Few sections of Scripture have been debated, discussed and disputed as often, and as intensely, as the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, which scholars call the “Creation Narratives,” the story of how humanity, the earth and all things came into being.
Once, many states enforced laws obligating public school teachers to teach that creation was accomplished in six days, of 24 hours each, and then God rested.
Worldwide attention, in 1925, was drawn to Dayton, Tennessee, about one hour’s drive north from Chattanooga, where a biology teacher in Dayton’s high school, John Scopes, was tried in court for telling his students about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
It was dramatic. Speaking for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, former U.S. secretary of state, and in three national elections the Democratic candidate for president. He was an evangelical Protestant. Arguing for the defense was Clarence Darrow, regarded as one of the best trial lawyers in this country, a self-identified agnostic.
The trial brought Genesis to every mind in America, regardless of personal religious attachment.
(Scopes was convicted and fined. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict on a technicality. Scopes, later a convert to Catholicism, died in 1970. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 ruled that laws requiring public school teachers to follow a certain religious opinion about the origins of the world are unconstitutional.)
Years afterward, a screenplay, based on the trial, appeared on Broadway, “Inherit the Wind.” A movie followed. Both were popular.
Battles continue, in personal conversations, pulpits and still in schools.
It is too bad. Arguments distract from the great lessons contained in Genesis. First and foremost, we learn that God exists. God is a person. God is in earthly life. We can speak to God. God hears us. God is in our lives. God is supremely wise.
God has given us the world to steward, to give in turn to the next generation, intact and abundant. Our task is to cultivate and enrich the created world, not exhaust its plenty in our selfishness. God created the world to support and nourish us.
God guides us to wholesome and fulfilled lives.
Evil is real. Temptations come upon us, and they can be very inviting. They toy with our instincts and appetites, and, ultimately, they urge us to forget the fact that, as humans, we are limited. We do dumb things.
We bring problems upon ourselves when we ignore the way that God has shown us as the path to personal peace and order. Bluntly, by sinning, we dig our own graves.
God warned us of the peril we create for ourselves when we sin. Why?
God loves us. God is merciful. The first humans, Adam and Eve, sinned. By their own free choice, they made a mess of things and had to live with the consequences, but God did not strike them dead. They survived, able to reform.
All humans, whatever their names, whenever they live, wherever they are, sin, by their own free choice. They can reform. God strengthens their desire to reform.
What is the Catholic Church’s approach to the Creation Narratives of Genesis? Genesis was written with the best scientific knowledge of its day in mind. That knowledge was improved by updated research, but, regardless, the purpose of Genesis is to present certain religious facts.
The point is not that God hung the sun and the moon on a solid sky as if they were light fixtures attached to a ceiling, but that these sources of light were among the thousands of ways in which Almighty God created everything in love to let humans know that the Almighty exists, is all powerful, unlimited in love, generosity, wisdom and mercy; to teach them that humanity is God’s most wonderful creation, with a very special role in the world and in a special relationship with the Creator.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.