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Malcolm Tolbert
Dr. Malcolm Tolbert



2004 Inaugural Stagg-Tolbert Lecture

by Malcolm Tolbert

A significant question is raised in the title of this lecture. On the one hand, an important issue is posed by the view about the inspiration of Scripture held by many so-called fundamentalists. The ones to whom I am referring believe that the Bible, all the Bible, including the first chapter of Genesis is literally true. The Baptist Faith and Message declares, for example, that Scripture has "truth without any mixture of error for its matter" and that "all Scripture is true and trustworthy." [1] 

On the other extreme, many people believe that the book of Genesis is totally irrelevant to modern human existence, that there is nothing in it that is pertinent to modern life, and that it was written during a time of intellectual darkness by people who have nothing to say to us moderns. This paper is an attempt to respond to those positions.

Scientific Advances

In 1543 Copernicus on his death bed finished reading the proofs of his masterpiece. [2] Published at about the time of his death, this work initiated the scientific revolution that has been going on apace ever since. His work sounded the death knell of Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology that had prevailed for some 1400 years. Instead, as was argued by Copernicus, the cosmos was heliocentric. According to an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica, the publication of Copernicus' work "was the opening shot in a revolution whose consequences were greater than those of any other intellectual event in the history of mankind." [3] Copernicus' view of the cosmos was not accepted immediately. It encountered opposition from two sources. First was the church that was inclined to reject anything that did not agree with Scripture. The second was the scientific community that was slow to give up the ideas that it had lived by. 

A significant push was given to Copernicus' ideas by the Italian mathematician, Galileo, (d. 1642 ). One of his many claims to fame was that he was the first to study the planets and stars through a telescope. He heard that such an instrument had been invented and set about making one of his own. With the aid of the telescope he discovered that there were many more stars in the skies than the naked eye could perceive. Also, he was able to see planets that had hitherto been unknown. His main problem with the ecclesiastical authorities, however, was his acceptance of Copernicus' position about the heliocentric universe. He was instructed to teach that the position was hypothetical. Does that sound familiar? When it was determined that he failed to comply, he had to appear before the Inquisition that condemned him as a heretic, and he was no longer allowed to teach.

The Modern Situation

In recent years what Copernicus and Galileo set in motion has been proceeding at a dizzying pace. Among other factors, the amazing reach of our modern telescopes and the progress made in studying the DNA of humans and other organisms have brought about an vastly expanded understanding of the cosmos and of the human occupants of the planet earth. 

Our scientific knowledge of the universe in which we live has been literally exploding. For example, astronomers recently were able to photograph what may be the most distant galaxy ever seen. [4] This galaxy is estimated to have been 13 billion light years away! When you know that in one solar year light travels approximately 5.88 trillion miles and you multiply that number by 13 billion, you get an idea of the immense distance the light has traveled. You also realize that the image photographed shows the galaxy not as it may be today but as it was 13 billion years ago. 

Astronomers believe that this photograph has taken us back almost to the end of the age of darkness to the moment of the hypothetical Big Bang that, according to the generally accepted hypothesis, brought into being the well-lit universe with which we are acquainted. According to their calculations the universe at the time represented by the photograph was just 700 to 750 million years old. We now know that our galaxy is not alone in the universe. There are billions of other galaxies out there about which scientists are learning more about all the time. 

The decoding of the human genome has been another, very recent accomplishment of modern scientists. One of the results is that, given broad enough samples, the history of the human race can be traced. Just this year a geneticist, Spencer Wells, wrote a book entitled The Journey of Man: a Genetic Odyssey. He traces the spread of the human race which began somewhere in Africa to as it spread out to populate our planet. Based on what is learned from the DNA, It is possible, also, to make a rough estimate of the length of time humans have existed on this globe. People like us are estimated to have been in existence between 100,000 and 200,000 years. In other words the universe existed billions of years before the first humans became residents of the earth.

Is Genesis 1 Science?

The examples given above are only two of the many available to us. Those examples, however, give us all the information we need to answer one of the questions I have raised. Is Genesis 1 science? The reply has to be an unqualified "No." The world was not created around 6,000 years ago, as has been calculated from a literal interpretation of the information given in Genesis. Also, according to scientific findings, our Galaxy came into existence some 4 billion years ago, long after the story of the universe had begun. Furthermore, human beings did not come into existence early on in the creation story. Rather, we appeared very late in the history of this universe of ours. The sun does not rise and set on us earthlings as was concluded when humans based their judgment on what they saw with the unaided eye; rather, the earth revolves around the sun. The earth is not flat with four corners with the heavens above and the nether world beneath as is supposed throughout the books of the Bible. [5] 

We have to remember that all the people who wrote the books of the  Bible lived in a pre-scientific age. In his comments on the creation story of Genesis the Roman Catholic scholar, Cletus Wessels writes: "It is not meant to tell us a scientific story, since the Hebrew people did not think in modern scientific terms. The biblical story is not intended to give us a historically accurate picture of the beginnings, since people in that era did not think in terms of our sense of scientific history. Rather, they dealt with stories orally passed on and reinterpreted in the light of the concerns of each generation and the historical context of the people. The Jewish stories of creation were theological poetry in the sense that they used theological language to teach each generation the fundamental faith of the community and the relationship of God to the chosen people." [6] All that, however true, still leaves unanswered the question: Is Genesis relevant to our lives today? We now turn to deal with that issue.

Viktor Frankl 

No doubt many of you here have heard of Viktor Frankl. He became well known after he published his now famous volume, Man's Search for Meaning. In this book he tells about his experiences while he, a Jew, was interned in German concentration camps in which so many of Frankl's kinsmen and fellow Jews lost their lives. His experience in the camps illuminated his understanding of human existence and helped to inform his psychotherapeutic approach to human problems called logotherapy. 

While they were in the concentration camps, the victims found themselves without any freedom whatsoever. Their guards decided where they would sleep, what they would eat, what work they would do, when they would go to bed at night, how much space they would have between their cots, who would be selected for the gas chambers, and every other aspect of their existence. In other words, their slavery was total. 

Frankl noticed, however, that there were differences among the people who were incarcerated with him. The majority gave in to the apparent utter hopelessness of their situation. They could see no light at all in their existence. Conversely, another group found they had a very important freedom even in their slavery: they could choose how they would react to their circumstances. Their spirits could not be enslaved. They did not concentrate on their own misery as so many others did. Instead they found meaning even in that remorselessly drab life, a meaning that transcended their selfish concerns. They were the ones who comforted the despairing, who had a smile for their comrades in slavery, who gave to the weakest among them the last piece of bread they had. They were the ones who never sank into absolute hopelessness. Frankl also observed that they were best equipped to survive the horrors of the camps. 

His conviction was that human beings are alike in that they all have a basic need to find a meaning for their lives that transcends themselves, something larger than they are. Often they, the victims of Lou Gehrig's disease for example, cannot change the circumstances of their lives, but they can have a much richer life if they can discern some meaning for themselves in their situation. [7] Frankl contended that "man is not he who poses the question, What is the meaning of life? But he who is asked this question, for it is life itself that poses it to him. And man has to answer to life by answering for life; he has to respond by being responsible; in other words, the response is necessarily a response in action." [8] Logotherapy, the approach to psychotherapy developed by Frankl, is directed toward helping people to decide what being responsible means in their particular situation. In other words, he believed that human beings possess an important freedom. 

They may be helpless to change the immediate circumstances of their lives, but they are free to choose the way they will respond to them. Frankl said that it is this freedom to choose the option of being responsible that distinguishes human beings from the rest of the animal world. Animals, with whom we share so much, cannot reflect on the meaning of their lives, nor can they make decisions about how they will respond to the various situations that they face. They are programmed. Only humans can do that. Human beings are never so enslaved physically that they are freed from the necessity of deciding what it means to be responsible even in the worst of circumstances. It is this freedom that one may refer to theologically as the image of God in humans. Frankl also believed that many of the emotional disorders that afflict people, such as depression, may be attributed to the lack of meaning in their lives. 

More recently Frankl, now deceased, wrote another volume called Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning. As can be seen immediately, this title more clearly elevates the subject to a religious level. One of the reasons that I was first attracted to Frankl's ideas was that logotherapy makes room for religion. Frankl does teach that many people find that their need to discover the ultimate meaning of their lives is satisfied through their belief in God. He also believes that people can satisfy that need in other values that transcend their personal, often selfish, concerns. 

For example some may discover that the meaning of life for them is found in love for another person. Frankl talks about how he was helped in extremely difficult moments by thinking about his wife, who, unknown to him, had lost her life in a concentration camp. There are great humanitarians who have committed their lives to helping unfortunate people and have found deep meaning for their lives in their service. No matter what their background or the circumstances of their lives, Frankl believed that human beings can rise above all the negative aspects of their existence. They can discover meaning that makes life worthwhile even in the midst of suffering like that inflicted in the Nazi concentration camps. 

In this Frankl stands worlds apart from Freud. In The Future of an Illusion Freud wrote that "religion is the universal compulsive neurosis of mankind; like that of the child it derives from the oedipal complex, from the relation to the father." [9] To say, as Freud did, that religion is a compulsive neurosis puts him on the opposite end of the spectrum from Frankl. In his view, the option of faith is not one freely chosen by a person acting responsibly. We are the victims of our past. As I understand it, Freudian psychotherapy is dedicated to unlocking those closed doors of our past to enable us to come to grips with the influences of the past that determine our existence in the present.

The Failure of Science

I found the two examples of scientific advance that I presented at the beginning of this paper to be very interesting and informative. They told me more than I had known previously about our world and the people who live in it. As is always the case, I was happy to learn more about this universe we inhabit. The information, however, left unanswered questions that are more important to me. It gives me nothing to live for. I know some more facts, important facts. But there is nothing in those facts that will give me what I really need in order to make my own life worth living.

I am willing to accept the big bang hypothesis until a better one comes along. Nevertheless, once we reach the moment of the Big Bang, which is as far as science can take us, as a human I have to ask the question: "Is there anything that lies beyond that?" Am I to conclude that the creation of the universe is simply the result of a chain of fortuitous circumstances that functioned without any guidance at all? Has any overarching purpose shaped its development through the millennia of its existence? Am I, a human, no more important in the vast scheme of things than a rat or a worm? Does this city in which I live have any more value than a hill of ants? Does my life as an individual have any meaning at all? Or, to use a more modern assessment, am I "nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism powered by a combustion system which energizes computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information?" Am I to be plunged into despair because I am confronted with a world in which there is so much evil, so much savagery and so much chaos, and so little love and order because I find no meaning at all in it? 

It is when we come to deal with the ultimate meaning of life that scientists, whether they accept this or not, have no advantage over the rest of us. When it comes to ultimate meanings, all of us, geneticist and fisherman, anthropologist and illiterate, are faced with the necessity of exercising an option. No person can give the answer for another person. No one can prove that her/his answer is the correct one. All have to make an intensely personal decision about whether our lives have any meaning at all. If we conclude that they do, we have to choose the meaning to which we commit ourselves. It is precisely here, in my opinion, that Genesis and the other books of the Bible have something to say to us.

Two Important Considerations

Before proceeding any further I would like to make two points. The first is, I believe, of great importance. Divine inspiration, whatever it may mean, does not enable the writers of scripture to rise above what was generally known about their world and their place in it. The writer of Genesis held the same cosmological, anthropological, and geological views of the other people of his time. As was true of others of his [10] day, he believed that the sun was moving across the sky and was totally ignorant of the fact that the earth was rotating and that day and night were produced by this rotation. He believed the earth was flat and the heavens were above that flat earth. He knew nothing about the causes of diseases, nor did he know how to treat them. His concept of the size of the universe was very narrow, and he was totally ignorant of the people that inhabited lands around the globe. What he did know was very limited, very provincial, and very unscientific. Although Paul's knowledge of the world, informed as it was by the Roman Empire, was greater, the same may also be said of him, the author of the first gospel, and all the others who produced the books of the Bible. 

The second point is also very important in my opinion. The ability of people to find genuine meaning in their lives is not limited by their lack of scientific knowledge. As Frankl has said, "People are capable of finding meaning in their lives irrespective of gender, age, IQ, educational background, character structure, environment, and most remarkably, also irrespective of whether or not they are religious." [11] People who have never attended school have as much capacity to discover meaning for their own lives as do the best educated people in the world. I have discovered, as you probably have, that the people who seem to know God best and are closest to God are often people whose education has been very limited. Their names come to me even as I write this-my grandmother; Mrs. Powers, a member of the first church of which I was pastor; Mrs. Jones, a member of the second church I served. They knew nothing beyond the King James Version of the Bible. They knew nothing of the history of the Jews, nor could they answer the critical introductory questions scholars raise about various books of the Bible. Their perspective was very similar to that of the author of Genesis and the others who contributed writings to our Bible. They were totally innocent of any scientific knowledge. Furthermore, they were never troubled by the questions about the past raised by historical criticism. Intellectually I knew a great deal more than they. They taught me so much, however, about faith, love, and generosity. 

There is no question but that the author of Genesis had discovered an ultimate meaning for his life. That conviction is expressed in the very first phrase of the book, "In the beginning God . . . ." You will notice that, unlike the Greeks, he made no apparent attempt to prove the existence of God. That was as it should be for all attempts to prove that God exists, pace Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, are doomed to failure, as are all attempts to prove that God does not exist. [12] When we talk about ultimate meanings, we have moved into the realm of faith. The atheist and I can talk all day long. She can give me her reasons for not being able to believe that God exists. I can counter with my reasons for believing that God does exist. In the end, however, if we are in touch with reality, we have to use verb "believe." She can say that she does not believe because she cannot prove that her opinion is right, and my only response is that I do believe. I also cannot prove that my believe is correct. Ultimate meanings are always an expression of faith.

The first person to declare that he/she believed God was there at the beginning of this created universe had to take a leap of faith. To believe that the universe has been shaped by God's involvement in it also requires a leap of faith. The author of Genesis did not enjoy any advantage over me in that respect. If he did, God has not played fair with me. The author of Hebrews said it right when he declared, "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God." No one has ever really uttered the phrase found at the beginning of Genesis on the basis of irrefutable proof. That was true of the person who wrote Genesis, and it is true of me.

The Meaning of "God"

The author of Genesis went to the highest level to discover the ultimate meaning of his life. He believed that there was meaning and purpose in his world, a belief that was founded on his faith in the God who was there when it began. He also believed that his own existence was a part of God's great design. In fact he believed human life is the ultimate expression of God's creative work. People, he declared, were created in the image of God. 

In order to decide exactly how belief in God affected his life, however, the author had to come to some conclusions as to what he meant when he said, "God." What kind of God was he talking about? The book of Genesis gives us some clues about the way the writer might answer the question about the meaning of his life. First, and of great importance, he believed that God had created human beings to be free. In giving humans this freedom, God had taken an enormous risk. Human beings were forced to exercise an option. One option could be to live their lives in relation to God. On the other hand, they could choose to declare their independence from God, to push out on their own and order their lives according to their own values, doing what they chose to do. According to the story in Genesis three, humans chose the second option. They declared themselves independent of God. 

In the stories about people who took the path of disobedience, Genesis illustrates vividly the writer's belief that life apart from God was disastrous. He was also convinced, however, that human sin had not driven God out of the created world. As seen in the stories about Abraham, he understood that God was involved in dealing with the alienation and hate that characterized the world that did not know God. It was God's purpose to create a people who loved and served their Creator and were committed to living in community, bound together by their relationship to God.


The author of Genesis was neither a scientist nor a historian. He was a person of faith who had had an experience of God and wrote about his experience in ways that were available to him. Hearing him speak through this book across thousands of years, I have the deep feeling that we are brothers in the faith. I take my stand with the author of Genesis and share the conviction that he expressed when he said, "In the beginning God." Give me that, and I am happy to turn the investigation of this universe over to the scientists. As they describe this emerging universe, however, I am convinced that the shape it takes is the result of the presence of God who is intimately involved in the process. 

For some reason, I have always understood that faith goes beyond facts and that facts cannot destroy faith. If what people call faith can be destroyed by anything that science discovers, it is really an absurdity. Faith is essential for us to find the ultimate meaning of our lives. This is because ultimate meaning lies outside the realm of the provable. 

I know that there are many other honest, intelligent people, who simply cannot believe in God. Sometimes this is because of their own personal experiences that have left them with the conclusion that the evil with which they had been afflicted would have been impossible if a good  God really existed. According to some studies, one fourth of the people who had suffered through the holocaust could no longer believe in God. I am aware that fundamentalist Christians would consign those people to a future in hell because of their unbelief. I am convinced, however, that the God I believe in understands the reason for their doubt and is more sympathetic than many Christians. 

Others cannot believe in God because of intellectual difficulties. I have no doubt that Sartre is expressing what he understands to be true when he takes the position that we are abandoned and strictly on our own in this life. In this connection he wrote: "Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth." [13] He believes that the only option available to us is to face that realization with courage.

I believe in God, knowing that I may be wrong. I don't think I am, but I cannot prove that what I believe is true. That, however, simply means that my faith is truly faith. Genuine faith can never rest on what can be proven. I know that two plus two equal four. That has been proven. There can be no doubt about it. When I accept that, I am not exercising faith. The same cannot be said about the conviction that there is a good God whose eternal, overarching purpose has been at work in the universe since its beginning. People can and do marshal evidence that leads them to the opposite conclusion.

Furthermore, and this is very important, I believe that the ultimate revelation of God to humankind is found in the person of Jesus. My theology is based on the belief that God is Christlike. [14] This means that I believe in a God of grace and love. Also, the only service that I can render to God is to become an instrument of that love by serving my fellow human beings in whatever way is open to me. That is where I find life's ultimate meaning. Albert Schweitzer and I have different theological positions; nevertheless I agree with him when he said, "The only ones among you who will really be happy are those who have sought and found how to serve." [15] I do not agree with the theology of Mother Theresa. In truth a discussion of our theological differences would fill a book. [16] I could enumerate a host of issues where we would disagree. She had the main thing right, however. She saw the face of Jesus in the emaciated, hollow-eyed countenances of the multitude of abandoned, hopelessly sick people to whom she ministered. She genuinely believed the statement of Jesus, "As you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me." Many rational people in the world would have rejected the kind of life she chose. They would argue that she wasted her time because the miserable people to whom she gave herself faced a bleak, hopeless future. There is no question, however, but that she found tremendous meaning in her life. People, like these, who have found through their faith a purpose for their lives that transcends their own selfish concerns discover that their lives are very much worth living. Their lives have "ultimate meaning."