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A geologist finds deeper meaning in Noah's flood

Published September 4, 2012 9:56 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

University of Washington geologist David R. Montgomery sees twin sources of divine knowledge: "what God made, and what God wrote."

Unfortunately, Montgomery tells interviewer Brook Wilensky-Lanford at religiondispatches.org, believers and academics often pit the two — science and religion — against each other, rather than exploring their intertwining.

For centuries, the geologist says there was a "tradition of faith in the world around us, a belief that God didn't create an incomprehensible universe. And [creationists have] just walked away from that. It's bad theology dressed as science."

However, Montgomery's just-released book, The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood, is not a predictable attack on creationists. It's his attempt to understand what "the geologic and historic data actually tell us about large floods."

In that exploration, the Bible's flood story was crucial and informative.

Geologists tend to dismiss stories of catastrophic events such as floods, in favor of more incremental changes. But such large-scale events do happen. Think Japan's tsunami or Mount St. Helen's volcano.

The problem, Montgomery says, is that creationists think the similarities in flood stories around the world suggest that a single, global flood such as the one described in Genesis actually happened.

But the only thing they have in common is that "there was a large flood, and there was someone left on Earth to describe it."

The real insights, he says, are found "in the differences between the flood stories. Whether they are describing something like a dam breaking, or water coming from the sea in Tahiti, or a tsunami."

Christian missionaries "were confused because the native flood stories did not say anything about 'rain,' as the Bible described Noah's flood," Montgomery says. "Their floods came from the sea in giant waves. In Africa, flood myths are somewhat more scarce, because floods themselves are rare, and they can be life-giving events. The Chinese flood stories are more about control of nature."

He doesn't take these stories literally, but he does see in them a kind of truth and majesty.

"The more the story makes sense according to nature," he says, "the more astounding it becomes."

And it still resonates in modern life.

The biblical flood "tells the story of the way that nature made it into the future," he says. "And that's a challenge for us today. In our meeting with the forces that could destroy us ... who's going to be around to survive, to share the story?"

In other words, where are this generation's Noahs and will we listen to them?

Peggy Fletcher Stack