Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Matthew Schlimm will be discussing how we can approach the Old Testament as a friend in faith, in spite of its strangeness.
“My nanny recently asked me how studying science changed my faith.” My friend told me this late one evening. He works for a university medical center. Although his faith was very robust several years ago, he has recently faced difficulty.
“What’d you tell her?” I asked.
“I had heard growing up that God had overwhelming love for me as an individual. I learned that people had utmost importance to God. But medical school taught me how insignificant humanity is. We’re animals, and we’re mere specks in a universe bigger than we can imagine. How can humanity have a special place in God’s heart if we don’t have a special place in the universe? The earth is a single grain of sand on the bottom of a never-ending ocean.”
In the time that followed, I tried to show him ways that the Bible actually supports the point he was making.
The Bible says loud and clear that we’re fairly insignificant. There are few things God hates more than people who think too highly of themselves. God promises to humble the proud (see 1 Sam. 2:1-10). So, the prophet Isaiah talks of God grinding the arrogant into the dust of the ground (see Isa. 2:10-11).
My friend and I also talked about the book of Job. At the end of the book, after Job’s friends try to explain why bad things happen to good people, God shows up. God’s point is simple: humans are puny peons. They shouldn’t expect to figure everything out. They simply aren’t that important. God’s asks, “Where were you when I laid bare the foundations of the earth!?” God gives example after example of things that God can do but humans cannot. “Can you chain up the constellation Orion? …. Can you make it rain?” God goes on, interrogating Job, who eventually manages to reply by simply saying, “I’m tiny. I need to shut my mouth.” (See Job 38:4; 31; 34; 40:4.)
I told my friend that the book of Job makes the exact same point he’s realized from science. The universe isn’t all about us. The solar system doesn’t revolve around us. Humans join animals as creatures. We’re not the Creator. We shouldn’t pretend to be. Science may suggest that humans aren’t that important, but the Bible says the same thing.
I hope that my comments help my friend find the freedom to move forward with his faith. They were inspired, in part, by something I read while writing my book This Strange and Sacred Scripture. In an essay for the book Reading Genesis after Darwin, Jeff Astley writes, “At the very least, evolution teaches us humility. The evolutionary perspective is a reminder that, although we are fearfully and wonderfully made, it is out of the dust of the earth. Both biology and theology insist on a dark side to human nature.” Science may challenge our high view of ourselves, but it doesn’t need to challenge our high view of God.
Matthew Richard Schlimm (PhD, Duke University) is assistant professor of Old Testament at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He previously taught at Duke Divinity School and has held various ministry positions in United Methodist churches. He is the author of From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis and coeditor of the CEB Study Bible.