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April 27, 2011

Honey in the Rock; Water in the Stone; Better Wine in Stone Jars

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As Jesus entered Jerusalem a few days before his crucifixion, a large crowd of his disciples followed rejoicing, shouting loudly, and praising God. Jesus was told by the Pharisees to silence the crowd, and he replied: If they were silent, “the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40; compare Habakkuk 2:11). Is that possible? Do rock and stone possess the intrinsic potential of changing their molecular structure so as to become or do things not in their nature, which is mute object? Of course, through intense heat rock can become molten lava and true, an artist can coax a great work of art out of the silent stone—Michelangelo’s, David, for example, is a great work of art created out of the marble, but David does not speak—at least not audibly. Hmmm, stones speaking? Would that not be like a proverbial leopard changing its spots?

     Luke 19:40 is probably not a traditional saying of Jesus. It is too closely connected to the story ever to have had an independent existence—at least as Luke quotes it. And in this story the statement seems to be only a case of exaggeration for effect, rather than asserting the potentiality of rocks. In short, the character Jesus in the story is not serious about stones speaking—or is he?

     Jesus is represented as thinking that stones have the potential to become human beings (Matt 3:9) should God so choose, and the devil seemed to think that stones have the potential to become bread (Matt 4:3) should Jesus so choose. And Jesus himself is even credited with saying that stones possess the potential of becoming “servants” to the disciples of Jesus (Gospel of Thomas 19). The Apostle Thomas in a rather odd statement seemed to think stones could emit fire (Gospel of Thomas 13)—and why not? So did the writer of Judges (6:21).

     In general in the 21st century, however, people don’t think of stones as anything but inanimate objects, although in our ancient past “scientists” called alchemists believed they could actually turn stone into gold. And in the Bible stones and rocks are believed to have the potential to be and do many things and hence they are fit subjects for molecular change so as to live up to a “potential” that is out of character for rocks. Rock, for example, has the potential to produce water (Numbers 20:8-11; Nehemiah 9:15; Psalms 78:15-16, 20; 105:41; 114:8; Exodus 17:6; Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 48:21; 2 Esdras 1:20; Wisdom of Solomon 11:4), or honey (Deuteronomy 32:13; Psalm 81:16), or even oil (oil for your lamp; not your car, Job 29:6).

     In the Greek tradition Deucalion (an earlier equivalent of Noah), after the great flood subsided, disembarked from his ark, offered sacrifice to Zeus, and prayed at the shrine of Themis, asking that humankind be allowed to repopulate the earth. His prayer was granted, and accomplished when Deucalion picked up stones beside the river tossing them behind him—and the stones became human beings replacing the drowned population of the planet. In Matthew 3:9 (see also Luke 3:8), Jesus is portrayed as thinking that stones clearly have the potential to become people. To the Pharisees and Sadducees he says: “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

     The only instance in which Jesus is portrayed as manipulating molecular structure, however, is when he changed the water to wine at Cana (John 2:1-11). I suppose one could also make a case that Jesus manipulated the molecular structure of the dead son of a widow when he raised him (Luke 7:11-17)—the molecular structure of a corpse is different from a living, breathing organism. The multiplication of the loaves and fish (Mark 8:1-9), however, would have been a creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), since Jesus is credited with creating more of something that was not previously there.

     My question at the beginning of this essay was: Do rock and stone possess the intrinsic potential of molecular change? Or to put it crassly can rocks become people? The throw-away answer, no doubt, will be: “God can do whatever s/he wants.” Such an answer may work in Sunday school, but it works much less well out of the cloister in the rough and tumble secularism of the 21st century. Not even church people go about actually running their 9 to 5 lives by hoped-for exceptions to the way things usually work in the world—though all of us may be reduced at times of great stress to hoping for exceptions to the inevitabilities of life. Scientific analysis of the natural world, however, has shown that the world works more or less regularly, but, alas, with little oversight—as natural disasters prove unquestionably. In a world shaped by years of scientific inquiry and accomplishment, it is rather evident even to a ninth-grader that the Gods have never made people out of stone—nor could they, given what we know of the way things work in our world.

     Do you suppose that God could get blood out of a turnip? How you answer that question will determine the kind of world you think you live in—a 1st -century world or 21st-century world. That is to say: is your view of the world determined by the Bible or by observation of the world around you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 11:30am

Dear Sir,

your question as to what kind of world we think we live in: the answer isn't limited to a choice isn't between 1st century thinking and 21st century thinking. The choice is between the unlimited power and genius of God and 21st thinking. Science cannot figure out where 90% of the universe is or what powers it's continually accelerating expansion. Just a few short years ago they were sure it was continually slowing. I certainly do not expect science to explain God nor will I submit to the idea that anything they can't explain cannot happen or exist. What foolishness that would be.

Here is a question or two for you. Did God create molecules, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks and whatever quarks are made of? Did he cause these things to become rocks and human beings, along with elephants etc.?

Respectfully yours,

Edward C. McNair
Common Layman
Hilton Head Island, SC
Posted by Edward C. McNair on 10/3/2011 at 2:10pm

Mr. McNair,

Thank you for your comments. I have great interest in what the “common layperson,” as you describe yourself, thinks (see my book, House of Faith or enchanted Forest? American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason). In general I have observed, from a limited perspective to be sure, that Americans are very religious in their perspectives of the world—with a “faith” in varying degrees that almost borders on superstition at some points. Even many physical and natural scientists have a belief in God—again in varying degrees and types. But, again from my limited perspective, I consider a genuine scientist as a person who is scientist before person of faith. That is to say faith suppositions do not control scientific inquiry. In the pew the scientist may sing the great hymns of the faith with great gusto, but in the scientific laboratory everything is open to question. It seems that your question to me asks for a religious confession of some sort. And I maintain that religious confessions have no place in the scientific laboratory. We came out of the trees sometime past the dawn of creation and were awed by fire. Steadily through the millennia we have made progress understanding the world in which we find ourselves. And religious confessions of all sorts have tried to block our quest to understand the world and human nature. I cannot respond any more fully on the blog but if you want to read a short essay on the history of the tension between faith and reason see my introduction to When Faith Meets Reason and a second introduction in the book When History and Faith Collide. But to answer you pointedly: It really makes no difference whether or not “God created” the “stuff” you mentioned or if the universe is eternal; what matters is that we still keep trying to understand the universe and ourselves. No faith should stand in the way of that quest. I do not think that human beings can come from rocks. But we are a young species and still learning about the world. So in the end who knows what the capabilities of the stuff on the stars is?

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 10/6/2011 at 10:55am