Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Seven Views on Creation, Evolution, and Divine Intervention

1. Young Earth Creationism: Supernatural explanations account for the origin of the universe, the apparent age of the earth and its geological features (e.g. catastrophic worldwide flood), the origin of life, speciation ("each according to its kind"), the mass extinction of species (again, the flood), biological adaptations (so-called "micro-evolution"), and the direct, special creation of humanity.

2. Old Earth Creationism: Naturalistic explanations account for the natural history of the universe (e.g. the "Big Bang") and all non-biological systems, the geological age of the earth, and the time spans necessary for the emergence, flourishing and extinction of many species (as recorded in the fossil record). However, supernatural intervention is necessary to account for the origin of life (in different epochs), direct speciation ("each according to its kind"), biological adaptations (so-called "micro-evolution"), and the direct, special creation of humanity; common descent of the species is specifically denied.

3. Intelligent Design (M. Behe, 1996-version): Naturalistic explanations suffice to account for the natural history of the universe and all non-biological systems, including the earth and its features, and the time spans necessary for the emergence, flourishing and extinction of many species (as recorded in the fossil record). However, supernatural intervention is still necessary to account for the origin of life, the "irreducibly complex" adaptations to DNA that account for speciation (common descent being conceded), and the eventual emergence of humanity. In principle, supernatural intervention is detectable.

4. Intelligent Design (M. Behe, 2006-version): Added to the position above is the idea that much (most? all?) of the information necessary for the origin of life, speciation, and the eventual emergence of humanity was "front-loaded" or programmed into the Big Bang. In principle, these supernatural "fingerprints" are detectable in the irreducible complexity of biological systems.

5. Theistic Evolution -- "Interventionist" (strong version): Naturalistic explanations suffice to account for the natural history of the universe and all physical systems, both non-biological and biological, including the earth and all its features, the origin of life and biodiversity through evolutionary processes (in which common descent is emphatically affirmed), and the time spans necessary for the emergence, flourishing and extinction of many species (as recorded in the fossil record). Nonetheless, God imperceptibly directs the entire course of the universe to his appointed ends, including the emergence of humanity. Natural processes are only apparently random.

6. Theistic Evolution -- "Interventionist" (weak version): Same as above, though with God overseeing otherwise random processes and only directly intervening to ensure certain outcomes or results. In this way, God "nudges" or subtly "guides" the processes of evolution (perhaps on the quantum level) so as to ensure that the biological adaptations necessary for the emergence of that which would otherwise be improbable take place, e.g., that human beings would come about eventually. In principle, such intervention, as it remains within the limits of possible outcomes of otherwise random processes, is undetectable to scientific investigation.

7. Theistic Evolution -- "Kenotic": The cosmos was created fully ordered, hence, naturalistic explanations suffice to account for the natural history of the universe and all physical systems, both non-biological and biological, including the earth and all its features, the origin of life and biodiversity through evolutionary processes (in which common descent is emphatically affirmed), and the time spans necessary for the emergence, flourishing and extinction of many species (as recorded in the fossil record). Yet creation is an act of divine kenosis ("self-emptying"), wherein God "makes room" for something other than the divine-self (i.e. the cosmos or universe), gifting the universe with both the "freedom-to-be" as well as the "freedom-to-become." In principle this means that natural processes, including biological systems, are contingent (i.e. random), yet the Creator, is not an "absent deity." Rather God interpenetrates the entire cosmos, animating it, sustaining its order and natural processes, and calling and drawing it toward greater and greater complexity, eventually manifesting in the emergence of life, consciousness, intelligence, moral awareness, etc. -- the imago Dei. (H/T to B. Klock)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Essence of Sin & the Freedom to Become

The freedom-to-become assumed in creatio ex nihilo takes on a new significance with the awakening of consciousness and the actualization of the moral realm. True freedom is the ultimate act and gift of divine kenosis (self-emptying). God "makes room" for "wills" completely other than his own; wills that in principle are able to act both in concert with, and in defiance of, the divine will. In the former, we see the ultimate end and goal of our theosis: to become partakers and co-creators in the divine life (the supreme example being found in Jesus Christ). In the latter, we begin to see the essence of sin as rooted in that which is contrary to the divine will, that is to say, in that which God does not will.

Here Karl Barth's discussion of "nihil" or "nothingness" is instructive. Barth roots his discussion of the will of God in the doctrine of election. What God wills he elects to be. Consequently, what God does not will is "passed over" -- nothingness. Yet, for Barth, nothingness is not to be equated simply with what is "not." As Barth protested, "Nothingness is not nothing!" Rather nothingness has its own ontic reality in the perfection of God as that which stands in opposition to what God has willed or elected to be. Yet the reality of nothingness is not essence, but rather non-essence; not possibility, but rather impossibility.

Except for the doctrine of kenosis, sin would have no possibility. In fact, the existence of sin confirms the doctrine of kenosis. In willing what God does not will we give essence to that which stands in opposition to God, i.e., to that which has no essence and possibility in the perfection of God. This is a paradox, the possibility of which is grounded in a permissive act of the divine will to make room for another principle of will that potentially stands against him (as stated above). Yet in Christian thought, God is sovereign even over this. Nothing can ultimately stand in opposition to God, even hell itself. In the final analysis, reality exists as a paradox of co-existing possibilities and impossibilities; a paradox that only Atonement can resolve.

Imago Dei, Divine Risk & the Freedom to Become

Any attempt to present a coherent theistic-evolutionary understanding of creation must begin with the idea of divine kenosis, or "self-emptying," as the central assumption behind the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Kenosis not only includes the idea that the Creator has "made room" for the existence of something else -- something other -- it must also include the gift of freedom, i.e., the "freedom-to-become," which is the central assumption behind what Christian theology refers to as creatio continua.

From a physicalist standpoint, this freedom-to-become involves random processes, albeit governed by the innate physical laws instilled by the Creator at the initial point of creation. The initial conditions and innate laws indeed seem to suggest, even from a scientific point of view, that the direction or course of the created order is generally determined -- e.g., from the moment of the "Big Bang" to the formation of the elements, the birth of stars, the coalescence of galaxies and planetary systems, the emergence of life itself and eventually of consciousness.  However, there is no compelling reason, either scientifically or theologically, to suggest that any particular outcome is specifically determined. Theologically speaking, the freedom-to-become is a true freedom; hence, a divine risk, which is the essence of love.

It is here that the honest exegete must acknowledge the anthropocentric perspective of the sacred scriptures and the pre-scientific theologies that have been based upon them. A coherent theistic-evolutionary account can hardly afford to reify the Edenic myth of the earth as a place in the universe specially prepared to await the arrival of our species. Even the doctrine of the imago Dei calls for reappraisal. From the standpoint of physicalism, the earth is such, and we are such, only by natural happenstance. In principle, nothing precludes the emergence of life in other places in the cosmos, even of sentient life with consciousness, intelligence, and an awareness of the imago Dei.

Indeed, that the Creator prompts and directs his creation as a whole towards this general end and goal must be seen as lying at the heart of the Christian message. The goal of theosis is thus no less than the participation of the entire cosmos in the divine life. It stands to reason then that our species' role as a unique instantiation of the imago Dei can no longer be viewed in isolation from the rest of the cosmos of which we are a part. To remain coherent, a theistic-evolutionary account must view the gift of the divine-image not as one imprinted upon a particular species, be it human or another, but rather as a gift instilled upon the cosmos as a whole, in the beginning, as imago Dei in potentia.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Quest for the Mythistorical Jesus (Part Two): The Witness of the Empty Tomb

Christians do not believe in the empty tomb, but in the living Christ. This does not mean, however, that we can believe in the living Christ without believing in the empty tomb. Is it just a "legend"? What matter? It still refers to the phenomenon ensuing the resurrection, to the presupposition of the appearance of Jesus. It is the sign which obviates all possible misunderstanding. It cannot, therefore, but demand our assent, even as a legend. Rejection of the legend of the empty tomb has always been accompanied by the rejection of the saga of the living Jesus, and necessarily so. Far better, then, to admit that the empty tomb belongs to the Easter event as its sign. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2)
(Note: Barth employs the term "legend" in the sense that this article employs "mythistorical." Click HERE to read Part One.)

In 1924, Karl Barth (1886-1968) published a small treatise entitled The Resurrection of the Dead. Little did he realize at the time just how misunderstood this aspect of his overall theology would become and just how tenacious the ensuing controversy would prove to be. This was not helped by the fact that Barth's early writings on the resurrection seemed to diminish the importance of the empty tomb. For Barth, a preoccupation with the empty tomb took the focus away from the true object of our faith: the resurrected Christ.  Yet to his detractors, especially evangelical theologians like Carl F. H. Henry, Barth's position sounded like an outright rejection of the gospel accounts, which in turn sounded suspiciously like a denial of the resurrection itself.

In time, however, Barth's growing concerns with the demythologizing project of Rudolph Bultmann would cause him to change his tune. Bultmann had regarded the resurrection as "a mythical event, pure and simple," grounded not in objective event, but rather in the subjective experience of the disciples. Increasingly alarmed that Bultmann's radical existentialist approach had stripped the resurrection of Christ of any objective significance, Barth in his later writings began to place considerable emphasis on the empty tomb as "the sign which obviates all possible misunderstanding."

This change in emphasis did not represent in Barth a fundamental shift in his theology of the resurrection as much as it did a development in his hermeneutical treatment of the gospel accounts. Barth had never held or insinuated that the resurrection of Christ had been anything but a physical resurrection or that the Church's faith in the resurrection was rooted in anything less than historical event. Barth's earlier statements that seemed to dismiss the "empty tomb" were not about denying the existence of a grave or a sepulcher located somewhere in or around Jerusalem, but rather about the legendary character of the resurrection accounts found in the gospels -- stories that differed greatly from one another in their details. Naturally, a physical resurrection would include an empty grave of some kind in its actualization in time and space.

Yet even if the tomb of Jesus could be located and identified this would in no way constitute historical verification of the resurrection, as there could be many possible explanations as to why the tomb was empty on the first Easter morning. Rather the resurrection of Christ could only be verified through the experience of the disciples and continuing faith of the Church. This is why the legendary character of the gospels posed no difficulty for Barth. Their stories of the empty tomb did not constitute actual eye-witness accounts, nor were they in any other sense historically verifiable, yet they bore witness to the Church's faith in Christ's resurrection in all of its objective significance, and thus the empty tomb stood as an indispensable sign that cannot "but demand our assent."

Naturally, such a nuanced position was bound to be misunderstood by fundamentalists and liberals alike. Generally speaking, in Barth's day there were but two ways of looking at the gospels: either in good literalist fashion as entirely historical accounts or as imaginative stories (more or less) crafted in the minds of the early disciples to explain the significance of their crucified master and/or the continuing experience of the "living Christ" within the early Christian communities. This is where Barth stood out as representing a via media or "middle way." Barth conceded that the gospel accounts of the empty tomb were not historical, per se, but rather were legendary in character. This did not mean that they were entirely fictional, but only that the stories bore the character of  imaginative responses appropriate for their time and culture. However, the living Christ to which they testified was the resurrected Jesus of history, not some otherwise existential figment of faith.

Barth's via media points the way forward in dealing with the gospel accounts as a whole. The true referent of the legendary witness of the empty tomb is the resurrected Christ, not the actual empty tomb itself or any of the other literary details of the different resurrection stories as they unfold in their telling. Hence, it stands to reason that we should not allow ourselves to get bogged down with attempts to explain other differences between the gospels: e.g. discrepancies, contradictions, different emphases, theological assumptions and the like. Such issues would be significant if we were dealing with competing historical accounts. But they do not matter in dealing with "mythistories." All that matters are the stories as stories and what they reveal to us about the Christ of faith. So, for instance, the question of whether Christ was entering or exiting Jericho when he encountered blind Bartimaeus, or whether two blind men met him there or just one (cf. Mark 10, Matthew 20, Luke 18), constitutes an unwarranted diversion away from what the "story-tellers" (i.e. the evangelists) actually want to tell us about Jesus, turning our attention instead towards fruitless considerations about the trustworthiness of texts erroneously regarded as historical accounts; as if to say that our faith was founded on a book (a Christian "Koran" if you will) rather than on the living Christ.

In the final analysis (as this post-catholic thinker sees things), Barth's via media rescues our faith both from the tyranny of textual literalism and from the relativism of radical demythology. The stories of the empty tomb are grounded in the resurrected Christ of faith, not the resurrected Christ of faith in the stories of the empty tomb. Likewise, the gospels are relative to the Church's faith in Christ, not the Church's faith to the gospels. Considered thus, the Bible assumes the nature of a truly revealed word from God en-fleshed in the words of its human authors.

Part One: The Problem Stated
See also: "Mythopoeia: Ancient & Modern"

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Babel-Fish & ID: My conversation with a proponent of Intelligent Design

(Note: Attempts to prove the existence of God empirically, like the arguments proposed by the Intelligent Design movement, I like to refer to as "Babel-fish" proofs, from Douglas AdamsThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)

Let's just say for the sake of argument that I believe in an "Intelligent Designer" (even though this description has a deistic feel to it). Let's also say that I believe that this "Intelligent Designer" is the God and Father of Jesus Christ (which I do happen to believe). What I cannot concede is that the existence of this "Intelligent Designer," or any other supernatural designer, can be proven scientifically (i.e. through empirical methods of investigation). That's where proponents of Theistic Evolution differ fundamentally with proponents of  Intelligent Design, even if the latter concede that attempting to prove that this "Intelligent Designer" and the God of the Bible are one and the same is taking their position too far.

Here's my position in a nutshell, using the seasonally appropriate illustration of the empty tomb. The empty tomb is no more proof that Jesus rose from the dead on the first Easter morning than is the existence of an empty coffee cup in my sink proof that I had coffee this morning. (I actually had tea, it was yesterday afternoon, and I just hadn't gotten around to doing the dishes.) There are many reasons why the tomb of Jesus might have been empty on the first Easter morning. His resurrection is simply one of the them. But it just so happens to be the explanation that Christians believe. It is also, in my opinion, the best explanation given all factors (including the empirical testimony of an empty tomb). But I cannot prove the resurrection ever happened. The empty tomb stands as a witness to the faith of the Church in the resurrection of her Lord, and thus as a sign and a testimony to all who will hear the good news.

Similarly, the intelligibility of the created order calls out for an explanation. I believe, after all factors are taken into consideration, that an "Intelligent Designer" (better yet -- a "Creator God"!) is the best explanation. I believe this. But I cannot hope to "prove" it, empirically speaking.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Karl Barth & the Empty Tomb: The Intellectual Futility of Van Tillianism

From Louis Smede's autobiography:
I was mesmerized for one semester by the boldness of Van Til’s thinking, but by the second semester I began to suspect that he was stretching a defensible theory of knowledge to the borders of absurdity. If true, it would mean that unless any two people had correct beliefs about God and about the world they could not have a genuine conversation about anything. How can two people talk respectfully together about interesting parts of reality — the economy, for instance, or the possibility of life on Mars — if one of them assumes that everything the other person says about anything is doomed to be dead wrong?
Van Til was convinced that if anyone’s assumptions about God are wrong, she cannot be trusted even when she says that she believes the gospel truth about Jesus. He wrote a book called The New Modernism in which he contended that the star theologian of the century, Karl Barth, was a modernist because, in Van Til’s view, he denied that Jesus was God in human form and denied as well that he had risen from the dead. The hitch was that Barth had affirmed these things over and over and, in fact, was largely to be credited with bringing the gospel back into the churches of Europe. But Van Til said that even if Barth shouted from the tower of St. Peter’s that Jesus was the Son of God, he could not believe what he was saying. His philosophical presuppositions would not let him.
Several years later, after I had finished my graduate studies in Amsterdam, I had occasion to put the question to Barth himself: “Sir, if you will permit me an absurd anachronism, let us suppose that a journalist carried a camera into Jesus’ tomb about eight o’clock on Easter Sunday morning and took pictures of every inch of the tomb, what would have showed up on his film?” Barth sighed. This again? He had been asked questions like this by every skeptical evangelical who got within shouting distance of him. But he was patient: “He would have gotten nothing but pictures of an empty tomb. Jesus was not there. He had walked out of the tomb early that morning.”
I told Van Til about this conversation. His answer was, for me, a final exhibition of intellectual futility. “Smedes,” he said, “you have studied philosophy, you should know that Barth cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” Cannot! Not merely does not, but cannot believe what he said he believed. Conversation finished.
[pp. 68-69]
For more on Karl Barth's understanding of the Resurrection and the Empty Tomb read "The Quest for the Mythhistorical Jesus: The Witness of the Empty Tomb".

Hat tip to Kevin Davis.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Quest for the Mythistorical Jesus (Part One): The Problem Stated

Modern scholars have routinely reinvented Jesus or have routinely rediscovered in Jesus that which they want to find, be it rationalist, liberal Christianity of the nineteenth century, be it apocalyptic miracle workers in the twentieth, be it revolutionaries, or be it whatever it is that they're looking for, scholars have been able to find in Jesus almost anything that they want to find. Even in our own age scholars are still doing this. People are still trying to figure out the authentic sayings of Jesus...All of our middle class liberal Protestant scholars who will take a vote and decide what Jesus should have said, or might have said. And no doubt their votes reflect their own deep seated, very sincere, very authentic Christian values, which I don't gainsay for a moment. But their product is, of course, bedeviled by the problem that we are unable to have any secure criteria by which to distinguish the real from the mythic or what we want to be so from what actually was so. (Samuel Ungerleider, Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University)
Albert Schweitzer could not have said it better himself...

In his 1906 classic work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer had challenged the foolhardy "Lives of Jesus" movement of the nineteenth century by revealing the scholarly presumption and bias behind all attempts to make up the life of Jesus of Nazareth out of whole cloth. What is now called the "original quest" for the historical Jesus had been going strong since Reimarus's initial investigations into the "historical Jesus" question in the eighteenth century. By Schweitzer's reckoning, the quest had run its course and should now be considered dead, marked his own work (as well as that of William Wrede).

The original quest had been a characteristically Enlightenment project in its dismissal of the miraculous elements of the gospels along with what was considered the "pretentious divinizing" of Jesus by misguided first and second century followers who sought to make sense out of their teacher's tragic demise. The result was a Jesus completely divorced from the New Testament, variously portrayed by nineteenth century liberal theologians along imaginative lines of what a first-century Jewish prophet might look like. Yet, ironically, Schweitzer's critique of this approach did not end the quest as much as it unwittingly anticipated its future course. Schweitzer's attempt to understand the historical Jesus in light of what he saw as the (misguided) apocalyptic nature of Jesus' preaching and mission as revealed in the gospels now paved the way for future "questers," in their respective ways, to take the New Testament seriously as a historical source. The "new quest" would focus its investigation on the continuity between the preaching of Jesus and the preaching about Jesus (kerygma) in the New Testament.

And so the "quest for the historical Jesus" has continued with interesting twists, curves and turns in the road, with only a brief rest-stop or two, right up to our own day. Newer approaches (as different as the works of N.T. Wright are from those of Marcus Borg) seek to understand Jesus and the character of his mission in light of his peculiar context within the Palestinian setting of Second Temple Judaism. But they all work under the same guiding principle: the significance of Jesus is of utmost importance in understanding the course of history, so we had better get it right. By the second century the early Jesus-movement had burst forth on the scene in a major way. By the beginning of the fourth century Jesus himself was well on his way to becoming the most influential figure who ever lived. All this to say that Jesus of Nazareth simply cannot be ignored as a historical figure, even by the most radical of skeptics. Yet as enlightening (and as helpful at times) as these "quests" have been, in the final analysis, every attempt to reconstruct the "historical Jesus" is doomed from the start.

This is true because Jesus is not the kind of person that history typically remembers. Indeed, the shortcoming of "questing" for the historical Jesus is simply that what can be known about Jesus historically, apart from the rare incidental comment by otherwise disinterested observers (like Josephus and Suetonius), is relegated exclusively to the writings of his followers, particularly the gospels. The problem is, however, that the gospels are not "histories," at least not in the sense that we understand that term today; nor are they what we would call "biographies." Rather they are "faith-narratives," i.e., stories about the "Christ of faith."

This is not to suggest that the New Testament is completely mute with respect to the historical Jesus. Indeed, there is every reason to affirm that the New Testament is replete with stories that are rooted in actual events. But rather than giving us straightforward history, the New Testament gives us projections of the "Christ-event" rooted in the faith-encounters of the earliest believing communities. The Jesus presented therein is not merely a figure of firsthand memory (which in any event would have been fading quickly by the time of composition), but rather a Jesus whose life and ministry had been re-imagined in light of post-resurrection theological reflection; a Jesus whose story had been re-told through the pages of Israel's sacred story; a Jesus whose mission had been re-crafted into the personification of Israel's prophetic tradition; a Jesus who was seen as recapitulating the role of hero in Israel's ancient mythos by taking it up into his own mythos (e.g., the "new Moses," the "second Adam," the "High Priest in the Order of Melchizedek," etc.). In light of this, how much of what we read in the gospels can be considered in terms of empirical fact? From the historian's perspective, it is impossible to know.

The difficulties inherent in the historical question become even more acute within literalist or fundamentalist circles, where the canonical gospels are taken to be entirely historical, thus compelling proponents to attempt harmonizing or reconciling contrasting and even contradictory features within them. But how do we reconcile the two very different infancy narratives presented in the Synoptic tradition (i.e. Matthew and Luke)? Which one of their genealogies represents the true lineage of Jesus? Did the Last Supper take place on the night of the Passover (as all three Synoptics testify) or on the night before (as in the Gospel of John)? Did Jesus institute the Lord's Supper at this meal or simply wash his disciples' feet? Which account of the trial is most faithful to actual events? Which account of the crucifixion? Did Jesus carry his own cross to Golgatha or was it Simon the Cyrene who carried it? Which of the four different accounts of what happened at the empty tomb do we take as factual? And what of events that do not normally happen in the physical realm? Miracles? The virgin birth? The resurrection?

In stating the historical problem in this way we can more easily understand the demythologizing project of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). Bultmann had regarded the quest for the historical Jesus to be a dead end, and for a brief time he had nearly convinced the entire academy of his day of this as well. Bultmann considered the mythological worldview of the New Testament to be unintelligible and unacceptable to modern people. Hence, for Bultmann, a historical consideration of Jesus from the gospels was simply not relevant to modern Christology, at least not the kind of historical consideration attempted by the "questers." Rather, Bultmann reduced the historical significance of Jesus to a single word: "that." It was important only to believe that (das Dass) Jesus existed. Whereas many were attempting to connect the actual preaching of Jesus to the preaching about Jesus (kerygma), Bultmann saw kerygma as the only event of continuing significance -- the here-and-now divine act of judgment and salvation, confronting the hearer and necessitating a decision. In this way, Bultmann had managed to reduce the historical significance of Jesus to a mere presupposition.

In the final analysis, we are left with a conundrum that even Bultmann, try as he might, could not avoid. The Christian faith is grounded in Jesus of Nazareth, a figure in history whose existence and significance can only be established through the testimony of texts that we cannot entirely regard as historical accounts. In Part Two, we will offer a way forward that was anticipated by the great Karl Barth in coming to terms with the significance of the empty tomb.

Part Two

Friday, March 23, 2012

Mythopoeia Ancient & Modern: Myth, History, and Sacred Text

History is distinguished from all other sciences in that it is also an art. History is a science in collecting, finding, penetrating; it is an art because it recreates and portrays that which it has found and recognised. Other sciences are satisfied simply with recording what has been found; history requires the ability to recreate. (Leopold von Ranke, from The Theory and Practice of History, edited by Georg G. Iggers, 1976)
If we have learned anything from the postmodern critique of modernity it is that history is essentially storytelling and thus a near kin to ancient mythology. Both history and mythology attempt to explain how things got to be the way they are by telling some sort of story. While von Ranke, the 19th century founder of modern source-based history, would have demurred at this comparison, he nonetheless unwittingly exposed his own subjective underbelly by insisting that history was both a science and an "art."

In any case, the task of the storyteller, whether ancient or modern, is to portray and recreate events into a meaningful reality that is both relevant to (while at the same time constitutive of) the storyteller's context. Both ways of storytelling may in this sense by termed "mythic," as postmodernists are keen to point out, yet only one of these ways can properly be called "myth." That's because ancient storytelling is markedly different from modern storytelling. Despite von Ranke's subjective underbelly, we still expect our modern histories to be "rooted" in brute fact. Fantastical tales of gods, demigods, and other imaginative descriptions of forces beyond human grasp could never satisfy the modern mind as faithful descriptions of reality if such tales were composed today, though they might entertain us as fiction.

Indeed, what we have come to expect in our modern stories -- our "histories" -- is empirical accuracy. We expect a high degree of awareness of the universal laws that govern nature. We expect a faithful retelling of events as they actually happened or at least a very close approximation of what happened. We also expect a fair assessment of and appreciation for the social and societal contexts that serve as the all-important interpretive grids through which our storytellers filter their modern tales. Even when persons and events take on "larger-than-life" legendary status, we hold fast to their empirical "rootedness" so that they may continue to have meaning for us as icons of our culture.

In contrast, we afford to the ancients a high degree of imagination in their story-craft, a dabbling in the absurd, a dreaming of innocence. There is little to no expectation that the ancients should have been interested in our conventional ways of looking at the world, or to have had a similar preoccupation with accuracy or brute fact. From our perspective, stories about Osiris and Horus (Egypt), Prometheus and Atlas (Greek), or the Gilgamesh Epic (Ancient Near East), do not count as history in the modern sense, no matter how much they may have served to shape and mold their respective worldviews in the way that histories do today. And we're okay with that.

Yet this is more than just a casual acceptance. We recognize the value of ancient mythologies as "portals" through which we view a "mind-world" that otherwise would be lost and forgotten. Whether explained in terms of the evolution of the brain or the evolution of culture (or no doubt some combination of both physiological and social factors), the fact remains that the ancients thought very differently than we moderns do; they were conscious in a different way -- not just by degree, but in kind. Something has radically changed in human consciousness over the last three milliennia or so. No doubt there have been many such "mind-changes" in the 200,000 years of our existence as a species, but this happens to be one that we can actually see because the stories are still with us.

The most ancient of these stories stem from a period that Henri Frankfort termed mythopoeic thought: a time before philosophy, logic, and rationalism; when human beings did not view the governance of the cosmos in terms of impersonal laws but rather in terms of personal agency. The rise and fall of rivers, the seasons of the year, the occurrences of drought or deluge -- all events controlled as an act of the will by some god or spirit. Simply put, we value ancient myth because instinctively we know that the mythopoeic mind is gone forever, though, paradoxically, the archetypes formed by this mind still haunt our modern psyche and inform our own pursuit of meaning. They stand as shadows of a lost "embeddedness" we once had with the cosmos, communicating the earliest aspirations of our species to realize transcendence, to grasp the divine, and, in so doing, convey to us the earliest realizations of our estrangement from the Ground of Being itself.

Needless to say, the shift from ancient to modern consciousness did not happen overnight. Evolution involves gradual change over time. Standing between the ancient and modern minds -- in the transition -- is the so-called Axial Age, characterized by the emergence of a new sense of self-awareness, "when people began to see themselves as objective, distinct entities" (Mayer). This period also saw the parallel developments of the major religious traditions -- Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, and, of course, Judaism. Meanwhile the Greeks were imbibing in logos, while vestiges of their old mythologies continued on in local cultus, as old wives' tales, or were re-crafted as quasi-histories (e.g. Homer).

Standing right at the pivot point of the Axial Age are the sacred texts of the biblical tradition, written over the course of some eight centuries, more or less, but certainly preserving stories that are much older; stories of the ancient mythopoeic mind, remembered and re-crafted into Israel's sacred story. It should not surprise us then to find myth, quasi-history, and even early attempts at empirical history within the same corpus, or even within the same book, as in the case of the Book of Genesis. Herein we see ancient cosmologies, descriptions of paradisiacal conditions, talking serpents, life and knowledge giving fruit, angelic unions with humans and the giants they produced, an epoch flood (Israel's version of a common myth of the ANE), and heroes that live incredibly long lifespans. But we also see names, empires, cities and other locales, customs, and events that are consonant with, if not supported by, modern archaeological finds.

In many places Holy Scripture turns out to be a cacophony of ancient folklore mixed with actual historical persons, places and events, making it notoriously difficult at times to tease out the threads of "brute fact" from their mythological embroidery. This is true even for the later portions of the biblical corpus when stronger and stronger urges towards historical "rootedness" (on the part of the human authors) were not necessarily matched with equally strong concerns for empirical precision or with any particular regard to, or consciousness of, cultural bias. Yet, paradoxically, these are the conditions that must exist, and the kind of sacred texts that must emerge, within any religious tradition that would make the audacious claim that God actually and truly discloses the divine-self to humankind by fully assuming and participating in the human condition: "The Word of God en-fleshed in the words of men."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rehabilitating Marcion (Part Four): Divinizing Our Estrangement

Note: This entry is not intended as an endorsement of Marcionism, Gnosticism, or any other form of mythical or metaphysical dualism. For a brief historical analysis see Rehabilitating Marcion (Part One).

Marcion's Dilemma strikes at the very heart of what Christians believe about their sacred scriptures, not only because it compelled the early church to define its canon and embrace the old-new dichotomy of the testaments, but also because it imposed upon theologians the persistent task of having to reconcile the picture of the capricious God of the Hebrews with the picture of the all-loving God and Father of Jesus Christ. In Part Three, we briefly considered two approaches to this dilemma, namely the theologies of discontinuity and continuity.

Given these options, we were left with a god who either suffers from multiple personality disorder (discontinuity) or bipolar disorder (continuity). In either case, the Cross is viewed as the "means of satisfaction," the purpose of which is to appease the part of the divine personality that we would rather not face, indeed, that we "could not see and live." Perfect justice, we are told, demands divine retribution, whereas divine love seeks to forgive. What to do? The proffered solution sees God the Father as unleashing punitive justice upon the Son, thereby satiating divine wrath and opening up the way of forgiveness for those who believe. It's a tidy system; the problem is, it is not a just system. There is simply no way to uphold the righteousness of a God who would allow -- nay, demand -- the substitution of an innocent party for a guilty one, even if such a substitution were done voluntarily.

Ironically, the only way out of Marcion's dilemma is to acknowledge it. Marcion was right to point out the differences between the God of the Hebrew scriptures and the God and Father of Jesus Christ, because, in general terms, this is where the greatest differences are to be seen. However, a closer examination would reveal that we are not just dealing with one or two portraits of God, but rather with many different portraits of God, and many different kinds of portraits of God, appearing throughout both testaments. For example:
  • In Genesis 1, God is pictured as a transcendent being who moves like wind over the primordial, dimensionless seas of heaven and earth; speaking forth from the darkness to call the chaotic abyss to order. 
  • By Genesis 2, God appears as a mysterious figure who takes morning walks in a garden, who shapes a man (adam) from the dust of the earth (adamah) and then breathes life into him; later he fashions a woman from the man's rib.
  • God is portrayed in the OT both as a tribal deity who occasionally visits his friends and an inapproachable national deity who must be worshiped at a particular mountain in the desert. 
  • God is the traveler for whom Abraham plays the host and offers a meal; he is the mysterious angel who wrestles the whole night with Jacob and is defeated! 
  • God is the jealous judge who would have destroyed the nation of Israel had it not been for the intercession of Moses, yet relents in the destruction of pagan Ninevah despite Jonah's protestations. 
  • God is the capricious deity who strikes down Uzzah, whose only crime was to touch the ark of the covenant with his hands; yet later he declares through his prophets that he is not nearly as concerned with their temple observances as he is with justice for widows, orphans, and the stranger within their gates. 
  • Supremely, God is portrayed in his Son, Jesus Christ, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:6-7).

Indeed, such an examination compels us to go further than Marcion's original observation to admit that Scripture simply does not present us with a coherent picture of God at all. Rather the scriptural testimony of God is equivocal, and, if equivocal, then eminently human. The implications of this admission are startling at first, at least to the traditional-minded, for what this means is that we can no longer consider the Bible in terms of direct divine disclosure to humankind. Rather Scripture constitutes a multifaceted witness of distinctly human experiences of, and encounters with, the divine. Such descriptions of God are inextricably woven into the fabric of the human condition, and thus are anthropomorphic rather than theophanic, analogical rather that literal, poetic rather than propositional, dynamic rather than static, progressive rather than fixed, rudimentary rather than complete.

In this sense the biblical portraits of God tell us more about the human condition than they do about divine nature qua nature. They are not pictures of the way God actually is, but rather are projections of how human beings have encountered the divine in history. These are very human portraits, and yet sacred: human, because they ascribe to God human motives and emotions, even reflecting at times the pettiness and darkness of the human heart; sacred, because they are encounters with the divine, and thus "word of God" enfleshed in human condition, wholly and without qualification.

Often glorious, sometimes crude, but always meaningful, these portraits express and "divinize" our deepest sense of estrangement from what Tillich terms the "Ground of our Being."

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Monday, February 27, 2012

Rehabilitating Marcion (Part Three): The Dilemma of the Schizophrenic God

Note: This entry is not intended as an endorsement of Marcionism, Gnosticism, or any other form of mythical or metaphysical dualism. For a brief historical analysis see Rehabilitating Marcion (Part One).

All of the ink put to page against Marcion by writers such as Tertullian and Irenaeus serve only to demonstrate how dangerous Marcion's influence on the early Christian community was. Marcion was a threat because he had made an observation that still troubles Christians today; namely, the picture of God often portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures is very different from the picture portrayed by the Apostle Paul of the all-loving, all-merciful God and Father of Jesus Christ.

Two different portraits of God meant two different ways of dealing with human beings, hence, "Marcion's Dilemma." Given the pervasiveness of Neo-Platonism, it is not difficult to understand why Marcion and his followers had "solved" their dilemma by positing two different gods: the first, a capricious and vengeful demiurge, creator of the material universe; the second, the loving God who had sent his Son into the world to reveal the truth about humanity's existence.

For better or for worse, Marcion's Dilemma had changed the hermeneutical landscape forever. As much as Tertullian protested that Marcion had divided the Holy Scriptures, it was no longer the case that Christians could view the writings of their apostolic forbearers as the simple continuation of the Hebrew scriptural tradition. Where once there had been just one scriptural tradition, now there were two -- two covenants, two testaments, and eventually even two canons.

Moreover the stubborn continued existence of the people of the (now) "Old Testament," i.e. the Jews, only served to emphasize these differences. Marcion's contention that the Jewish scriptures were (in the words of Robert M. Price) "true enough in the Jewish frame of reference" certainly did not sit well with his orthodox detractors. For instance, Marcion had agreed with Jewish exegetes that Isaiah 7:14 (the prophecy of the "young woman" or "virgin") saw its fulfillment in Isaiah's day -- a view that would not be openly admitted in Christian academic circles until the 20th century. Thus Marcion's challenge cut deep into the way Christians had been interpreting the Hebrew prophets, establishing that the Hebrew scriptures stood on their own without any need of Christian elucidation.

Needless to say, Marcion's detractors were compelled to meet the Marcionite challenge head-on and to crush it in the polemical arena of competing ideas. Yet while these early Christian polemicists may have successfully refuted Marcionite dualism, they had not really resolved Marcion's Dilemma as much as they (unwittingly) recast the dilemma in terms of a "schizophrenic deity." For the same God that the Bible presented as commanding genocide, if not committing it himself (e.g. the flood), was also presented in Scripture as the God who "so loved the world" that he gave his only Son, Jesus Christ. Hence, theologians down through the ages would be faced with an equivocal portrait of God, whether or not they had any inkling that Marcion's Dilemma lay at the root of their work.

Accordingly, the history of theology has seen the development of two different approaches to this dilemma. The first approach -- that of discontinuity -- embraces the fundamental divide between the testaments, and, hence, the fundamentally different portraits of God and his dealings with human beings. In this paradigm, God's wrath, jealousy, and essential nature of absolute rectitude or justice stand in stark contrast and opposition to God's desire to show mercy, his love for fallen beings, and his propensity (from time to time) to bestow grace. The two sides of God's "personality" are held in tension, particularly in the Old Testament, until they are reconciled by the Cross of Christ. Lutheranism's dichotomy of "law and gospel" is a prime example of just such a theology of discontinuity, while Anabaptism and Dispensationalism represent extreme forms of this approach.

The alternative approach -- that of continuity -- attempts to blur the divide between the testaments, and, hence, to contend for a univocal portrait of God and his dealings with human beings. Reformed Theology's "Covenant of Grace" is instructive here as an example of a theology of continuity. Simply put, God's disposition towards humankind does not change between the testaments, at least not since the Fall (and its "Covenant of Works"). Rather, the contrast between the "Old" and "New" Testaments is merely one of perspective. In Christ, God demonstrates what his disposition has always been for the elect, while wrath and judgment (on full display in God's dealings with pagan nations in the Old Testament) are reserved for the reprobate. Theonomy (a.k.a. Christian Reconstructionism) represents this approach in the extreme, with its insistence on the application of the Mosaic Law Code in contemporary society.

Paradoxically, both approaches, at least in their western forms, have found common cause in their respective embrace of the satisfaction theory of the atonement (recast later as the "penal-substitution" theory). Satisfaction theory provides a way for both theologies to placate and appease the wrath of the holy and vengeful God portrayed in the Old Testament, by seeing in Christ the innocent victim who was willing to endure the wrath of God on behalf of others; either on behalf of the entire world (as a theology of discontinuity might see it), or else on behalf of the elect only (as a theology of continuity would contend).

But are these the only options open to us? Or can Marcion's Dilemma be resolved in another way? The next article in this series (Part Four - Divinizing Our Estrangement) will explore this question.

Part One
Part Two
Part Four

Friday, February 24, 2012

Rehabilitating Marcion (Part Two): The Gospel of Paul

Michelangelo's Conversion of St. Paul

Note: This entry is not intended as an endorsement of Marcionism, Gnosticism, or any other form of mythical or metaphysical dualism. For a brief historical analysis see Rehabilitating Marcion (Part One).

It is easy to see why Marcion would have been attracted to the writings of Paul. Paul's articulation and eloquence, his mastery of Hellenistic style and rhetoric, if not the universal appeal of his message, are still features that intrigue scholars to this day. Better than any other early Christian writer, Paul had worked through the Jew/Gentile issue in a way that left no doubt as to the possibility of redemption for all, Jew and Gentile alike. Even before the synoptic tradition would attempt to find the right metaphor and language to do justice to the scope and ramifications of Jesus' life and ministry, Paul's impressive body of letters had already convincingly portrayed Christ Jesus as "cosmic Savior" -- the One who had broken down the "dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances" (Eph. 2:14-15). So Paul could easily have been taken as the severest critic of the Mosaic law with its ceremonial prescriptions, dietary restrictions, and requirement of ritual circumcision for full inclusion. Moreover, in the absence of an authorized canon, there would have been no compelling reason for Marcion to have read Paul's writings through the lens of the Book of Acts, and thus no reason to suppose that Paul was allied to or dependent upon the other so-called apostles based in Jerusalem. After all, "those who seemed to be pillars" added nothing to his message; he had even "opposed Cephas to his face" (cf. Gal. 2).

And so a modern-day vindication of Marcion might begin...

But there is a better reason than those given above to suggest that Marcion's instinct to begin with Paul may have been a sound one, even if Marcion was probably unaware of it. Of all the early Christian writings that would eventually be gathered together, canonized, and classified as "New Testament," Paul's letters represent the earliest written witnesses to the Christ-event. Thus, rather than regarding Paul's letters as theological commentary on the four Gospels/Acts (as most Christians are prone to do), would it not be more natural to begin with Paul's letters as foundational? -- that is to say, as primary witnesses to the Christ-event, while the four gospels are at best secondary? This thesis suggests itself for more than just chronological reasons. Rather Paul's claim to be an eyewitness of the risen Christ is the only certain firsthand testimony of the resurrection that we have in the New Testament, and thus, undoubtedly, the most authentic.

It stands to reason then that Paul's letters together constitute mainstream Christianity's "first gospel." Yet, unlike the later gospels, Paul's is not given in narrative form, but rather as practical, theological, and pastoral treatises. For many, this might disqualify Paul as a bona fide "evangelist." But Paul's primary witness to the resurrection over against the secondary witnesses of the canonical gospels should not be overlooked. Indeed, if Christians are compelled to draw their Christology only from canonical sources, then it stands to reason that the most natural place to begin would be with Paul before any consideration of the later stories about Jesus, i.e. the gospels, precisely because they are later stories. This is not to say that Christians are obliged to devalue the witness of the four canonical gospels -- far from it. Rather a "canonical" approach to Christology begins with Paul, the first witness, and then moves on to consider the stories about Jesus as remembered, as passed down, as believed, and, yes, even as embellished by the pious theologizing that inevitably took place in the context of the communities from which they emerged.

Part One
Part Three
Part Four

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rehabilitating Marcion (Part One): Historical Background

Note: This entry is not intended as an endorsement of Marcionism, Gnosticism, or any other form of mythical or metaphysical dualism.
Since Marcion separated the New Testament from the Old, he is necessarily subsequent to that which he separated, inasmuch as it was only in his power to separate what was previously united. Having been united previous to its separation, the fact of its subsequent separation proves the subsequence also of the man who effected the separation. (Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 30)
Marcion of Sinope (ca. 110-160) has the distinction of being one of the first "heresiarchs" in church history. Born of wealthy parents, Marcion's father was also the bishop of Sinope in Asia Minor. It is probable that Marcion himself had been consecrated a bishop to assist his father. Some accounts suggest that his father had him expelled from Sinope after falling into sin with a consecrated virgin, though this may be slander since Marcion's austerity is well attested. In any case, Marcion had some kind of fallout with his father that motivated him to make his way to Rome around 140 AD, where he sought admission (presumably as a bishop) into the Roman Church after the death of Pope Hyginus (ca. 136-140). Despite the Roman Church's refusal to recognize him, it did not take long for Marcion to become a popular teacher and to generate a large following, particularly during the pontificate of Anicetus (ca. 150-167). Conflict with the bishops of Rome would eventually lead to his excommunication around 144, despite a generous donation of 200,000 sesterces to the church (which was later returned to him). However, Marcion would go on to establish churches of his own that would rival those of catholic Christianity for about two centuries.

Marcion shared many beliefs in common with the Gnostics, including the dualistic notion that the god presented in the Hebrew scriptures and the God who was the Father of Jesus Christ were different gods. Marcion contended that the god presented in the Hebrew scriptures was a lesser god, a "demiurge," who had created the material universe, and was thus de facto the author of sin. In contrast, Jesus was the Son of an otherwise unknown or "alien" God, who, before sending Christ into the world, had no interactions with it. This God had sent Jesus into the world for the purpose of revealing the truth about existence to humankind, thus enabling humankind to escape from the earthly trap of the demiurge.

What sets Marcion apart from the Gnostics was the fact that the latter based their teachings on "secret knowledge" known only to themselves, while Marcion relied solely on the content of the Letters of Paul (minus the Pastorals), along with the Evangelikon, an edited version of the Gospel of Luke devoid of its infancy narrative and all allusions to the Old Testament. To these he compared the Hebrew scriptures, and concluded that many of the teachings of Jesus Christ were in conflict with the character and actions of the capricious and jealous god portrayed in them. He also rejected many Christian writings as hopelessly compromised in their attempts to identify the Father of Jesus Christ with the demiurge of the Hebrews. In so doing, he was the first figure in Christian history to define a recognized group of writings that he regarded as authoritative and faithful to the teachings of Christ, i.e., a "canon."

Reacting to the Marcionite threat, Christians would never view Holy Scripture in the same way again. Not only did this threat compel the official church to define its own list of authorized writings (eventually crystallizing in an official canon or "rule"), but Marcion's observation that Hebrew and Christian writings often presented two radically different portraits of God would also leave its indelible mark in the demarcation that Christians would now begin to make between the "Old" and "New" Testaments. While later generations of Christians would take this division for granted, this was not originally the case. Simply put, Marcion's observation forced the church to bifurcate their emerging list of authorized sacred writings, whereas before they were (in Tertullian's words) "previously united." Needless to say, the hermeneutical challenges and issues that resulted from this radical division would persist in the history of scriptural interpretation right up to our very day.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Humpty Dumpty and The Idols of Our Thinking

Based on a recent conversation in another forum:

Once upon a time I too was a "top-down thinker," vainly imagining that if my philosophical and theological reasonings were sound, locked-up, air-tight, and "correct," then everything else "down below" would conveniently fall into place, eventually anyway since I did not have all the answers yet. "Common sense be damned!" The Biblical Inerrantist I once was would never countenance the possibility of formal contradictions in the Bible; any discrepancy I could not explain was merely "apparent." The Creationist I once was would never tolerate any interpretation of the empirical evidence that suggested evolution by natural selection, because, of course, that would not have been consistent with my understanding of God as Creator. But what if the Bible did contain discrepancies? And what if evolution by natural selection did occur? These were questions I was afraid to ask, because my top-down world, like Humpty Dumpty, might have "had a great fall." It is a menacing enterprise, at first, to retrain oneself to be a "bottom-up thinker." We suddenly discover that all of our "top-down" loyalties are on trial, and that is a frightening notion for those of us who have been conditioned to place absolute trust in the idols of our thinking.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sound Bite Theology: Liberation from the fallacy of historical reification

As a theistic-evolutionist, I am free to accept the stories of Genesis as mythological. Hence, I am not compelled to reify historically, or to justify scientifically, the stories of the Six Days of Creation, the Making of Adam & Eve, the Garden of Eden, or the Fall; nor need I provide any taxonomic or scientific explanations for life-giving or knowledge-giving trees, talking serpents, or paradisiacal conditions. And yet, ironically, I can lay claim to a reading of Genesis that is more "literal" than that of the so-called "biblical literalist." The text of scripture says what it says, and it's quite liberating.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Response to Kevin DeYoung's Top Ten Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam

See DeYoung's article in The Aquila Report.

1. The Bible does not put an artificial wedge between history and theology. Of course, Genesis is not a history textbook or a science textbook, but that is far from saying we ought to separate the theological wheat from the historical chaff. Such a division owes to the Enlightenment more than the Bible.
While DeYoung admits that Genesis is not a "history textbook" (or a "science textbook"), the underlying assumption of his first reason is that we are still obligated to treat it as such, a classic case of having your cake and eating it too. Anything less is met with the charge of putting an "artificial wedge between history and theology," strongly suggesting that theology cannot be communicated in anything less than a straightforward historical narrative. But this simply begs the question, why not? Why is it untenable to suppose that theological truth could be mediated through sacred story or myth? By revealing his prejudice against this possibility, DeYoung has unwittingly betrayed his own debt to Enlightenment thinking.
2. The biblical story of creation is meant to supplant other ancient creation stories more than imitate them. Moses wants to show God's people "this is how things really happened." The Pentateuch is full of warnings against compromise with the pagan culture. It would be surprising, then, for Genesis to start with one more mythical account of creation like the rest of the ANE.
The biblical story of creation was not meant to supplant other creation stories of the Ancient Near East (ANE) as much as it was meant to tell Israel's particular story within a common cultural milieu. This being the case, it should not surprise us at all that Israel's story contains both affinities and stark contrasts with these other stories, and that is exactly what we see. So, for instance, Hebrew cosmology is hardly distinguishable in some places from what was commonly believed in the ancient world: e.g. chaotic primeval conditions, flat disk-shaped earth, the firmament as a "vault" or "dome" above the earth upon which the heavenly bodies are fixed. Are we to accept these beliefs as straightforward descriptions of the way things actually are, especially when science has demonstrated otherwise? Or would it be better to acknowledge them as part of the ancient cosmogony common to that period, time, and region of the world? Indeed, the real contrast between the biblical story and others of ANE provenance is not to be found in some supposed myth/history dichotomy, but rather in Israel's monotheistic outlook and explanation of the origin and workings of the world around them as they understood that world to be.
3. The opening chapters of Genesis are stylized, but they show no signs of being poetry. Compare Genesis 1 with Psalm 104, for example, and you'll see how different these texts are. It's simply not accurate to call Genesis poetry. And even if it were, who says poetry has to be less historically accurate.
Comparing Genesis 1 with Psalm 104 would be analogous to comparing a Haiku with a Shakespearean sonnet. What point is there in such an exercise? The real question is what does DeYoung mean by characterizing the opening chapters of Genesis as "stylized"? Might it have something to do with the seven-day framework of Chapter One? The parallelism between the first and last sets of three creative days? The evening-morning formula for each day? Or the chiastic structure of verses 26-27 describing the creation of humankind? Obviously, "stylized" is a loaded term, which in the case of Genesis 1 unquestionably impinges upon one's hermeneutical approach regardless of whether one calls it poetry or not.
4. There is a seamless strand of history from Adam in Genesis to Abraham in Genesis 12. You can't set Genesis 1-11 aside as prehistory, not in the sense of being less than historically true as we normally understand those terms. Moses deliberately connects Abram with all the history that comes before him, all the way back to Adam and Eve in the garden.
The Book of Genesis has all the characteristics of an "antiquarian history," a common type of literature in the ancient world which connects the identity of a people, or the pedigree of a notable person, to a distant past. Greek historians like Homer were particularly noted for it. Such histories show little concern for making distinctions between myth, legend, and historical events/persons, and often weave the three together into an incredibly evocative meta-narrative. In fact, making distinctions between myth, legend, and historical fact is a concern peculiar to modernity. By ancient standards, the "seamless strand of history from Adam to Abraham" in the Book of Genesis is to be expected.
5. The genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 treat Adam as historical.
The genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 serve to connect their respective stories to the biblical meta-narrative that began back in the Book of Genesis, and hence to the entire history and identity of the People Israel as a continuation of that same "seamless strand of history" noted above (see response to Reason 4).
6. Paul believed in a historical Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49). Even some revisionists are honest enough to admit this; they simply maintain that Paul (and Luke) were wrong.
Paul was a traditional Jew of his day, and as a traditional Jew we can assume he believed that Adam was a real person. In fact, it would never have occurred to him or to anyone else in his day or context to question that assumption. Besides, he had neither the historiographic or literary methods to raise the question in the first place. So was this assumption wrong? As it turns out, yes. But does it matter? No, because regardless of ancient assumptions (or modern ones for that matter), the story of Adam (indeed, the entire story of the Bible) provides the divinely-inspired backdrop and stage upon which the drama of the Christ-story unfolds. If C.S. Lewis could liken pagan myths to "divinely-inspired glimpses" of God's "true myth" (i.e. the story of Christ), then how much more appropriate the divinely-inspired myths and stories of Hebrew poets and storytellers? (For further discussion of this argument, see my Weighing in on the Adam Debate.)
7. The weight of the history of interpretation points to the historicity of Adam. The literature of second temple Judaism affirmed an historical Adam. The history of the church's interpretation also assumes it.
The weight of the history of interpretation - both Jewish and Christian - points to a geocentric universe. The weight of the history of interpretation is mistaken.
8. Without common descent we lose any firm basis for believing that all people regardless of race or ethnicity have the same nature, the same inherent dignity, the same image of God, the same sin problem, and that despite our divisions we are all part of the same family coming from the same parents.
Science has been able to establish the solidarity of our species and our common genetic heritage independently of any theological considerations. It seems reasonable to suggest that theologians should have the competence to establish the creation of humankind in imago Dei independently of any scientific ones.
9. Without a historical Adam, Paul's doctrine of original sin and guilt does not hold together.
The doctrine of Original Sin as commonly understood in western Christianity is an Augustinian construct, not a Pauline one. Paul's point in Romans 5 is not to tell the story of how we contracted "original sin and guilt" from Adam, but rather to tell the story of how death was unleashed on humankind as a result of one man's transgression. In other words, the story of Adam is not about how we became "sinners," but about how we became "mortal." (For a fuller discussion of Original Sin from an evolutionary perspective, see my Paradise Imagined.)
10. Without a historical Adam, Paul's doctrine of the second Adam does not hold together.
Regardless of historicity or even Paul's assumption of it, his use of the Adam-story is metaphorical and typological, akin to the way the author of the Book of Hebrews employs the figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7. Even assuming that Melchizedek was a historical person, are we really compelled to believe that he is "without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life" (Heb. 7:3)? Or, rather, is the story of Abraham's encounter with the shadowy figure of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 a fitting type or metaphor to illustrate a theological truth about Christ's eternal priesthood?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Coming soon to a post-catholic blog near you...

...My response to Kevin DeYoung's Ten Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam.

Here's a little teaser:

(DeYoung) 10. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of the second Adam does not hold together.

While doubtless Paul did believe in the historicity of Adam, this belief is really not relevant to the way he uses the Adam-story in Romans 5 or even to the theological point he is making. Stated in a slightly different way: if it turns out that Paul was mistaken to believe that Adam really existed, why would it matter?

Regardless of historicity or even Paul's assumption of it, his use of the Adam-story is metaphorical and typological, akin to the way the author of the Book of Hebrews employs the figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7. Even assuming that Melchizedek was a historical person, are we really compelled to believe that he is "without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life" (Heb. 7:3)? Or, rather, is the story of Abraham's encounter with the shadowy figure of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 a fitting type or metaphor to illustrate a theological truth about Christ's eternal priesthood?

[To be developed and continued...]

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Paradise Imagined (Part Two): Toward an evolutionary account of Original Sin

See also: Paradise Imagined (Part One) and The Two Minds of Augustine.
[The story of the Fall] is the profoundest and richest expression of man's awareness of his existential estrangement and provides the scheme in which the transition from essence to existence can be treated. (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology 2:31)
Until recent times, the traditional meta-narrative of Original Sin has been able to provide a sufficient answer to the origin of sin through its telling of the story of Adam's fall. Though somewhat at pains to explain why the Fall happened in the first place (i.e. beyond "sin-as-possibility," or, in Augustinian terms, "posse peccare"), the traditional meta-narrative nonetheless neatly explained every subsequent sinful act in human history as predicated on Adam's first sin and its consequent deleterious effects upon human nature. Thus sin becomes both inevitable and universal in Adam's progeny (who were now deemed non posse non peccare). However, with the decoding of the human genome, science has put the final nail in the coffin of monogenesis (i.e., human origins from an original couple), and with it the idea of Adam's sin as "causal event." Eden's story of "Paradise Lost" suddenly becomes the story of "Paradise Imagined." Genesis's epic etiology is recast as a mythic story of realization, not of how things had gone awry, but simply that they have. To borrow a phrase from Tillich, our ancient storytellers had "dreamed of innocence."

Thus, for the theistic-evolutionist, the origin of sin as event is no longer an issue of theological importance. Even if it were possible to determine the exact moment when the willful act of a common ancestor could be counted as sin, there would be no basis, either theological or ontological, to posit a causal connection between that supposed "original" sin and every subsequent sinful action in the history of the human species. Instead, the theistic-evolutionist seeks to explain the origination of sin as grounded in conditions that would not only make sin possible, but also inevitable; and, if inevitable, then universal as well.

So we must start with a consideration of divine creative activity, and in particular creatio continua with its divine gift of "becoming." If, as we have argued previously, the "freedom to become" means that the processes of an evolving universe are free, contingent, and undetermined on the physical level, then what does this "freedom to become" imply on the level of consciousness? What does indeterminacy look like in the actualized moral realm of this evolving universe? And in what ways do free moral agents experience or exhibit this "freedom to become"? These are the questions at the heart of a theistic-evolutionary account of Original Sin.

As a preliminary answer to these questions, we suggested in Theosis Interrupted that the indeterminacy and contingency of the cosmos take on new significance with the arrival of human consciousness, particularly in the corresponding emergence of the human faculty of volition, or "will." Simply put, human beings, considered as moral agents, are "free" to make moral choices; a "freedom" that includes the very real possibility of sin because it assumes "free will" as an essential human faculty (i.e., libertas voluntatis essentialis). Yet, as tidy as this explanation may be in explaining "sin-as-possibility," the universal aspect of sin (or "sin-as-inevitability") must be posited on different grounds; and therein lies the rub, for one must exonerate nature as the cause of sin (else fall into Gnosticism) while at the same time avoiding the suggestion that God is the author of it.

Yet this may not be as imposing a dilemma as it appears to be at first glance. If the course of the evolution of our species had followed a straight directional line from single cell through to us, with the achievement of consciousness as its ultimate end, then we should expect to see not only the "freedom of will" but also the "perfection of will" as its consequent results, making the question of the presence of sin in the cosmos a greater theological conundrum. (Incidentally this is why both orthogenesis and Intelligent Design fall short as explanations.) But, as was argued in God's Purpose or Nature's Dice, the physical processes of nature, including our own evolution as a species, follow no inherent "end-driven" (i.e. teleological) pathways. Consciousness, as far as the physical realm is concerned, is merely a successful adaptation of our species, and the faculty of volition, or "will," a mere byproduct of the same.

As a species we are an accumulation of our biological past, with its baggage of both useful and vestigial systems, complete with structures, faculties, and instincts that may give all the appearance of having been evolved for our particular moment in cosmic history, but have more than likely been conscripted and co-opted into service from earlier stages of our evolutionary past. This can be seen in stark detail in the evolutionary layers of the human brain: with its "reptilian layer" (i.e. brain stem and cerebellum), which controls our vital functions; the limbic or early mammalian layer (i.e. hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus), which constitutes not only the seat of our judgment values, but also of our unconscious behaviors; and finally, the most flexible layer, the neocortex, which we share with higher primates, constituting the seat of learning and (in humans) of higher abstract thought.

It stands to reason then that while we may call our faculty of will or volition "free," the choices set before us are certainly far from it. Luther's keen insight into the servum arbitrium comes to mind here, not the mistranslated "bondage of the will" but rather the "bondage of choice." Human choice is contextually conditioned, subject to our human finiteness, and always obliged to pay attention to our more basic "lower" instincts. The undeniable fact is that we spend most of our time suppressing and re-directing instincts we once depended on for survival and/or the passing on of our genes.The instinct of "fight or flight," once a useful defense mechanism (and still of limited value in that regard) becomes the anxiety that so afflicts our higher selves; the primal urge to reproduce easily becomes lust; the instinct to horde easily becomes greed. Indeed, in the final analysis, Aquinas' suggestion that concupiscence involves not the corruption of human nature, but rather the struggle to overcome the lower passions and desires which are natural to it, turns out to be not far from the truth.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

God's Purpose or Nature's Dice? The proper role of teleology in an evolutionary account of the cosmos

An early pioneer of theistic-evolutionary thought, the Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), suggested that the course of evolution followed an inevitable path, a directional course, toward a particular goal, which he termed the "Omega Point." In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard outlined certain watershed moments or stages along this course. The stage which saw the unfolding and development of the material universe of primordial particles resulting in the formation of the elements and chemical compounds that would serve as preconditions for biological life he termed "geosphere." That which saw the emergence and proliferation of biological lifeforms he termed "biosphere." The arrival of humanity, endowed with consciousness and a rational mind, he termed "noosphere" (from nous meaning "mind" in Greek). His final vision was that of the Omega Point, to which all creation was being drawn from the beginning. 

Some have found Teilhard's model  helpful in providing a logical outline for a theistic-evolutionary account of the cosmos. However, care should be taken in how far one goes in employing Teilhard's model, lest its use draws the charge of orthogenesis or autogenesis (i.e. progressive evolution). Classical orthogenesis is the hypothesis that evolution follows a straight or unilateral course towards an end or goal because of some internal or external driving force. Natural selection as the basic mechanism for evolution is either discounted or deemed unimportant. Typically speaking, orthogenetic models attempt to infer teleology, or final causation, in nature, meaning that design and purpose are detectable in nature. This is the fallacy of the so-called "Intelligent Design" movement.

While it certainly could be argued that an inferred teleology is necessary for a theological explanation of an evolving cosmos, teleology has no place in the scientific interpretation of the physical universe. Any theistic-evolutionary account that claims to detect teleology in nature or to replace and/or modify scientific explanations with theological ones is entirely out of bounds. The fact is, the physical processes of the universe possess no internal, directional "end-driven" goals, and there is no reason, whether theological or scientific, for the theistic-evolutionist to challenge or question this.  

However, this does not mean that intrinsically there are not directional "end-seeking" goals in the physical universe.  Specifically, one can speak of teleomatic processes (i.e. those that follow natural laws), teleonomic structures (e.g. organs or traits that serve an overall purpose), and adaptive systems (those that exist because they have survived). But these are functional descriptions, not, strictly speaking, teleological. A scientist may speak of a particular adaptation occurring in an organism for the "purpose of survival," but this is metaphorical language. What the scientist really means to say is that those organisms that adapt to their environment survive. As John S. Wilkins aptly explains:
It may help to think of a social analogy. We can explain the behaviour of a stock broker teleologically, for a stock broker seeks a goal (the best profit). We cannot explain the behaviour of a stock market, for stock markets have no goals, just outcomes. When Dawkins talks about genes maximising their representation in the gene pool, this is a metaphor not an explanation. Genes just replicate. It happens that those that out-replicate others end up out-surviving them. There is no 'goal' to genetic behaviour.
While teleology may not be valid on the level of scientific inquiry, there is certainly every reason to infer teleology in the actions of moral agents, in the social sciences, in political theory, in philosophical discourse, and ultimately in theology. Any attempt at a comprehensive understanding of reality is compelled to venture beyond the narrow restrictions of scientific inquiry and its question of "why things appear to be the way they are." Merely explaining the outcome of nature's "throw of the dice" does not satisfy the human yearning to understand the reason, purpose, goal behind the cosmos. "To what end (teleosdoes the cosmos exists at all?" "What is the purpose behind our own existence?" Indeed, the theologian's great task, particularly in light science's explanation of the "way things appear to be," is to ask, "What is God's purpose in all of this?" 

In "Theosis Interrupted," Creation was presented as an act of kenosis (divine "self-emptying"), which included the freedom to "become" as well as the freedom to "be." Hence, not only for scientific reasons, but also for good theological ones, the theistic-evolutionist is compelled to concede that material processes are undetermined, contingent and free (i.e. random), rather than determined and pre-ordained. This does not, however, negate the idea that the Creator God has created the cosmos for God's own purposes, nor the theological conclusion that, from the beginning, the Creator has been lovingly and graciously drawing the cosmos to share in the divine life -- the transformative process termed theosis.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Paradise Imagined (Part One): Toward an evolutionary account of Original Sin

Though a theistic-evolutionist might at first be tempted to set aside the doctrine of Original Sin as the product of a "pre-scientific" age, our previous examination of the "Two Minds" of Augustine revealed a rich theological tradition behind the Augustinian meta-narrative that could rightly be employed in the service of an informed contemporary accounting of the nature of humanity and of sin. Yet even after conceding as much, the theistic-evolutionist should still proceed with caution lest the temptation should arise again to cast the doctrine aside after plundering its riches. 

Truth be told, a theistic-evolutionary account cannot avoid its obligation to attempt a recasting of Original Sin in light of its own insights if those same insights should ever stand a chance of being recognized as Christian. This is not merely because Original Sin has been such a dominant theme in Christian theological discourse over the last two millennia. Rather, the Christian Gospel requires an etiology for sin in order for there to be any gospel at all. Simply put, there can be no remedy, no cure, no medicine, unless the sickness and its cause are identified for what they are.

Before moving forward from this point, it may be helpful to consider other insights that might be gleaned from the history of this doctrine, particularly the insights of a perspective we have only briefly considered in other articles: the perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy (e.g. Adam and the Undoing of Augustine). Generally speaking, Eastern views of Original Sin (more accurately "Ancestral Sin") have not been encumbered by the metaphysical speculations that have weighed down the Western discussion (e.g. original righteousness, transference of guilt, etc.). In contrast, Eastern views are refreshingly straightforward commentaries on the Genesis account of the Fall and of Paul's understanding of it in Romans 5: the story of "Paradise Lost."

To the Eastern mind, what Adam "lost" in the Fall for himself and his progeny had nothing to do with natural or supernatural attributes, either originally instilled or endowed in human nature -- issues we noted that so preoccupied Western discussions of Original Sin. Rather what Adam "lost" or, more accurately, what he "forfeited," was twofold: (1) communion and fellowship with God in the Garden; and (2) the gift of life (immortality) made possible by Adam's access to the Tree of Life. In fact, it would be accurate to suggest that not only had nothing been "lost" in the Fall with respect to human nature, but something had actually been "gained" in the Fall, namely the experiential knowledge of good and evil.

Two trees stood in the midst of the Garden: one conferring life and one conferring the knowledge of good and evil. As long as Adam remained obedient to the command not to eat of the fruit of the latter, he continued to have access to the fruit of the former. He would also remain in communion with God within the safe environment of the Garden. Beyond Eden lied the realm of death and dis-fellowship; expulsion from the Garden meant the same. This is precisely why the traditional Eastern Orthodox reading of Romans 5 sees the entrance of "death" into the world as its primary focus rather than that of "sin."

This is not to say that the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Ancestral Sin denies that, in some sense, human nature was affected by the Fall. Indeed, Paul's entire argument rests on the premise that "one man's trespass" effected death for all people. In other words, sin is never an isolated affair. The "knowledge of good and evil," once actualized, increases exponentially in the human condition -- "Through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners" (Romans 5:19).

Finally, there is also a cosmic dimension to some Eastern explications. In some sense, Adam's death meant the condemnation of all creation -- "For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in childbirth until now" (Romans 8:22). The Garden of Eden was but a foretaste, the mere beginnings, of a theosis that would encompass the entire cosmos; and Adam, the Creator's appointed caretaker of the Garden, would in time graduate to become caretaker of the entire cosmos. Adam's fall was creation's fall. When Adam fails to live up to his calling, no hope remains that the cosmos will realize its own.

However, a theistic-evolutionary perspective still demands its own account, and one in which the Genesis story of the Fall must still serve as an etiology, though not in terms of "Paradise Lost," but rather in terms of "Paradise Imagined." Yet, before we attempt such an account (which we shall endeavor to do in Part Two), it will do well for us to review the insights from the Eastern view that could prove useful to it:

1. The Eastern understanding of the Fall as "forfeiture" of the paradisiacal conditions of Eden over against the Western understanding of the Fall as the "loss of original righteousness." In either case, the theistic-evolutionist is not looking to identify or locate a "primordial Eden" in the natural history of the universe. Yet the mythological account of "Paradise Imagined" -- lost to humanity through willful disobedience -- is illustrative of the nagging realization that something has gone terribly awry in the cosmos, that humanity has not lived up to its calling, and that the failure to do so has meant the forfeiture of the ultimate purpose for humanity's existence -- i.e., communion in the divine life ("Paradise Realized").

2. The Eastern understanding that sin is never an isolated affair. As one man's trespass effected death for all humanity, so each subsequent act of willful disobedience compounds the problem of humanity's exclusion from Eden and estrangement from God. Again, the theistic-evolutionist is not interested in finding sin's origin in one primordial act of transgression. Yet "Paradise Imagined" is illustrative of sin's compound deleterious effects on the human race and compels the theistic-evolutionist somehow to account for sin's origination within the conditions of cosmic history.

3. The Eastern understanding of the cosmic dimension of the Fall. The entire cosmos is invested in Adam's destiny, so when Adam falls, all creation falls with him. Death becomes condemnation. Again, the theistic-evolutionist is not interested in blaming one common ancestor for the condemnation of all of creation. Yet "Paradise Imagined" is illustrative of the solidarity and theotic destiny of the entire cosmos as Imago Dei; a destiny only just recently actualized for the whole universe in the emergent consciousness and moral awakening of a tiny population of terrestrially-bound hominids ... as comical as that may appear to be.