Look at the cover of this issue of our journal and answer the question that titles this essay with a single word. Was the single word that you thought of the word mountain? Was the word beautiful? Was the word limestone? Was the word bird? Was the word grouse? In reality, all of those words apply. Some of our readers will be wondering where the grouse (which is a bird) is in the picture. Look carefully on the ground to the right and you can see the bird sitting on the edge of the rock cliff, waiting to see if I was going to move one more inch toward it The picture was taken in Montana at a place called Storm Castle Mountain near Bozeman. I was on a geology field trip, and we were climbing the face of an ancient reef made of rock, and I was the first person to reach the top. A good friend of mine named Will Roberts was right behind me. I froze when I saw the grouse and took this picture and Will nearly ran over me. "What are you stopping for?" he said; "We're almost to the top." "Look up there and tell me what you see," I countered. "I see fossilized coral?' Will replied. "What else?" I asked. " bunch of pelecypods?' Will answered. "No, not the rocks," I replied-"something else." Will looked at the beautiful view and the mountain range in the distance and said, "O.K, so there's more Montana mountain grandeur. I still don't think it is nearly as pretty as..." About that time, the grouse took off with a sound that was not only loud, but appeared to be coming right at us. We both ducked as the bird flew away from us into the beautiful sunlit day that we were enjoying.
A long discussion developed from that experience. Why was it that Will was seeing only fossils and rocks, which is what we had climbed up the mountain to see while I saw sky, birds, and everything else? The answer is that he was a better student than I was. He was focused on what we were supposed to be doing and was paying attention to what we were supposed to be understanding. I am always looking for the unusual and more bizarre kinds of things in life and rarely stay with one thing long enough to get into the nit-picky details about how it works. Will is an artist; I am a teacher of teen-agers. Will deals with things that require detail and careful examination; I deal with erratic groups of students who want constant change and newness in everything they see. We are different in many ways, so we see things differently even when we look at the same thing. I see things that Will misses, and Will sees things that I miss.
I would suggest to you that the same thing happens when we read the Bible. You and I can read the same passage of Scripture, and while we both will get the basic thrust of what the passage is saying, we will not necessarily see the same applications or the same implications. The problem is not in the passage any more than the problem was in the grouse. It is the duty of the observer to work at refining his or her observational and cognitive skills to gain the maximum advantage out of what they are reading or observing.
I am always amazed at the incredible range of understandings that you hear coming from people as they read the Genesis account. I have had literary friends who have described what a beautiful piece of literature this is. I have had friends trained in anthropology talk about what a striking contrast there is between this approach and other ancient discussions of creation. I have had theologically-trained people talk about what a unique spiritual approach the book conveys. I have had atheist friends who attack the material as a demonstration of ancient superstition and myth. I personally see the passage as incredibly accurate in what scientific detail it presents, but I am frustrated by what it does not attempt to explain. All of these approaches are a reflection of the experience of the person doing the interpreting. All of them have at least some areas where understanding is lost by the bias of the person doing the interpreting.
The school system in which I teach is immersed in an attempt to promote diversity within the teaching and student populations. Over the past several years, teachers have been put through numerous workshops to help us understand how the social and ethnic backgrounds of our students impact their abilities to function in the school and how learning styles vary with culture and experience. Those of us who have been teaching for a long time (37 years in my case) already are keenly aware of this. When you have a class made up of Afro-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and large Polish-, Hungarian-, Romanian-, and Greek-American populations, you find that not all kids learn in the sane way or at the same rate. It is important to listen to the kids and find out what they say, believe, feel, and understand about an experience or discussion. I have frequently come to understand a concept better by carefully trying to understand how my students or even fellow-teachers interpret things.
I have had same extremists in both the atheist and in the religious camp proudly state that they have never changed their views or understandings of anything--apparently believing that this is a demonstration that they have the truth. Many times in the Bible, great religious leaders came to a better understanding by their interaction with others. The classic example of this is seen in Acts 18:24-28 where a man was preaching the baptism of John instead of the baptism for the remission of sins. The Bible says that "they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly" (verse 26). Understand that your beliefs are frequently influenced by parents, ministers, schooling, and countless other influences. We will never understand "the way of God more perfectly" if we do not ask, "What do I see" with all teachings from the Word of God.
John N. ClaytonBack to Contents Does God Exist?, January/February 1996