Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Bible and Cognitive Dissonance

Trying To Make Sense of It All

Recently, at Father Tim Moyle's blog, "Where the Rubber Hits the Road", he and I have gotten into a discussion with our friend Wayne (Small Town Guy) about Genesis.  We have also discussed the Eucharist and lately got on to the sacrament of Confession.  Though the discussions are interesting, there seems to be no reconciling of Catholic teaching (darn Papists - whore of Babylon!!) with Protestant teaching (which version of the over 30,000 are we talking today?).  But, we soldier on.

As I read an interesting article over at the Archdiocese of Washington (Who says nothing good comes out of Washington?) blog site this morning by Monsignor Charles Pope, I was reminded of the Genesis discussion we had with Wayne a while back.

Wayne kind of warned us to tread lightly regarding Genesis, as he took the creation narrative literally.  I forgot to ask him which one he was taking literally since they seem to have some conflict with each other.  Father Tim presented a diagram of how the earth of the first story of creation looked to the people of the time - you may know the dome over the earth concept.  Wayne countered that THAT was not in the Bible, and so didn't count.  Pretty much ground the discussion to a halt with that one.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when you hold two conflicting thoughts or views in your mind, which are not readily reconcilable and therefor create a tension, possibly until your head explodes, or you pop a blood vessel.  The two stories of creation in Genesis are an example of a possible cognitive dissonance, if they are to be taken literally.

Monsignor Pope brings perspective to the creation story, and in fact to the bible. 

Before digging in to the creation story/stories, he sets the stage with some thoughts from Father Robert Barron, from Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, about the bible as a whole.  Here is what he had to say:
Fr. Robert Barron has well noted that the Bible is not a book, it is a library. Contained within its pages are works of history, poetry, prayer, prose, theology, liturgical instructions, cosmology, philosophy, parables, moral tales, genealogy and so forth. How exactly to read its pages and understand them is often a matter of understanding the genre.

The word Genre is from French, genre, meaning “kind” or “sort.” It also stems from Latin: genus and the Greek: genos, γένος). Genre is the term for any category of literature, as well as various other forms of art or culture e.g. music, based on a set of stylistic criteria.

Now some one may ask you, “Do you read the Bible literally?.” Fr. Barron points out, that’s like someone asking you, “Do you interpret the library literally?” Of course you would say, it depends on what section I’m in. If I’m in the science or history section I may read the book there literally. But if I am in the poetry or novel section, or in the children’s storybook section, I would not likely read the books there literally. I would understand that they are using stories and images to make a point, but not like science or history does.

So we know how to exercise some sophistication when it comes to the library. But many loose this sophistication when it comes to the Bible. Often we can fail to distinguish literary forms and thus force a book or passage to be what it is not.
The good Monsignor then goes on to examine the two accounts of creation in Genesis from this perspective:
The Book of Genesis, especially the early chapters suffer a lot of this sort of failure to appreciate the literary forms. Many want the creation stories to be science or exact history when in fact they are more poetic and theological, than scientific. They advance the real and true point that God alone created everything there is out of nothing and did so in an intentional and systematic way in which he is involved at every stage. This is the sacred and theological truth set forth by the Genesis accounts.

But this does not mean the text proposes to be in the form of a science textbook. Take, for example, the accounting of the “days” of creation. Although light is created on the first day, the Sun and moon are not created until the fourth day. So what does it mean to speak of a “day” when the very sun by which we measure a day is not even existence for the first three “days?” Further, the notion of light apart from the Sun, is somewhat an abstract concept.

If some one asks me if I read the account of creation literally I ask them, “Which one?” This usually leads to a puzzled look. But but the fact is that Genesis sets forth two accounts of creation that are very different.
1. In the first account (Gen 1:1-2:4) we see a period of seven days which begins with the creation of light, then the sky and the ocean, then vegetation, then the sun and the moon, then, fishes and birds, then the animals and finally Adam and Eve.

2. The second account of creation (Gen 2:4-25) does not mention days or a time frame. It begins with the creation of Adam, then the planting of a garden, then the animals, then the creation of Eve.
Hence, we have two very distinct versions of the creation. In no way can they be harmonized yet, neither are they in absolute conflict. They both describe the same event from a different angle and with a different focus on detail. Neither account alone contains all the details. But, together they contain all God wants us to know about the creation of the cosmos. If asked to describe my recent visit to the Holy Land I could start at the beginning and give a day by day account. Or I could choose to start at the end or culmination and work backward. Or, I could just give highlights. Or I could sort out the trip along themes such as Old Testament sites and New Testament sites etc. I might also select the data for a given audience and present different aspects to different audiences. And so, the options are quite many. Now all of what I say is true, but it is selective and thematic based on the audience and my purpose.

So here again, a little sophistication is required in dealing with the accounts of creation. If we have a literalistic and wooden notion of history we can err by trying to make Genesis what it is not. It does not conform to the modern genre of historical writing which tends to be strictly chronological and comprehensive. These Genesis accounts are quite willing to speak to us poetically and selectively of creation and even to reverse the timeline. This is because their purpose is not to give us a blow by blow account of exactly how God did everything. Exact times and dates are not the point. God as purposeful sole and sovereign creator is the point. God who is present and active at every stage is the point. The dignity of the Human person are also the point. The first account accomplishes this by making man the culmination of the creation story. The second account makes this point by beginning with man and having every formed around him and for him.

The catechism of the Catholic Church says of these accounts:

Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation – its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the “beginning”: creation, fall, and promise of salvation. (CCC # 289)
You will need to read the article in full if you have not, because there is a very interesting twist towards the end about how Cain and Abel had kids if they were the only biblically reported children of Adam and Eve.

But, it all makes for an interesting take on our Protestant brothers and sisters.  Many, not all take the creation story literally, 7 days and done, even though there are conflicting versions in the bible. 

That brings me to the second instance of cognitive dissonance I have in mind.  If you take Genesis literally, why not what follows here?

However, when Jesus was about to die and had a meal with his 12 followers (and only them) the night before he died, our Protestant brothers and sisters believe that what He said was not to be taken literally.  Jesus said: "This IS my body."  The aramaic word for "is" was used very specifically in the writing, and cannot be interpreted as "just kidding" or "woulda, coulda, maybe".  It means very specifically "IS". Nothing else.  Nothing less.  This was Jesus, Our Saviour, preparing to meet a most awful death the next day.  He knew it was coming, and he specifically arranged to have a dinner with his closest followers. 

Put yourself in his shoes.  You are going to die tomorrow.  These followers of yours are going to have to carry on your work.  So, what do you say to them?  Tell them a few jokes to lighten the mood? - not.  How about you give them a little allegory to remember you by? - not.   Later Jesus wept tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Do you think he was taking this lightly?  No, he gave them HIMSELF that night, as only He could do and did.

He joined them to His Mystical Body, with His own Body and Blood, in the form of bread and wine.  Yes, we are to always do this in memory of Him, to remember what He did for us the very next day; He died in our place for our sins.

How dare any of us blithely and ignorantly take the creation story literally and then denounce the story of the creation of the Eucharist as an allegory or JUST a memorial?

My head may be about to explode but not from cognitive dissonance, but from the displays of cognitive ignorance it takes to take Genesis literally and institution of the Eucharist figuratively.


Fr. Tim Moyle said...

GREAT POST!!! I've linked to it from my blog. THANKS!

Fr. Tim

MBrandon said...

Thank you Father.

God Bless You