos Genesis is true.
Let me take off my rabbi hat and put on my philosopher hat for a moment. Philosophers struggle with meaning of the word “truth.” They give three different definitions which all may be useful in different contexts. Philosophers speak of a correspondence theory of truth, a coherence theory of truth, and a pragmatic theory of truth. For scientists the correspondence theory of truth is the most useful. For religion, the coherence theory and particularly the pragmatic theory are most useful.
The correspondence theory of truth is the logos mentioned above. Truth is whatever corresponds to reality. This is the truth of scientists. The trouble is that we often cannot know what reality is. We can know how gravity works. But we cannot know if God created the world, if we have an immortal soul, or if God works in history. These questions elude science. For religion we need a different kind of truth.
A coherence theory of truth requires that our beliefs cohere together and do not contradict one another. If one believes that the earth is billions of years old and was created 5783 years ago, one is not living according to a coherence theory of truth. One of those beliefs must give way to the other. The great rabbi philosopher Maimonides says this explicitly. If a truth we learn from the Torah does not cohere with our best scientific knowledge, the Torah must be reinterpreted.
A pragmatic theory of truth says we cannot know absolute reality. Truth is what works, whatever explains life in a way that is useful. The founder of this pragmatic theory was William James, who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience. He also wrote an essay called “The Will to Believe.” In that essay, he advocates a belief in God for pragmatic reasons. Such a belief adds to the quality of our lives. This is probably closest to mythos. The stories in Genesis help us to explain the world in a way that adds a quality to our lives.
Genesis is not a scientific textbook. It is a book of pragmatic truths, telling stories about how we ought to live our lives. God did not create the world in six literal days. But the belief that we live in a world created by God adds meaning and purpose to our lives. It is pragmatic truth, or as Armstrong would say, mythos. Based on this definition, I believe that Genesis is true.