Teaching About God In The Classroom

The Kansas Board of Education a while ago decided to allow schools to make their own determination about which mix of “evolution versus creation” to teach in their classrooms. This decision set off a tumult in the scientific and theological world – as if leaving the issue “open” somehow spells defeat for one side or the other in this debate.
As a scientist who has served on the staff of MIT physics department and as a firm believer in biblical religion, I see no contradiction between them whatsoever.

So what’s all the fuss about?

If I had to assign chief blame for the ongoing struggle between science and religion and the resulting erosion of biblical credibility, it would be to the leaders of organized religion. Since Nicolaus Copernicus had the audacity to suggest that the Sun, not Earth, was the center of our solar system, their knee-jerk reaction to scientific discovery has been to deny its validity. Yet what does the position of the Earth have to do with belief in a creator of the universe or the validity of the Bible?! Nowhere does the Bible claim that Earth is central to anything. In fact, the very first sentence of the Bible we read – ” … God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The heavens precede the Earth. As scientific data demonstrating the Sun’s centrality accumulated, the Church was forced into embarrassed retreat. So today, the popular perception is that science had proven the Bible wrong. In reality, the claim of Earth’s centrality had nothing to do with the Bible.
Similarly, Kepler’s discovery of the elliptical orbit of the planets did not sit well with the religious establishment. Circles were perfect geometric shapes, ellipses are defective. An infinitely powerful God would be expected to produce perfect orbits. Of course, the Bible doesn’t teach that a circle is better than an ellipse! Yet the Church condemned Kepler’s discovery.

Then, Charles Darwin appeared on the scene. The thought that life in general (and humans in particular) had developed from lower life forms was simply unacceptable to the Church. The concept of evolution was condemned as heretical, not withstanding the fact that Darwin in the closing lines of his book attributed the entire evolutionary flow of life to “its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator in a few [life] forms or into one.” Nonetheless, the gauntlet of heresy had been thrown down.

The medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides insisted that conflicts between science and the Bible arise from either a lack of scientific knowledge or a defective understanding of the Bible. Our Sages always viewed Torah knowledge in light of prevailing scientific theory. In fact, Jewish law states:

“Only wise and understanding men are to be appointed to the Sanhedrin. They must be experts in Torah law, with a wide breadth of knowledge. They must also know secular subjects like medicine, mathematics, astrology and astronomy.” (Maimonides, Laws of Sanhedrin, chapter 2)

So where does the problem lie? In that acknowledged experts in science may assume that although scientific research requires diligent intellectual effort, biblical wisdom can be attained through a simple reading of the Bible.

Yet how can such a strange and poetic text be read literally? Two millennia ago, long before paleontologists discovered fossils of dinosaurs and cavemen, long before data from the Hubble and Keck telescopes hinted at a multibillion-year-old universe, the Talmud (Chagiga 12b) stated explicitly that the opening chapter of Genesis, all 31 verses, is presented in a manner that intentionally conceals information. Furthermore, Moses, on the day of his death, exhorted the people three times to read the Bible as a text having within it a subtext harboring multiple meanings (Deut. 31:19,30; 32:44).

From a Jewish perspective, the conflict over the Kansas school board decision is ironic. Maimonides wrote that science is one of the primary paths to knowing God, and for that reason the Bible commences with a description of the Creation. Throughout the Bible, knowledge of God is compared with the wonders of nature, as stated so well in Psalms (19:2): “The heavens tell of God’s glory, and the sky declares his handiwork.”
The first step in a rapprochement between science and Bible is for each camp to understand the other. Distancing the Bible from a few misplaced theological shibboleths will do wonders in furthering this mutual understanding.