Commentary - The voice from the whirlwind

Henry Sheenemerges from a thicket of hard science holding the Old Testament

If the history of science tells us anything, it is that scientific theories will inevitably be superseded by other more successful theories, despite the wide acceptance and religious following they enjoy at a certain time. The important point is whether science can actually progress towards an end, can produce a theory that is infallible and conclusive, or whether it simply becomes more and more successful, and the end to which it hopes to progress is simply an horizon to which it will ever sail. Experience indicates the latter, although the end of science must always remain a possibility.

It is for this reason that the boasts of messianic scientists - to be reaching an end - are to be treated with scepticism. There is a sense of having been here before: the fervour of determinism that followed the apparent certainties of Newtonian physics during the Enlightenment has subsided now that space and time are no longer considered absolutes. And yet, our lives and our thoughts are bound by the straitjacket of space and time. We cannot live our lives otherwise; and language is the stuff out of which all our thoughts are made.

It must be pointed out, repeatedly, that the God of the Old Testament is one that surpasses human understanding. It is absurd to ask questions such as: what time does God get up? What colour is His hair? Does He wear glasses? Similarly, it is absurd to take as literal biblical commonplaces such as God sees, hears, knows everything - or that he really looks like the guy in the Sistine Chapel. We do not infer from this that He has eyes, ears and a mammalian brain.

The Old Testament must offer a God in terms that make Him accessible to the human mind, and accordingly attributes characteristics that must be understood as metaphors: the account of creation in Genesis would hardly have made sense in the millennium before Christ if given in the language of nuclear physics; the voice that thunders out of the whirlwind to Job is not one that depends on the vibration of the vocal chords in the divine larynx; but it is a way of showing communication from God to man.

The undermining of literal truths in the Old Testament does not entail the undermining of its teaching: the story of Job may or may not be true, but it remains the most stark and brazen attempt to understand misfortune and evil as part of divine creation. An appreciation of Hamlet, Macbeth or The Tempest does not hinge on a literal belief in ghosts, witches or the powers of magic. Yet I have never heard anyone denounce any of these plays on grounds of scepticism. Should we not extend the same common sense to the books of the Old Testament?

Literal interpretation is now in the hands of fundamentalists, such as Jehovah's Witnesses; and they can keep it. The Old Testament, though, still retains its position as the most direct and thrilling account of almost every conceivable human situation: Tennyson called the Book of Job "the greatest poem whether of ancient or of modern times", and the personal justification and challenge of Job against God must be the most startling confrontation ever written; the Song of Solomon is the most extraordinary paean of love; Ecclesiastes, wearied but astonishing - "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun"- confronts the poignant transience of our lives and our actions. The believer despairs of ever knowing God's ways, yet belief in God is the foundation for the believer's life. Dilemmas such as these are timeless: the distinction between the knowable world and the unknowable world will always remain. Electron microscopy may enable us to see things we could only have imagined 100 years ago, but the point is that we still see them as space-occupying and existing in time. And even if we evolved to see things in 12 dimensions rather than four, we would still be no nearer to a sight of a God who exists outside of any dimension.

The problems of science are one thing; the problems of religion and philosophy quite another. Whereas Ptolemaic astronomy has been shown by empirical observation to be false, nothing of the kind will ever happen to Aristotle's moral philosophy. It may pass in and out of fashion, but can never be falsified. And so it is with the books of the Old Testament. They deal directly with all the significant questions concerning the way we lead our lives; why we should bother to lead our lives, why we should select one moral code above another, and so on. These questions cannot go away, though they can be temporarily forgotten. As Alvaro de Campos (a heteronym of Fernando Pessoa) writes: "I enjoy in a suitable and sensitive moment/My release from any kind of speculation/As I realise that metaphysics comes from feeling ill." Perhaps this is the heart of the matter: the Old Testament raises shocking and difficult questions that indeed make us feel ill. To forget such questions is, as de Campos admits, to live with "no ideals or hopes", a condition which is surely as intolerable for us as it was for Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family