“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
Once again we start reading the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. And once again the question arises, is Genesis true? Can we believe a book that talks about six days of creation? A Garden of Eden? A talking snake? People who have lived over 900 years? Or a great flood that wiped out almost all life on earth?
I hear so often that the Genesis stories are nonsense. Therefore, religion is nonsense. It’s 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. I hear it from people asking me, how can I be religious when I have a doctorate and teach philosophy at university. A teenager told me, in life, you have to make a choice, science or religion, and he chose science.
My answer to 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 of God. In the book, Armstrong talks about two types of truth, logos and mythos. The logos is scientific truth, logical truth, which corresponds to reality. Logos would teach us that serpents cannot speak. But myth is a different kind of truth. It is the stories, myths, traditions and rituals that help humans understand their place in the world. A talking snake can represent an inner voice that encourages us to do what we know is wrong. We all have this kind of inner voice or speaking serpent within us. In my mind, like the Genesis myth is true.
Let me take off my rabbi’s hat and put on my philosopher’s hat for a moment. Philosophers wrestle with the meaning of the word “truth.” They give three different definitions which can all 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 especially the pragmatic theory are the most useful.
The correspondence theory of truth is the logos mentioned above. Truth is whatever corresponds to reality. This is the truth of the scientists. The problem is that we often cannot know what the reality is. We can know how gravity works. But we cannot know if God created the world, if we have immortal souls, or if God works in history. These questions elude science. For religion, we need another kind of truth.
A consistency theory of truth requires that our beliefs be consistent and not contradict each other. If one believes that the earth is billions of years old and was created 5783 years ago, one is not living by a consistency theory of truth. One of these beliefs must give way to the other. The great philosopher rabbi Maimonides says so explicitly. If a truth we learn from the Torah does not match our best scientific knowledge, the Torah must be reinterpreted.
A pragmatic theory of truth says that we cannot know absolute reality. Truth is what works, anything that explains life in a way that is helpful. 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 this essay, he advocates a belief in God for pragmatic reasons. Such belief adds to the quality of our lives. This is probably the closest to the myth. The Genesis stories help us explain the world in a way that adds quality to our lives.
Genesis is not a science textbook. It’s a book of pragmatic truths, telling stories about how we should 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. This is a pragmatic truth, or as Armstrong would say, a myth. Based on this definition, I believe Genesis to be true.
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