Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Young Earth

In the on-going discussions between science and Christianity regarding the origin and history of the universe, there is a wide range of belief.  How much of modern biology, astronomy, and geology is accepted by any given Christian group is dependent to a large extent on their interpretation of the first two chapters of the book of Genesis.  Those who regard the creation stories found in the Hebrew scriptures as metaphor, teaching that God created the universe but not describing the exact process, usually have little problem integrating scientific calculations of a universe between 12 and 14 billion years old, and of our earth approximately 4.55 billion years old, with the theological statement, “In the beginning, God.”  (Note: “Billion” as used here is the American “thousand million,” not the British “million million.”)
Those who read the creation stories literally to mean that creation occurred in six 24-hour days, on the other hand, calculate that our earth is somewhere between six and ten thousand years old.  The range occurs because of different interpretations of the genealogies contained in various sections of the Hebrew Scriptures.  This belief is referred to as “young earth creationism.”
Virtually all of those who publically advocate the young earth theory self-identify as conservative Christians.  But there are two other major religions – Judaism and Islam – which share with Christians the religious history of descent from Abraham.  The Christian Old Testament is substantially the same as the Jewish Torah.  The Muslim Qur’an, though different in many ways, draws on the same source material for stories of its early faith history.  This realization raises the question: Are there groups within Judaism and Islam which also teach young earth creationism?
It turns out that there are indeed such groups.  Within Judaism many of the Haredi Jewish sects subscribe to young earth belief.  “Haredi” is a general term which is frequently translated in English as “Ultra-Orthodox,” and includes a number of sects, including the Hasidim and the Chabad Lubavitchers.  Several sources note that the Haredi themselves object to the term “Ultra-Orthodox,” calling themselves simply “Jews” and regarding more progressive forms of Judaism to be inauthentic.
Literal reading of the creation stories in Genesis and consequent belief in a young earth can be traced in Judaism primarily to the work of 16th century Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as The Ari, and the scholars who studied Kabbalah with him.  Judaism in general is much less inclined than Christianity to literal reading of scripture because of the tradition of intense rabbinic debate over the fine points of Torah.  Prior to the 16th century Judaism had a long tradition of belief in worlds created and destroyed before Adam.  One theory stated that there were 974 generations before Adam.  A first century C.E. work known as the Sefer Temunah states that the world is 42,000 years old.  Rabbis concluded that these were “divine” years, not earthly years.  Because one divine day equals a thousand earthly years, a divine year equals 365 x 1000 or 365,000 earthly years.  Completing the calculation, 42,000 divine years equal 15.33 billion earth years – surprisingly close to the range that contemporary scientists have calculated for the age of the universe.
Rabbi Luria denied that these were actual generations and spiritualized the tradition, bringing Renaissance Jewish belief into line with the rationalist theories of natural law then gaining ascendency in Europe, including the belief in a young earth.  His work had profound influence on Judaism, and the older traditions were gradually forgotten.
Islam has a somewhat different approach to the issue.  Observant Muslims cite several verses in the Qur’an to support the idea of an ancient and ever-expanding universe.  A recent article in the New York Times notes that the vast majority of Muslim students have no problem accepting the Big Bang theory, a universe many billions of years old, and the evolution of species.  They bracket humanity, however, maintaining that humans did not evolve with the other species but were specially created from clay by Allah.
Researchers at McGill University in Canada report that Muslim students in non-Muslim countries are far more likely to reject evolution than are their counterparts in Muslim countries.  One survey indicated that only half the students at Islamic schools in the Toronto area thought fossils showed that life had existed for billions of years and had changed over time, compared with 86 percent of the students surveyed in Pakistan.  Noting that young earth creationist beliefs are thoroughly Western in origin, the researchers at McGill are now designing a study to compare the beliefs of Muslim doctors in five Muslim-majority countries – Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey – with the beliefs of Muslim doctors working in Germany, Britain, and the United States.  They posit that the pressures of living in a non-Muslim country may have a significant influence on Muslim adoption of young-earth creationist beliefs.
It appears that increased exposure to Western Christian culture has, for both Jews and Muslims, engendered a sense of conflict between science and religion which was not necessarily inherent in their traditional beliefs.  What impact that will have in future years on interfaith relations remains to be determined.

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