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God’s Conjuring Trick

Artists through the centuries have used a strategic positioning of body limbs or shrubbery to avoid a shameful display of genitalia when depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Yet most have thought nothing of displaying a body part that arguably shouldn’t be there at all. A case in point is Titian’s painting entitled “Adam and Eve” (circa 1550), which shows a guileless Eve reaching for forbidden fruit as her equally clueless consort looks on. Both are naked. Foliage is strategically draped over their unmentionables, but their navels are displayed. There’s nothing inherently shameful about a navel, of course. But as creatures made in God’s image who were not born in the usual sense, they presumably had no need of an umbilical cord and therefore would have had no navel.

This might seem like a trivial point, except that it looms large when you try to apply a literal reading to the biblical creation story. As with most long-simmering controversies of this type, there are various schools of thought on the subject. So-called Pre-Umbilicism holds that Adam and Eve were created with navels, perhaps because they were connected to God by some sort of cosmic umbilical cord. Mid-Umbilicists believe Adam acquired a navel when God took his rib to make Eve, leaving an exit wound. As for Eve, she remained without a navel. Post-Umbilicists maintain that Adam and Eve began life without navels but acquired them after eating the forbidden fruit and being banished from the Garden of Eden. Most creationists today share the view that Adam and Eve had no navels.

The question of Adam’s navel – or lack thereof – only became an issue after geological findings in the mid-19th century began to challenge the traditional biblical view that the earth was 6,000 years old. The leading geologist of the time was Charles Lyell, who argued that past changes to the earth were the result of the same incremental geological processes at work in the present day, which meant that the earth had to be far older than previously thought. Lyell disputed the idea that a single global catastrophe, such as Noah’s flood, could account for certain geological formations, including fossils of extinct species.

Until Lyell, it was still possible even for leading scientists to believe that the Bible and the “book of nature” told essentially the same story about creation. Henceforth, you could not embrace one without concluding the other was wrong. The naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, a member of the Royal Society, tried to bridge the gap with a work that was roundly scorned by all sides. Entitled Omphalos, from the Greek word for navel, Gosse’s tome was published in 1857, two years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Gosse argued it was not possible for God to bring a world into being without signs of prior development – not just navels but also fingernails, bones, hair and teeth, as well as growth rings on trees and geological formations. For religious types, the clear implication was that God had perpetrated an enormous fraud by creating a world that appeared to be old but was actually brand new. The scientific community, meanwhile, did not respond favorably to the notion that the natural world was nothing more than an elaborate conjuring trick. Gosse himself conceded that by the terms of his argument God might just as easily have created the world five minutes ago as 6,000 years earlier.

His line of reasoning was preposterous on its face and had already been forgotten by the time Darwin introduced his theory of evolution two years later, thereby changing the terms of the debate forever. Notwithstanding a noisy dissent from religious fundamentalists, the scientific view of creation has prevailed, even though physicists have long since ventured into realms that are far stranger than anything Gosse proposed. The tools of quantum physics are generally applied to the subatomic realm but the principles are universal and challenge every common-sense understanding we have about reality. According to quantum theory, the fundamental particles of matter remain in an indeterminate state until they are observed, at which point there is a “wave-function collapse” that causes them to assume a particular state. This act of observation works its magic both forward and backward in time, meaning it not only determines the current state but every prior state back to the beginning of the universe. There is, it would seem, an element of instant history here that might have come in handy when Gosse was trying to explain why Adam sported a navel when he had never been born.

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