Eve, the Apple, and the Need To Know: The Imago Dei Project

I’ve been thinking about Genesis lately. In this past month, the lectionary included Eve’s succumbing to the serpent and my study group talked about the troubling fallout in perceptions of gender roles, about what might have happened if Eve hadn’t eaten the apple, about a human tendency toward disobedience.

Today I’m thinking about certainty. Eve and Adam didn’t happen to simply miss curfew, or miss an animal-naming deadline; they ate of the tree of knowledge. Another discussion might consider the aspects of good and evil implicit in this knowledge, but I’m struck by the concept of desiring knowledge so much we are willing to face God’s punishment.

Most of my conscious life I’m hoping for, even demanding certainty. I want to know the one right school to send my kids to, the one right way to raise them, the one right way to eat, the one right way to exercise. My demand for certainty yields little but frustration. The time I spend with art I’m willing to know a little bit less. I read a collection of short stories for a class this past weekend, and turn over the possibilities for each narrative in my head.

Leon Kass found much to turn over reading Genesis. A professor at the University of Chicago, he began his study for general interest, and it became an obsession. What he had planned as a diversion became the near-700 page The Beginning of Wisdom. His 700 pages do not find much in the way of certainty. Instead, Kass suggests Genesis is rife with lacunae offering up and even demanding exploration, offering a narrative of metaphysical and ethical truths. A midrash he mentions in a footnote explains the significance of starting Genesis with bet, a letter closed on three sides and open to the direction of the text, so the reader is permitted only to investigate the time of the world’s creation into the time that we live. Each letter itself has meaning, bringing the level of significance from grand theory to minute detail, wider and deeper than literature lovers even know to look.

But uncertainty poses a problem for both the Bible’s supporters and detractors. Maimonides suggested that any conflict between faith and science was due to a misinterpretation of the Bible. In the current debate, both literalists in the realm of scripture and opponents of the same text make similar errors in relating supposed certainties in text to supposed certainties of science. Biblical literalists claim contradictions between science and the Bible disprove science. Opponents suggest the Biblical stories are simplistic and contradictory; science is the domain of rational thought, and as rational beings, science trumps sacred texts.

Kass’s reading of Genesis, drawing on the work of a number of scholars, illuminates the opportunity for endless study and interpretation. Scientific theories do likewise. In 2004 Stephen Hawking shocked the world by reversing his thinking about black holes. For three decades he had held that black holes destroyed all molecular traces of their contents. Thirty years later, he decided he was wrong. What is most stunning about this is not his reversal but that he had continued searching. Finding inconsistencies in his earlier findings (subatomic theory suggests matter cannot be created or destroyed), he continued to filter through data until he flipped his theory on its head. One imagines he works on it to this day.

This year, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert discovered the Higgs boson particle. It is the last ingredient needed to confirm the Standard Model which has ruled physics for the last fifty years. The New York Times reported: “For scientists, the discovery of the Higgs affirmed the view of a cosmos ruled by laws of almost diamond-like elegance and simplicity, but in which everything interesting — like us— is a result of lapses or flaws in that elegance.” Duke Magazine continues to explain that “the discovery also helps scientists explain what happened in the very early universe- 100 trillionth of a second after it exploded into existence- why it evolved the way it did, and even why it evolved at all.”

Lay proponents of science suppose a field of certainty, but these physicists prefer doubt. Notable in the articles are the words: so far. Their experimentation continues. Notable also: the word “help,” modifying “explain.” Notable also: 100-trillionth of a second after. Notable also: Hawking’s reversal of the black hole theory (among others).

Those upholding Biblical literalism want to exploit the holes in scientific theories, using them to suggest that science is false. With evolution in particular, there are too many gaps, the discussion goes.  The findings are still uncertain.

Marcel Gleiser, a physicist at Dartmouth, suggests science is in fact about courting the mystery of the unknown. “I think that once you adopt that there is only one way of understanding the complexity of things you are emptying humanity of its value, the plurality of visions,” he says. “Science is powerful…but there are other ways of knowing. To say that there is only one way of understanding the mind… is impoverishing the richness of human culture.” Perhaps it is not only scientists, but readers of sacred texts, who might ponder his words.

Recently, Pope Francis suggested that “if a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good…. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.” In seeking God in all things, “there is still an area of uncertainty {una zona di incertezza}. There must be.”

James Gleick, author of Chaos, reflects on this statement on his blog: “For me, this is where religion and science can clasp hands.” The discomfort and anxiety of uncertainty may be the apple’s legacy we are least wont to accept; uncertainty makes us afraid.

When it comes to certainty, neither faith nor its lack offers what we crave. The Pope’s statement may lead to the principle connecting good faith and good science: a spirit of humility. Unknowing is what allows for the suspense and the joy of discovery, the continuous search, and new understandings.

Shannon Huffman Polson is the author of North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey. Her essays and articles have appeared in a number of literary and commercial  magazines including Huffington Post, High Country News, Adventum, Cirque Journal and Alaska and Seattle Magazines. She can be found writing or with her her family in Seattle or Alaska, and always at her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

This post was made possible through the support of a grant from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution and Christian Faith program. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BioLogos.

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  • T.Martin Lesh

    Martin Luther has a beautiful quote about wanting to know ‘ too much ‘ ;

    “The ‘ Finite ‘ minds attempts at comprehending THE Infinite mind of God is like trying to swim in quicksand ” [ paraphrased ]

    ( for those who don’t know ‘ swimming ‘ in quicksand leads quickly to drowning )

    Or … in G.K. Chesterton’s words ;

    ” When one sticks ones head into the clouds and attempts to fit those clouds into one’s head … one’s head explodes ”

    e.g. The possibility of certainty and absolute knowledge are an illusion created by the Dark One himself in order to bring us closer to him and further from God [ mine ]

  • http://www.aborderlife.com/ Shannon H. Polson

    Thanks T. Martin! I believe we are meant to keep trying to understand, but a spirit of humility serves us all well, regardless of the field!

  • Y. A. Warren

    The humble scientists admit that all scientific findings are the best theories that we have today. The best spiritual writers should admit that all “sacred scriptures” are the recorded beliefs, based on the experiences and beliefs of the writers’ times.

  • http://www.aborderlife.com/ Shannon H. Polson

    Y.A., thank you- I believe what we consider sacred scriptures are even more than that…but that what they have to offer requires continual study and discernment, and that what is never complete is not necessarily the scripture but our understanding. The Kass reading of Genesis opened my eyes to just a tiny portion of the depths I’ve missed in more superficial reading, but that humility might lead us all to admit our understandings will always be partial, incomplete, lacking, regardless of the field of inquiry.

  • ortcutt

    I don’t know of many Evangelicals who are willing to approach the Bible with humility. How many Evangelicals take an open scientific attitude to archaeological and historical evidence that undermines the Biblical narrative? Not many.

    • Noah Smith

      Too many still view Genesis accounts as being literal historical events. But I can’t blame them, a non literal interpretation does imply that Jesus died for an analogy.

  • Jose John Perayil

    Only one question to Mr. Stephen Hawking. Can you say one thing, which is
    not existing in the Universe…?!?! No one can say something which is not
    existing in the universe, because man’s mind is within the universe not above or
    outside. If Mr.Stephen can say one more thing other than God which is not
    existing in the universe let him tell.

  • Jose John Perayil

    About the Bible one need not underestimate but may estimate their life with eternal guaranty…Bible links all realities in the best proportions in every ones life without any error… Consider the terminology in the Bible so solid and cosmic according to the need and richness of the reader. Looks contradictory but a combination of a best enlightening solutions of life giving energy is supplied. Jose John Perayil 09400020022. INDIA