Biologist Ken Miller weighs in on scripture, literalism and the Bible’s ‘sexy love poem’

Dr. Kenneth Miller (public domain)

In December 2009, I conducted an interview with cellular and molecular biologist Kenneth R. Miller, who was both then and now a biology professor at Brown University. The interview was for a feature in a Christian magazine exploring the possible reconciliation of the scientific consensus on evolution with an uncompromised biblical faith. I thought that, as an evolutionary biologist and opponent of creationism and intelligent design, as well as a Roman Catholic and theist, Dr. Miller was more qualified than most to speak to the issue.

I would be delighted to be able to say that, after three and a half years, the debate has progressed such that his comments no longer apply, but unfortunately that is not the case. And so, with Dr. Miller’s permission, I am reprinting our interview in several parts.

Part 4 | Dr. Ken Miller, on his views of the nature of scripture and morality.

Me: Dr. Miller, you’ve acknowledged that people can and do read scripture in many different ways. What is your view of the Bible?

Ken Miller: I’m always amazed at how uninformed many Christians are about what the Bible is. The Bible is not a book, it is a library, which has been added to, taken away from and gradually assembled over the years.

If you were to visit an early Christian community in Greece, Israel or Rome and ask them for a Bible, they would have no idea what you’re talking about. It didn’t exist. The letters of Paul existed, and many of the other epistles were beginning to be circulated. There were books from the Jewish tradition and other writings. But the Bible itself simply did not exist, until about three- or four-hundred years after the birth of Christ when it was assembled in its present form.

It is naive to think that this library that was consciously assembled by fallible human beings somehow, from word to word, represents words that literally came out of the mouth of God. It doesn’t. What it does represent are the best efforts of the authors to explain their experiences with God and the person they and I believe to be the savior of the world, namely Jesus. Every single book of the Bible has its own authorship, history and is subject to its own interpretation.

When people tell me that the Bible has to be literally true, I’m always fond of quoting one of the psalms, in which the psalmist says, ‘O Lord, thou art my rock and my fortress.’ I like to ask the literalists, what kind of rock is God? Is he sedimentary, metamorphic or igneous? The other person usually gets mad at me, because they know that what the psalmist is doing is comparing God’s constancy and his staying power to that of a rock. In other words, it’s not literal!

The psalms are poetry in which the writers are trying to express their own conceptions of God. The book of Job is one of the greatest meditations on the nature of good and evil. The Song of Solomon is a love poem, and a pretty sexy one at that. I don’t have to think that these things actually happened in order to understand that the author of Job was divinely inspired and trying to answer the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Genesis was obviously not written at the beginning of time. Many Bible scholars think Genesis was written during the Babylonian captivity, and what Genesis shows is the differences between the conception of the gods held by their Babylonian captors and the Hebrew conception of God, which is that creation is all good, that we exist because a loving, kind, merciful God wanted us to exist, and that to find the sources of evil in the world, we should just look in the mirror, which is to say that it is humankind’s rejection of God’s plan and God’s law that causes suffering.

Saint Augustine said that Christians who interpret Genesis as scientific history leave themselves open to nonbelievers who say ‘the stars are not like that,’ ‘animals are not like that,’ who will then reject the real message of Scripture — which in Augustine’s view and mine, too — is salvation.

So how do I understand the Bible? It depends on the book.

Me: Do you think the gospels are historical accounts?

KM: Of course I do because, to be a Christian, I need to accept the reality and, indeed, the divinity of Jesus Christ, which I certainly do. But that does not mean that every book that was placed into that collection has the same sort of firsthand account or testimony.

Me: How do you reconcile the findings of modern science with your understanding of the Bible?

KM: My friend Francis Collins is fond of saying, ‘If two views are not in conflict, they don’t need to be reconciled.’ I don’t feel as though I have to reconcile science and faith. I think these ideas are harmonious rather than being in conflict.

Me: Do you think our morality evolved, or was it a gift given at one time by God?

KM: The whole field of evolutionary psychology is predicated on the idea that you can understand a lot of human activity by realizing that evolution has shaped our patterns of behavior, which it surely has. If that’s true, then evolution also shaped our moral sense. And not only do I have no problem with that, I find it quite persuasive.

If evolution shaped it, does that mean God had nothing to do with it? Think again. Remember, evolution is a natural process and God is the author of nature, therefore, this is a process happening within God’s providential plan. And if you can understand that God used the process of evolution to shape our bodies, which is surely how our bodies came to be, then why would the same God not use the evolutionary process to shape our minds and our morality?

So I find it consistent and satisfying to accept that our moral sense was also shaped by the evolutionary process. That does not mean you think rape and murder are bad things because evolution wanted you to — they are bad things intrinsically and what evolution gave you is the mental capabilities to understand that.

This marks the final installment of our interview. If you’re just joining us, please see part 1, part 2 and part 3.

  • DarkX Studios

    I really like this. You and Kenneth miller have actually just helped me a bit. I have been in a big huge war between Evolution or not. I believe in Old Earth Creationism, but am at war whether to be an Evolutionary Creationist or not. My Stepdad was trying to tell me how evolution doesn’t fit the Bible, by saying like the “reason our bodies turn to dust when we die is because Adam was literally made out of Dust and not through Evolution.” How would you explain this?

    • Matthew Funke

      Why did Adam have to literally be made out of dust? (Some suggest that “dust” and “rib” are not literal at all, but descriptive of relationship.) One might ask, if “dust” is meant to be understood literally, why it is that man shows no evidence of being similar to dust after his creation, in spite of God saying (in Genesis 3:19, emphasis mine), “Dust you are…”, in the present tense?

      For that matter, why does this verse (Genesis 2:7) have to describe God acting in creation within a relatively small time span? (Some see “dust” as being used in an elemental sense, describing the mundane materials out of which man is created and to which he will return.)

      • DarkX Studios

        That makes a lot of sense. Thank you! What would dust and rib mean in terms of relationship?

        • Matthew Funke

          Well, Matthew Henry (a Bible commentator most Evangelicals can get on board with) opined that Eve was made from Adam’s rib because it came from his side — not from his head to lord over him or his foot to be trampled by him, but from under his arm (for protection) and close to his heart.

          It’s also been observed that the word translated “rib” is unclear; some scholars of Old Testament manuscripts (e.g,. Ziony Zevit) have opined that the passage refers to Adam’s penis. Make of that what you will. (This, he maintains, is why the human penis has no baculum, a bone found in the penis of other animals.)

          If we take “dust” as referring to something mortal made of mundane matter, man being made of the stuff may be a way (especially in the context of creation) to highlight the difference between man and God. (It’s useful to point out that “adam” is a word that refers to mankind generally in Biblical Hebrew — a meaning that isn’t really reflected in our English Bibles.)

          So maybe “dust” and “rib” are words of relationship — man’s relationship to God, and man’s relationship to woman. Of course, it’s possible that there are other meanings as well. This text is seriously old, and there are a fair number of literary symbols used back then that we don’t know or understand very well.

          • DarkX Studios

            Alright. Thanks man, that helps some 🙂