Would it be OK to take my high school age grandkids to the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in Kentucky?
— Stan in Liberty
For those who haven’t heard of the Ark Encounter, it is part of a developing theme park located in Grant County, Ky., operated by an organization called Answers in Genesis. The exhibit opened in July 2016 and features an ark built to the same specifications dictated to Noah in the Genesis account of the flood, with various decks, bays replete with animal models, and a creationist museum.
Although I have not visited the museum and ark, I have heard that the overall experience is quite impressive. But the question remains: Is it acceptable to visit?
The short answer is yes, as long as we understand that those who operate the museum have a very different attitude toward creation and the origin of the world than we do as Catholics.
Answers in Genesis, a fundamentalist apologetics group, interprets the events of Genesis literally and subscribe to what is called a “young earth” idea of creation, essentially meaning that they hold that the earth was created between six and 10 thousand years ago exactly according to the way Genesis describes. This stance summarily turns a blind eye toward scientific discovery (e.g. ignoring the radiometric dating of rocks which show earth to be significantly older than their claims) and is untenable with the Catholic view of the compatibility between fides et ratio — faith and reason.
The Catholic Church does not share the same fundamentalist reading of Genesis. What is contained in the first 11 chapters of Genesis is certainly considered true — but not necessarily in the scientific way in which creationism understands them to be true. The stories of creation (yes, there are two), the fall, Cain and Abel, and even the story of Noah and the flood communicate something profoundly real about the “why” and the “what” of human existence, sin, and our capacity to image God in our very createdness. But to claim that they represent an exact, perfectly detailed, historical account of the events of the origins of the world ascribes to their Hebrew authors an intention they never had.
A fundamentalist reading of the Bible does injustice to the text by insisting that the only meaning of Scripture is literal. But that’s simply not true. The Catholic Church understands that the truth of Scripture is conveyed in senses: the literal (or historical), the allegorical, the tropological (i.e. moral), and the anagogical. The first 11 chapters of Genesis are not anti-historical, but neither are they representative of modern-day textbook precision. As Pope Pius XII explained in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, the early stories in Genesis “state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation,” but “do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense.” Modern scientists, for example, have actually corroborated the possibility of a large-scale flood thousands of years ago in the Ancient Near East region.
In sum, feel free to visit the Ark Encounter. Enjoy the exhibit: Wander around the ark and wonder at the immense and beautiful plans of God. Understand that the creationist museum does not agree with Catholic doctrine — explain that to your grandchildren — but enjoy an otherwise harmless display of grandeur.
Father Michael Friedel is parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield and is as assistant vocations director for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.