Genesis and Literalism

I have written about this subject before, and it came up again today whilst I was flipping through my notes. Once upon a time when I was still Protestant I adamantly stood for the literal 24-hour, 7-day interpretation of Genesis 1. I went so far as to say with complete confidence that this interpretation was unchallenged until Lyell and Darwin came along, and that this alleged novelty demonstrated the error of supposing that Genesis 1 should be understood in any other way. In short, I was Mr. Know-It-All…except I didn’t. As it turns out there are at least two (and probably more—see below) highly prominent theologians who lived long before Lyell and Darwin and rejected the literalist approach to Genesis 1: Augustine and Aquinas.

Our first source of information is Frank Sheed’s fine book Theology for Beginners. He tells us (p. 72) that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church (including St. Augustine) never believed that the six days of Genesis 1 were literal days. Obviously my claim had a few holes in it.

Aquinas turns the holes into a gaping maw of ignorance on my part.

According to Augustine (Gen. ad lit. iv. 34), the works of the six days were done all at one time (Summa Theologiae I q.91 a.4 ad 5; emphasis added)

Fred turns red. What was that I used to say? Gulp. But why, then, should we suppose that Genesis 1 should be understood figuratively instead? Is there a positive argument? As it turns out there is at least one (even if we ignore the little problem of the “firmament”):

In the slime of the earth are earth, and water binding the earth together. Of the other elements, Scripture makes no mention, because they are less in quantity in the human body, as we have said; and because also in the account of the Creation no mention is made of fire and air, which are not perceived by senses of uncultured men such as those to whom the Scripture was immediately addressed. (ST I q.91 a.1 ad 4; emphasis added)

In short: Aquinas says that Genesis 1 should not be taken literally because it was written in such a way as to accommodate the weakness of its first recipients. Kaboom. Game, set, match; Fred loses. Two of the greatest theological minds of the last two millennia denied the idea of literal days in Genesis 1. My brash, untutored claims were just that: brash and untutored.

I have written about problems with taking Genesis literalistically before. There are serious difficulties that cannot be simply ignored out of existence. For another example, take Ishmael’s age when Abraham sent him and his mother Hagar away: was he a young toddler, as seems strongly implied by the record in Genesis, or was he thirteen or fourteen years old, as Genesis earlier says he was when he was circumcised?

The question, I think, is this: what sort of literature is Genesis intended to be? If it is not intended to be literal history, these difficulties evaporate. It seems to me that there are good reasons for making this supposition, not least of which is that SS. Augustine and Aquinas denied the strictly literalist account.

Old Wives’ Tales Debunked

Our priest’s homily for this Sunday did not go according to the script that detractors may have expected. From one perspective this is completely unsurprising because Father extemporizes pretty regularly: he has notes but he rarely reads from them and often seems to go off on tangents. So when he preaches, you can be fairly certain he isn’t reading from something he is required to read, nor self-consciously following a party line he is expected to follow. Basically we hear him at his unscripted, spontaneous best, so we know that what he is saying is what he really thinks. It is transparently obvious. Our priest is no dissembler.

Okay, so why am I making such a big deal about this? Well, I think it is noteworthy because it sets the background for demolishing a couple old wives’ tales about what the Catholic Church teaches.

Fable número uno: some people say that the Church teaches we can earn grace. Ding! No. Thank you for playing! As our pastor said in his homily, “if grace is earned it isn’t grace.” Contrary to what those unfortunate geriatric wives think, the Church has always taught that we are saved by grace alone.

Fable número dos: some people propose that the Church teaches some weird thing where the sacraments are effective without reference to the heart of the recipients. In other words, this fable tells us (for example) that I could get my sins forgiven in Confession while intending to sin again. Sorry, but Ding! again! As Father said, quoting from the Catechism: “To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition” (§2111; emphasis added). In short: I have to mean it when I pray or receive the sacraments.

Okay, so Father wasn’t actually speaking extemporaneously when he quoted from the Catechism. The point works out the same, though, regarding the mistake so many people make about this. The sacraments are not magic. If I don’t mean it when I receive them then they do nothing for me. If I intend to sin later while receiving them, I am actually making my sin worse. My heart must be right before God first. Then and only then may I receive the grace of the sacraments, and even having my heart right is the work of grace.

The Catholic Faith is no do-it-yourself religion despite what those old wives say. It is a religion of grace, of mercy, of love for God finding expression in my way of life.

Knowledge without love

There is an old saying: “Those who can’t, teach.” So we get a snicker at the expense of someone who is more expert when talking than doing.

One kind of person is clever at teaching others, yet is no good whatever to himself (Sirach 37:19, NJB).

It is a great thing to be able to teach others and to be able to do it well. But at least sometimes it is far more important for the teacher to know how to put his head full of facts to its proper use. A guy who can tell you how to change a tire but can’t do it himself is going to be in trouble when he has a flat on a lonesome road, no matter what the reasons for his inability—and there are some perfectly legitimate ones.

But there seems to be more disdain conveyed by the NJB in the verse from Sirach quoted above. It is one thing to be incapable because of some defect or disability. It is quite another thing to be worthless to ourselves because of a moral flaw. If I have all the theological brains in the world but do not love God, that theology is less than worthless to me. If I am an acclaimed Sunday School teacher beloved by my students but do not conform my life to the truth out of love for God, what good does that knowledge do me? None.

Being interested in theology is a fine thing and knowing something about it is likewise great, but if I make the mistake of confusing stuff I know with actually loving God, then I may as well know nothing at all. Heck, I would be better off as a theological ignoramus if the choice is between loving God or being clever.

Example of the self-evident

Aristotle has this trenchant comment to make in the Physics:

That nature exists, it would be absurd to try to prove; for it is obvious that there are many things of this kind, and to prove what is obvious by what is not is the mark of a man who is unable to distinguish what is self-evident from what is not. (II.1)

Aristotle firmly holds that kinds exist: or, to use a less obvious term, he believes in forms or universals (though not in the way that Plato does). More than that, he considers their existence to be so obvious as to be self-evident. Why so, since others disagree with him? Well, we risk plunging into the absurd, as he says, by even asking the question. But let us forge ahead for a bit and consider what Aristotle might have in mind. When he says there are many things of this kind what he is talking about is the fact that there are many trees of the same kind (oak, maple, sycamore), many lions, many tigers, many bears, and so forth. If these things weren’t all of the same respective kinds, it would be impossible to talk about kinds of things at all. It would also be blatantly contrary to the evidence of our eyes. That is why The Philosopher says it would be a waste of time to try proving that kinds exist. It’s so immediately obvious that it is self-evident.

The order of social institutions

In this post I would like to continue with some notions I raised in a prior post, about the relationship between individual people and social institutions. The Compendium brings the subject up fairly regularly, so it is reasonable to infer that it is important to the overall perspective of Catholic social teaching.

‘far from being the object or passive element of social life’ the human person ‘is rather, and must always remain, its subject, foundation and goal’ (CSD §106).

In other words, our social institutions and culture “must always” be oriented toward the good of people. Clearly there is a sense in which this orientation primarily centers upon the common good of society, but the wording of §106 makes it pretty clear that to focus solely on the common good is myopic.

Every political, economic, social, scientific and cultural programme must be inspired by the awareness of the primacy of each human being over society (CSD §132; emphasis added).

We see the same principle again: “the primacy of each human being over society.” The principle in operation here is subsidiarity:

The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms. ‘By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.’ (CSD §187; emphasis added)

Subsidiarity is the idea that local problems should be handled locally rather than by some central agency someplace else, staffed by nameless bureaucrats who cannot possibly appreciate the local distinctiveness of a problem. As Merriam Webster says of the term:

a principle in social organization: functions which subordinate or local organizations perform effectively belong more properly to them than to a dominant central organization.

People ought to be encouraged to take care of themselves insofar as they are equipped to handle them. We see the same principle affirmed with respect to families:

The priority of the family over society and over the State must be affirmed. The family in fact, at least in its procreative function, is the condition itself for their existence. With regard to other functions that benefit each of its members, it proceeds [sic; precedes?] in importance and value the functions that society and the State are called to perform. The family possesses inviolable rights and finds its legitimization in human nature and not in being recognized by the State. The family, then, does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family. (CSD §214; emphasis added)

It is not good for man to be alone, as God says in Genesis 2. So the institutions and cultures we develop are made for the benefit of the participants and not vice versa. A society which forgets its proper orientation is one which is degenerating into either anarchy or statism, both of which are vicious extremes in which the individual and the family are trampled for the sake of political ends. This is why the Catholic Church condemns (and has always condemned) socialism.

Human institutions and salvation

Human institutions aren’t just for breakfast or play time or work time. The Compendium of Social Doctrine observes the following:

…worldly things and human institutions are ordered, according to the plan of God the Creator, towards people’s salvation, and that they can therefore make no small contribution to the building up of the Body of Christ.” (CSD §11)

First off, I think it is safe to say that the CSD is not calling for the establishment of Christian fast food chains, nor for Catholic bowling alleys. Rather, it takes a broader perspective. Human institutions as such “are ordered … towards people’s salvation.” Let us consider for a moment how this can be, since we are so accustomed to living in a world where the divides between secular and sacred make such a thought seem downright theocratic to us, perhaps.

So we begin with the observation we made in a previous post: Man is a social creature, and so it is good for me to have fellowship with others. It is not good for me to be alone. So I do have fellowship with others. I probably need more of this myself, but we naturally seek out other people because it is good and healthy for us to spend time with them.

This being the case, it is inevitable that we are going to want some of our gatherings to have more lasting, more permanent existence. We apply our brains to our gatherings, and out of that brainpower comes order: the birth of an institution. It takes on a structure, with some people doing one thing and others something else, but all for the common good of the institution’s members. But we are not the only ones who have plans for our institutions and groups. God has a plan, too, as the CSD points out. And His plan is that our institutions are ordered to the end of people’s salvation. Again, it is the common good in view (not just one individual’s salvation).

Well, how can this be?

I will freely concede that it is obscure at best to me how an institution like Pizza Hut is ordered to my salvation, no matter how much I like their stuffed crust pizza (which I happen to like a lot). But the CSD has a bit more to say in §11 about the subject:

Priests, men and women religious, and, in general, those responsible for formation will find herein a guide for their teaching and a tool for their pastoral service. The lay faithful, who seek the Kingdom of God “by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will,” will find in it enlightenment for their own specific mission. Christian communities will be able to look to this document for assistance in analyzing situations objectively, in clarifying them in the light of the unchanging words of the Gospel, in drawing principles for reflection, criteria for judgment and guidelines for action. (emphasis in original)

In short, when Christian morality and principles are brought to bear on our institutions, one effect is to nurture the spiritual life of those within them and of those who come into contact with them. In more general, natural terms, I can imagine a certain benefit which is ordered to salvation: the exercise of charity as the guiding principle of human institutions should by rights have the effect of nurturing charity both among an institution’s workers and likewise those served by it. And one way that we love God is by loving our neighbor.

Okay, I don’t know exactly how persuasive that is. But it makes at least a little sense to me, so I am going to go with it.

The foundation of social order

There are differing opinions as to what exactly the foundation of our social order is or should be. Because this is a question that bears strongly upon human morality the Catholic Church has had quite a bit to say about “the social question” in the last century or more. Not too long ago the Magisterium produced a compendium of the Church’s social teaching. It is fascinating reading if only because one so rarely comes across social teaching these days which is not cribbed from the Communist Party or the Libertarians. But there are other approaches and answers to these questions, and the Compendium puts them in one handy volume. I hope to write several posts on this topic because I believe it is an important one, and because the Church’s teaching is often misunderstood or misrepresented.

A good place to start may be here:

The commandment of mutual love, which represents the law of life for God’s people, must inspire, purify and elevate all human relationships in society and in politics. (§33)

The second greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to love my neighbor as myself. That being the case, what the Compendium says here in §33 makes eminent sense. Love must inform and undergird our relationships and our institutions. This same idea finds expression in the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And again, this only makes sense. What we do must be ordered not merely to our own personal advantage but also for the common good: the good of families, communities, clubs, businesses, states, and even the whole of humanity. See here for more. We will come across this same theme repeatedly in the Compendium. It is a mistake to make either individualism or any form of socialism the summum bonum for the ordering of our civilization. There is a middle ground, and hopefully we shall see that spelled out in upcoming posts.

Individual responsibility and the common good

In Ezekiel 18 God refutes the unjust idea of the Jews that children and parents should be punished each for the other’s sins, so that innocent children would be put to death (for example) if their parents deserve death for some crime. This is manifestly unjust (and, by the way, upends the Reformed folks’ notion of original sin…but I digress): God insists that each of us dies for our own sins, or lives because of our righteousness. Guilt and innocence are non-transferable. This is an interesting topic on its own but I am more interested today in how God describes the behavior of the righteous, and in one particular aspect of that. The description is repeated once or twice; here is one presentation of it:

if a man is upright, his actions law-abiding and upright, and he does not eat on the mountains or raise his eyes to the foul idols of the House of Israel, … oppresses no one, returns the pledge on a debt, does not rob, gives his own food to the hungry, his clothes to those who lack clothing, does not lend for profit, does not charge interest, abstains from evil, gives honest judgement between one person and another, keeps my laws and sincerely respects my judgements-someone like this is truly upright and will live-declares the Lord Yahweh. (Ezekiel 18:5-9, NJB; emphasis added)

As is clear here (and in far too many other parts of the Bible to count, frankly) an important part of what makes me a righteous man or not is not just my attitudes but my actions with respect to the poor and oppressed. In other words I cannot navel gaze at my personal behavior and think that my personal piety is good enough, or pat myself on the back because I said an extra prayer this morning. Or whatever. There is more at stake. I cannot, just as St. James admonished us, get away with a wish for the good of the poor. As the prophet says, I must do something. Part of being counted righteous by God will involve my treatment of the poor. The common good is fundamental.

Personal good and the common good

St. Thomas has an interesting thing to say about a certain hierarchy of values that seems like a real poke in the ribs.

But a man’s will is not right in willing a particular good, unless he refer it to the common good as an end: since even the natural appetite of each part is ordained to the common good of the whole. (ST I-II q.19 a.10), emphasis added)

It is not sufficient — it is not good — to think only of what is good for me personally, says Thomas. Rather, I need to think about what is good for me in relation to the common good and for the sake of the common good. What comes to my mind immediately upon reading what Aquinas says is what God says in Genesis 2: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Stated positively, it is good for man to have fellowship with other men. Of course, the most important fellowship I can have is with my Creator, and this is obviously not ruled out by what God says. But we are creatures of flesh and bone, and we have weaknesses, and we have needs, and by saying that lonesomeness is not good for us God is saying (as the passage goes on to exhibit) that human beings need other human beings.

The primordial human relationship is between man and wife, but God also commands Adam and Eve (and by extension, us) to “be fruitful and multiply.” So human good — the common good of which St. Thomas is speaking in the passage above — is to be found in the good of human societies at different levels, from the family to local communities to nations to the human race as a whole.

Does this mean — does Thomas mean — that we have to have in mind the good of the whole human race in every decision that we make? Not exactly, but I think it is not wholly excluded either. What is good for me is really found in what is good for others as well as myself. We have seen before that it is perfectly legitimate and even essential that we love ourselves; this is not undermined by what Thomas says here.

The upshot is that I cannot make decisions solely based upon whether they are good for me. I also need to think about the effects of my choices upon other people, and if my choices aren’t so good for them, maybe I need to rethink my decisions. This does not mean that I should not care for myself. I can do no good for others if I neglect myself to such an extent that I die. I am to love my neighbor as I love myself, so clearly it is perfectly fine to love myself. What is ruled out is the self-centeredness wherein I care only about me, and think only about how my choices affect me, and to heck with my neighbors and anyone else. But it also seems to me that there is a rejection of libertarianism in the air here too. It is not enough to say I can do what I want as long as I am not harming others directly: this is ruled out by what St. Thomas says. He says that if my choices ignore what is good for others, then my choices are disordered. So avoiding what is bad or harmful to others is not sufficient. Loving my neighbor means different things at different times and with different folks, but it never reduces down to merely not doing them harm. There is a positive element to love that we cannot overlook.