Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Bishop Barron on Genesis

Exquisite theological poetry.

I've been quite critical of Bishop Robert Barron - the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles - a number of times before. If you're in the mood for punishment, see here and here.

Okay, also see here, here and here.

For the record, relative to many members of the extended Francis Junta, I don't think Barron is evil.

Rather, he is simply an incredibly annoying blatheramus.

More to the point, for all his faux-intellectualism, many of his arguments and views, far from being particularly profound or deep are merely shallow and silly.

Below is a transcript (I believe the first actual transcript) of a well-known YouTube video of Barron discussing the Book of Genesis. You may have seen it or heard of it, or you may have seen other videos of Barron making the same points.

Now, most people when they read Genesis (this is still me writing, we'll get to Barron's transcript in a moment) view it as in part a collection of stories. We start with the creation of the world including the creation of the first man from the dust of the earth and the creation of the first woman from his side. Then there is the Fall and man's exile from the Garden. Adam and Eve bear children, but their oldest son Cain commits the first murder and thereby receives a "mark." Years later, man's wickedness prompts God to send a Flood to destroy all the earth's creatures save a few members of the same family and a selection of animals given refuge in an ark whose exact dimensions are given in cubits. Soon after its narrow escape from that, humanity tempts God again by attempting to build a tower to the sky. God responds by creating the first foreign languages and scattering the newly confused peoples across the face of the earth. Then we meet Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael. There is a Covenant. We hear of Mesopotamia, Canaan, Egypt and many other places and peoples. Next there is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where these cities are destroyed and Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt. Abraham's son Isaac is almost sacrificed. At the end of the Book, we learn of Jacob, Joseph and the beginnings of the Jews' slavery in Egypt.

I've left a few things out. There are of course angels and other mysterious beings who come and go. Also people often seem to live an extremely long time. We learn this in part through three genealogies that track individuals and nations over many generations going back to Adam.

It's natural for readers to interpret Genesis as making certain claims about things that happened thousands of years ago. To that extent, much of Genesis is history, or at least purports to be. Or at least appears to purport to be.

It's also of course natural for cynical moderns (I'm one of them) to ask whether any of this history, including people coming from ribs, and floods and arks, and angels and giants, and God nuking entire habitations of unwelcoming rapists is true.

But Barron rejects that. According to Barron, not only does Genesis not relate actual history, it doesn't even intend to. Instead it's sort of an extended allegorical poem.

Here is the actual video:

And here is the transcript:        
You know, I'm continually amazed how often in my work of evangelization the problem of Genesis comes up. What I mean is people that are just balking over what seems to be the bad science on display in the book of Genesis. They say, look how can you possibly make sense of this text that says God made the world in six days, all the species came into being, you know, roughly at the same time, that light existed before the sun and moon. I mean, come on, how do you square this very naive mythological cosmology with the subtle work of Newton and Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Genesis is just bad science. Who can take it seriously today? 
Well, here's a way to get at it. When looking at the Bible - and Vatican 2 is real clear on this - you've got to be sensitive to genre. What kind of text are we dealing with? See, people make mistakes about that all the time. It would be, it would be a mistake to look at Moby Dick and expect it to be a 19th century history, a mistake to look at T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and expect it to be a spy novel. You have to know what kind of text you're dealing with. 
So, what is Genesis? If I can borrow a page from father George Coyne, the great Jesuit priest and astrophysicist, he said, look, modern science commences in the late 16th, early 17th century with Galileo and Descartes and Pascal and company. The last biblical book is written around the Year 100 A.D. There's just no way that the Bible is modern science. Modern science didn't exist yet. So whatever is going on in the Bible, it's not what we mean by modern science. What Newton and Stephen Hawking and Einstein and company were doing is just simply not what the biblical authors are doing. Newton and company are following the ideas and principles of modern science, namely to observe, to form hypotheses, to test them with experimentation, draw conclusions, etc. Okay, so don't look at Genesis as bad science. That's like looking at The Wasteland as a bad spy novel. It's not a spy novel at all. Genesis is not science at all. 
So what is it? I would call it theology, mysticism, spirituality. It's a theological reflection on the origin of all things. 
So, what are some of the insights we gain once we get this genre issue clear? Well, there are many, many. Genesis is so rich and so multivalent. I'll just pick out a couple. 
Here's the first one. God makes the whole world. Now translate this, philosophically, if you want, into the non-contingent ground of contingency gives rise to all things. Even here and now. So creation is happening now. Genesis is talking theologically about something that's happening even now. God is giving rise to the world. How? How - through a nonviolent act of speech. God says "let there be light," and there's light. God says "let the earth come forth," and it comes forth. In almost all the mythologies of the ancient world, all the ancient cosmologies, the world comes forth in a great act of violence. God or the gods battle with some opponent. They wrestle a rival into submission, and in that act order ensues. By the way, notice how that myth is very prevalent even to this day. We still tend to believe that order comes through violence, through the conquest of a rival. There's none of that, though, in Genesis. God brings forth the world not through violence, not through conquest, but through a sheerly generous nonviolent act of speech. Link it now, if you want, to the great ethical teachings of Jesus, about the love of enemies, about non-violence. What he's recommending is not just a more correct ethical path. He's recommending to fall into line with the deepest grain of the universe - that God makes the world through non-violent love. There's a first theological theme in Genesis. 
Here's a second one. People of that time, the time the Bible was written, worshiped all kinds of gods, right? Some worshiped the stars. Some worshiped the moon. Some worshipped the Sun. Some worshipped animals, right? All these different features of creation were worshipped as gods. Now, what does the author of Genesis say? God created the heavens and the earth. God created the stars. God created the planets and the moon and the sun. God created all the animals. You see what he's doing, is he is dethroning all these false claimants to divinity. He's saying none of these is in fact God. But they all come from God and they bear witness to God. But he's enunciating, if you want, a great anti-idolatry principle. Nothing in this world is God. The true God is the creator of all things. 
Relevant message today? You bet. I mean, we worship all kinds of things, you know, from pleasure, to money, to power etc. No, no. God makes all those things. They're all under the aegis of God, but they're not to be worshipped. It's a second theological point. 
Here's a third one, and again I could pick many, many, it's such a rich text. Adam - now don't read it literally, we're not talking about a literal figure, we're talking in theological poetry - Adam, the first human being, names all the animals. He catalogues them. Kata logon in the Greek means "according to the word." God has imbued all things with intelligibility. Adam, noticing the intelligibility, names them, gives them their proper title. Who is he? The Church Fathers, read him as the first scientist. He's the first philosopher. He's the human being in his proper role as the steward of creation, and the one who names and orders all things according to God's creative intention. This is the great humanism that's implicit in Genesis: eat of all the trees, right, we hear. The Church Fathers said that's the great permission of Genesis. Adam and Eve, who are kind of at play in the field of the Lord, that stands for science, for art for politics, for conversation, for friendship -  all these forms of human flourishing under the lordship of God. Genesis is a great humanistic text. 
Now, those are three insights I could garner many many more. Read great commentators on Genesis. Read the great spiritual and theological interpreters of it. Get over the problem of Genesis as bad science. It's not bad science. It's not science at all. Rather, it is exquisite theology.
For the record, relative to the long sweep of interpretive history, this is a very modern view. While a small minority of Fathers and Doctors of the Church made or entertained claims that a few portions of Genesis were merely figurative, no Catholic theologians until quite recently would have endorsed the thesis that the whole thing was merely figurative.

Though Barron doesn't acknowledge it, if this view of Biblical interpretation is correct, Catholics and Christians got the first part of the Bible wrong for close to 2,000 years.

What is Barron's argument for the view? On the surface, frankly, it's inane. He begins with the straw man that some have viewed Genesis as some sort of science textbook. Then "modern science" is tautologically defined as beginning 450 or so years ago. Thus, since Genesis was written 2,000 years ago (it was traditionally dated to more than 3,000 years ago), its genre is not history or quasi-history but "theology, mysticism, spirituality."

Thucydides came before Newton. Thus, the History of the Peloponnesian War is mysticism.

Wait, what?

As far as I can tell, Barron never explicitly denies that Genesis is history, Rather, he denies that it's science or "modern science." But what he really means is that it's not history. This kind of dishonest bait and switch is par for the course for the new evangelist. 

But let's move on. Barron wants to take our history away. But what does he wish to replace it with? Genesis isn't (according to Barron) telling us about actual events. What is it telling us?

1) Non-violence is (in some sense) the way of the universe.

Given the actual text, this claim is more than silly. It's insane. Non-violence? Genesis states that the first naturally born human being was a murderer. After that, killing - by human beings and God - seems to appear on almost every page. Indeed, the violence reaches such a point that God decides to kill everyone (by drowning) except for eight lucky people. He also kills almost all the animals.

Did all this actually happen? Perhaps not. An alternative account (presumably endorsed by Barron) is that for more than a billion years, the engine of God's creation was the "survival of the fittest," with trillions of creatures killing other creatures in a violent and deadly struggle for resources. And to emphasize, they didn't just do this on their own. Rather, God set the whole bloody mechanism up as his preferred method of creation. Xenocidal meteor strikes also occur with regularity.

Do not misunderstand my point. I'm not claiming here that God endorses violence per se in Genesis or anywhere else. He'd have a bit more to say about that in Exodus of course. But using Genesis to, as it were, find Gandhi in "every grain of the universe" is an insult to hidden meanings.

If you've read some of his other writings, you would know that Barron very much likes (and wants you very much to know that he very much likes) Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But still.    

Finally, and not to rub it in, it's just not true to assert that all alternative religious creation stories feature violence as an essential component. I know a bit about this. It just isn't and they don't. Indeed, that's an insult to other religions that Barron, an arch-ecumenist, should be ashamed of. Actually, many creation stories, including one that was quite popular in the ancient middle-east, use sex. (I wonder why, the cynic might rhetorically ask.) The Chinese even have a rooster.

Exquisite. Theological. Poetry.

2) The moon is not God. Etc.

32,000 words to say that? Exquisite.

3) Adam was the first scientist.

Since, according to Barron, modern science didn't start until the Enlightenment, Adam was presumably a pre-modern scientist, which I guess means he didn't do repeatable experiments and probably put too much emphasis on Thomistic analogies.

But to be serious, since Barron does not think of Adam as a literal or historical figure, what Barron is really saying is that man or mankind was made to do science. Too bad it took him thousands of years to get past the allegory. 

Man was also apparently meant for politics, which if you think about it is pretty sick. And if Barron is implying that politics is also embedded in the deepest grain of the universe, I'm now going to get a bit violent...

4) Many, many others...

It's funny, though. In all the interviews and talks I've seen, he only mentions the above three. It's almost as if he has the lecture notes from some liberal 1980's seminary class up his sleeve. 


This is the "new evangelization."

It's also religion for idiots.

If you're wondering why atheism or quasi-atheism seems to be currently in the ascendence, you need to look no further than Barron and his like.

Or for that matter, if allegory is all there is, why not just go Pagan? At least it would be more fun.

Or to put it another way, if allegory is all there is, why not just pick the allegory (from the sacred texts of any religion) that one likes best? If Genesis merely expresses theological truth, how do we know it is the truth?

Perhaps because it was Jesus' favorite, though, according to the text, Jesus did not believe Genesis to be mere allegory.

Of course, as we'll see next, Barron appears to believe that much of the Gospels are mere allegory as well...


  1. "While a small minority of Fathers and Doctors of the Church made or entertained claims that a few portions of Genesis were merely figurative,"

    No, I don't think there were.

    If you think otherwise, feel free to enumerate that small minority on what they said.

    St Augustine entertains the thought that the termini technici "day, evening, morning" in Genesis 1 refer to:

    day = one moment in which an angel grasps one aspect of creation (which in itself, including their own, took just one moment)
    evening = angel sees or grasps the things by his apprehension of material things
    morning = angel sees the things as God's work to glorify Him.

    But he does NOT entertain that the descriptions of these days are figurative, for instance.

    1. Should I have not used the word "figurative"? I was thinking of Origen, who obviously was in some ways a weird outlier, but also of course St. Augustine. Now, as far as I can tell, he waffled somewhat within and across his different works. But if one says that by "day" one doesn't really mean "day" in terms of a standard 24-hour day, but instead a moment, or a way of perceiving an event or whatever, isn't that an example of figurative use?

    2. There is a difference between having one key word used figurative and believing a whole narrative is figurative, like the lost and found penny.

      Origen and St Augustine were indeed alone in considering the key word "day" as figurative, but not even they considered the passage as a whole as figurative.

    3. Yes. I haven't read much actual Origen (will I ever?) but as far as I can tell from secondary sources, what you say is exactly so.

    4. Oaks,
      Earth has a 24 hour day (±). The other planets have longer and shorter days. Jupiter has the shortest day at 9 hr 55 min 29.69 sec. and Venus has the longest day at 243 Earth days.

      Those who express the creation of the Universe in Earth days needs to get a new perspective.

    5. I know but I've never bought that argument. "Day" may not be literal, but if it isn't, I don't think that consideration speaks against it. I mean, since we live on Earth and we all know the length of an Earth day, why wouldn't Moses have been referring to Earth days?

      If I say it took me a day to construct a fence around my yard, are you going to tell me I must be speaking allegorically since the days on Pluto have a different length?

      Remember, too, God said he put the Sun and stars in the sky to mark the time (whose intervals, whatever we might name them, presumably already existed) not to create the time.

      What am I missing?

    6. Not much. I merely am say that the perspective of "day" may be different from our point of view. Man's limited perception of time and God's outside of time's perspective are different. And that's ok.

    7. "Man's limited perception of time and God's outside of time's perspective are different."

      God is omniscient and perfectly aware of our perspective and therefore perfectly capable of expressing what He wants to express to our satisfaction.

      If God had just been ET, something could indeed have been "lost in translation", but I am a Christian, not an adherent of Zechariah Sitchens.

      Earth days have existed since day 1, the "days" of Jupiter or Venus only exist since day 4.

    8. Yes, "God is omniscient and perfectly aware of our perspective and therefore perfectly capable of expressing what He wants to express to our satisfaction."

      But that doesn't mean that all men choose to accept it. I find no trouble with the text. I also don't have any problem with the rest of the Mysteries of our Faith.

    9. You know, someone who really looks like not accepting what God chose to express is the guy who says things like:

      "Those who express the creation of the Universe in Earth days needs to get a new perspective"

      In Moses' day there was no possibility anyone could have known of a Jupiter day or a Venus day.

      There would have been no reason to presume for anyone day meant anything other than day.

  2. "Since, according to Barron, modern science didn't start until the Enlightenment, Adam was presumably a pre-modern scientist, which I guess means he didn't do repeatable experiments and put too much emphasis on Thomistic analogies."

    To be serious, Thomists did repeatable experiments. And Adam as first scientist is in fact not Barron's own idea, but a Patristic and Scholastic one, as he said.

    Here I took on someone else than Barron

    Assorted retorts from yahoo boards and elsewhere: On Catholics Believing Evolution

    Here Coulombe agrees

    And here I take on Father Spitzer

  3. "It's almost as if he has the lecture notes from some liberal 1980's seminary class up his sleeve."

    If you've ever seen him speak on "beauty", that lecture includes his coming to Paris to study theology.

  4. Good article. Modern science today has taken God out of the equation. That began when certain Catholics and non-Catholics, even as far back as the 12th century, began depending on mathematics to prove science.

    The problem is, is that the whole idea of Creation is a theological one, since it's God's ceation. Whatever is discovered by "science" needs to be informed by theology, though Divine Revelation. Sadly, nowadays, for many people, "science" has replaced religion.

    Here's a good video that explains it better. I think the video is by Fr. Ripperger. Not sure that the link will work:


    ~M. Ray

  5. I think your criticism of Bishop Barron is a bit excessive. While the Church has taught that one can interpret Genesis as literal or figurative text, the argument that Bishop Barron "sides with the modernists" goes too far.

    Any University or seminary student of Hebrew Scripture should be able to summarize the message central to the Book of Genesis and the creation account(s).

    If I were to ask a student, "what is the most important thing a Christian can learn from Genesis chapter 1?" I would be more than a little annoyed if the response were, "God created the universe in six days."

    Genesis chapter 1 contains references to the Trinity (God, the Word, the Wind on the surface of the waters - wind and spirit being the same term in Hebrew).

    Genesis 1 also tells us that creation is essentially good. Most importantly, Genesis 1 tells us that man and woman are created in the image of God.

    You have three important, theological take aways from Genesis 1, none of which have anything to do with a literal interpretation of the text.

    This is what Bishop Barron is trying to say. Insisting that the literalism of Genesis 1 is central to the understanding of Genesis 1 is not merely poor judgment, it would undermine central tenets of the faith.

    Sometimes, sacred scripture is written in such a way that we need to understand what the story conveys, and not merely what the story "says".

    And by the way, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the Gospels are historically accurate. As Catholics, we don't mandate that Genesis 1 has to be taken literally.

    Reverend Father Justin Bianchi

    1. "While the Church has taught that one can interpret Genesis as literal or figurative text"

      But it hasn't.

      "As Catholics, we don't mandate that Genesis 1 has to be taken literally."

      As Neo-Catholics.

      "And by the way, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the Gospels are historically accurate."

      Ambiguous, since some would take it as Gospels among other things, which is perfectly correct, others would take it as Gospels but not necessarily Genesis 1, which is false and pernicious.

      "You have three important, theological take aways from Genesis 1, none of which have anything to do with a literal interpretation of the text."

      The point that creation was VERY good prior to the fall of Adam is one which is compromised (you said "essentially good" which could leave room for "perhaps not in all accidents") if one believe T Rex munched on other T Rex and on diverse other critters millions of years before Adam.

      Also, these three are somewhat less obvious than God creating all in six days, like Jews tend to miss on Holy Trinity (even experienced readers).

    2. I supposed, Rev Bianchi, you accept Genesis 12, 13 and 14 as literal history?

      Now, Genesis 13 features a Pharao which would very easily have been Narmer (a recent conqueror of a not quite stabilised country, on the lookout to not misplease supernatural factors), and in Genesis 14 you have an up to then inhabited Asason Tamar - which is En-Geddi, which was not inhabited in 2000 BC.

      This means the times of Abraham would as per carbon dating be misdated c. 1000 years or even a bit more. And this is incompatible with the uniformitarian understanding that atmosphere has had near stable c. 100 pmc for last 100 000 years.

  6. No one (including me), as far as I know, has EVER asserted that Genesis is MERELY literal. That it is figurative in that, among other things, it prefigures many future events is obvious. The argument against Barron is that asserting that it is MERELY figurative, with no, as it were, grounding in actual historical claims about real historical events is silly and incidentally counter to the virtual entirety (for the first 1800+ years at least) of Christian interpretive tradition.

  7. Yes, blatheramus. Awhile back I was looking for something Catholic to send to my kids daily that was short and orthodox. I signed up for Word on Fire hoping this would fill the bill. It didn't. The meditations were too long, too confusing, tending to explain Catholic teaching in a politically correct way. However, I did sign up daily quotes from this site:

  8. Hi Oakes,

    If you haven't seen it already, I think one of Bishop Barron biggest errors is documented here: