Question: How can you not realize that religious belief up to the time of Copernicus was based on a no-longer valid, fixed Earth-centric view of the universe, in that the Earth is now known to rotate daily and to revolve around the sun, i.e., the sun does not "rise," but merely comes into view daily as the earth rotates?
Also, now the Hubble space telescope has shown us that this sun is only one of billions of suns in the known universe, meaning that Earth can't possibly be the only planet in the universe harboring life? — W., Guilford, Conn., via email@example.com
Answer: Every religious person must at some point resolve the problem of the relationship between religion and science. When the Bible was written, there was no difference between works of science and works of faith.
The Bible is a work of all the wisdom people had almost 4,000 years ago. At that time, the biblical view of the structure of the world imagined a flat earth supported by pillars that extend through water to a firm foundation. Over the earth was a clear dome with gates in it that separated the waters that were over the earth from the waters that were under the Earth. This is not true.
So what are we religious people to do about that?
One answer is to throw out everything the Bible has to say about everything. For me, this is ridiculous. The moral teachings of the Bible about the sanctity of life and about not murdering or stealing and about giving to the poor and about forgiveness are as valid today as they were four millennia ago.
They are answers to the question of how we ought to live in the world. Questions about what is in the world or how the world is constructed are another matter entirely and do not in any way alter my belief that the Bible is the word of God.
I don't feel compelled to endorse biblical science in order to love biblical morality. In fact, I believe God wanted us to learn more and more over time about how the world works.
The late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould called science and religion, "Non-overlapping magesteria."
He said, "Science tells us how the heavens look and religion tells us how to get to heaven."
These are two separate and non-overlapping domains of human thought and they ought not be in conflict.
Sometimes, people of faith who claim that religious people must believe that biblical science is true breach the boundary. In my view, they make religion impossible for thinking people to endorse.
On the other hand, there are scientists who breach the boundary by claiming that our morality is just the result of genetic evolution. They make our sanctity and human uniqueness evaporate in a purely materialistic world.
The right path is to be open to science and to be vigilant about the boundary line between science and our life of virtue and faith. If God did not want this, God would not have given us brains. Somewhere between scientific curiosity and spiritual kindness there is a life to live and a world to both admire and heal.
My favorite biblical passage referring to the pillars of the earth is from I Samuel 2:8: "He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and he hath set the world upon them."
For those, like me who believe that in deep and mysterious ways, the Bible is indeed the word of God, this passage is perfect.
The pillars of the earth are not physical pillars, they are moral pillars and our treatment of the poor and beggar will actually determine if the earth is sustained or collapses under the weight of greed and indifference.
Q: I study world religion and theology. I know burnt sacrifices were a big part of the Hebrew religious tradition and I know why we Christians no longer make them (because we believe Jesus was the last and only necessary sacrifice), but do Jews still practice burnt sacrifices? And if not, why not? — A., Buffalo, NY, via firstname.lastname@example.org
A: Most of the biblical sacrifices were not of animals but small barley cakes mixed with oil and incense that were burned up in large fire pans. The animal sacrifices also provided sustenance for the priests and their families.
When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 by the Romans, the rabbis who took over Judaism (and early Christianity) after the priests, transformed each sacrifice into a prayer in the prayer book. If the Temple is ever rebuilt, the sacrificial offerings will have to be brought again, but don't hold your breath and don't go collect your cows!
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