Earlier this year, I watched a stunning sunset. The sun spent several moments hiding behind some clouds low in the western sky. Then it emerged from beneath the clouds to spread brilliant reds and purples across the landscape. As I continued to watch, the sun touched the horizon and transformed itself into an oval that melted as it passed through the distant treeline. Even after the sun was gone, colors lingered and continued to seep across the sky. Ultimately, darkness crept more fully into the night, and the spectacle was over.
If you enjoy watching the sky, you've probably seen similar sunsets and been in awe of their beauty.
But the beauty of sunsets isn't my point. I suspect that no one is likely to misunderstand my opening paragraph as a scientific analysis of the experience. I'm willing to wager that not one reader spent any time wondering whether I personally hold to a geocentric model of the solar system in which the sun moves around the earth or if I'm promoting a theoretical framework based on a presumption that the sun dissolves when it moves below the horizon.
The reason these issues aren't confusing is that people normally understand the difference between a scientific explanation pertaining to aspects of material reality and a human-centric description of experiences and relationships. The fact that my account contains subject matter for which modern science has provided technical explanations does not render my account untrue. It merely emphasizes that my narrative involves the communication of ideas other than geophysical data, orbital mechanics, and an analysis of the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Now, let's talk about the Bible. Some people criticize the Bible because various passages don't pass muster as descriptors of scientific principles. They wonder why God spent so much of his time talking about social issues when God could have given us a description of DNA or an explanation of the germ theory of disease. Others try to appropriate the Bible as a textbook that fully describes the inner workings of physical reality. Both approaches forget that the Bible is not a scientific document. It is a narrative that describes the human experience and humanity's relationship with God. The truth, facts, and wisdom it contains can't be reduced to mere data because they transcend the limits of human knowledge.
During the past few centuries, scientists discovered that our planet, originally assumed to sit in a favored position at the center of all things, was just one small orb among billions (or sextillions) of objects in the vastness of space. In a similar vein, there is no reason to believe that we live in an age so favored that the biblical text ought to have been crafted to speak exclusively to people who possess the technologies we currently employ and to those living with our current cultural assumptions and preferences. Isn't it more reasonable to conclude that we live in a fleeting moment?
And yet, despite its ancient origins and even though its stories are populated by characters who ride on donkeys, live in homes without electricity, and suffer from unfamiliar diseases, the Bible continues to enlighten modern readers. When it comes to interpreting its passages, I suggest the adoption of a humble attitude. We need to remember that others—people across history's millennia and those yet to come in an unknown number of future generations—also need God's Holy Word to speak to them and their experiences.
This article originally appeared in the Septmber 2015 issue of Observations: A Pier Press® Newsletter. You can access the archived issue here, and if you're not already a subscriber, click here to sign up. It's free.