The walls came tumbling down
A college classmate of mine had a crisis of faith during our trip to the Holy Land. A group of us spent three weeks in Jerusalem, traveling throughout the West Bank and Israel. Our jam-packed itinerary included a stop in Jericho.
There we were, in Jericho. As in Joshua fit the battle of. At 260 meters below sea level, it is the lowest city on earth. It is probably also the oldest. Humans have been living in Jericho more or less continuously for more than 10,000 years. In touring the excavations at Jericho, we saw one unearthed stone structure that the archaeology student guiding us around the dig said was probably about 8,000 years old.
This was mind-boggling for all of us. We were all Americans — people who think of places like Independence Hall or the chapels of Santa Fe as "ancient" because they have stood for centuries. We had a tough enough time with the Roman sites we had visited earlier, yet there we were, staring at this Neolithic wall that had already stood for millennia when Caesar was born.
So, you know, impressive.
But for one fellow student it was horrifying. He had been raised in a fundamentalist church to believe in a six-day creation and a young earth. How young? They embraced the skewed arithmetic of the infamous Bishop Usher, the Irish churchman who, in the 17th century, added up all the genealogies of the Old Testament and concluded that God created the earth in 4004 B.C.E. So there my friend stood, in 1990, in Jericho, believing that the universe was 5,994* years old and staring at a man-made wall that was 8,000 years old.
Something had to give.
The most dangerous thing about fundamentalism is not that it sometimes teaches wacky ideas, like that the world is barely 6,000 years old or that dancing is sinful. The most dangerous thing is that it insists that such ideas are all inviolably necessary components of the faith. Each such idea, every aspect of their faith, is regarded as a keystone without which everything else they believe — the existence of a loving God, the assurance of pardon, the possibility of a moral or meaningful life — crumbles into meaninglessness.
My classmate's church taught him that their supposedly "literal" reading of Genesis 1 was the necessary complement to their "literal" reading of the rest of the Bible, which they regarded as the entire and only basis for their faith. His belief in 6-day, young-earth creationism was not merely some disputable piece of adiaphora, such as …
Well, for such fundamentalists there is no "such as." This is why they cling to every aspect of their belief system with such desperate ferocity. Should even the smallest piece be cast into doubt, they believe, the entire structure would crumble like the walls of Jericho. If dancing is not a sin, or if the authorship of Isaiah turns out to involve more than a single person at one time, or if the moons of Jupiter present a microcosm that suggests a heliocentric solar system, then suddenly nothing is true, their "whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses."
This was, roughly, what was going on in my poor classmate's head as he stared at those rocks, which had been carefully put in place by some ancient citizen of Jericho thousands of years before the tiny literal god of the fundies had gotten around to creating the universe. If he were to cling to the framework he had been raised to believe, then either he must reject the existence of that wall, or he must reject everything he thought he believed about God.
Fortunately he was among friends, and we were able to convince him of a third option, which was, of course, not to cling to the framework he had been raised to believe. We were able to convince him that the existence of a 10,000-year-old city no more disproves the existence of God than the existence of God disproves the reality of that city. Once he was able to accept that belief in God and belief in the ancient world were not mutually exclusive, then he was able to set about the hard but necessary task of deciding for himself just what it was he really believed.
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* Or is it 5,995? The whole no-year-zero thing throws me off. In any case, the Australian Aborigines have songs that are older than that.