30 August 2006

The Science of the Concrete

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:19 am

“It has long been the fashion to invoke languages which lack the terms for expressing such a concept as ‘tree’ or ‘animal,’ even though they contain all the words necessary for a detailed inventory of species and varieties.”

– Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 1962

This is the very first sentence of Levi-Strauss’ book, the point of entry rather than the conclusion. Already in the early sixties it wasn’t just the anthropological avant-garde who dismissed linguistic abstraction as just so much modernist alienation from our ancient narrative traditions. Immediately Levi-Strauss sets out to debunk the romantic notion of primitive concreteness.

Do we believe Franz Boas when, early in the twentieth century, he reports that the proposition “The bad man killed the poor child” is rendered in Chinook “The man’s badness killed the child’s poverty”? Perhaps not: he may have been misled by the indeterminacy of translation. We instead tend to believe those anthropologists who insist that primitive peoples assign categorical names only when there’s a pragmatic need to do so: to distinguish the edible berry from the poisonous, for example, rather than berry from not-berry. Levi-Strauss demurs:

“Words like ‘oak,’ ‘beech,’ ‘birch’, etc., are no less entitled to be considered as abstract words than the word ‘tree’… The proliferation of concepts, as in the case of technical languages, goes with more constant attention to properties of the world, with an interest that is more alert to possible distinctions which can be introduced between them. This thirst for objective knowledge is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call ‘primitive.’ Even if it is rarely directed toward facts of the same level as those with which modern science is concerned, it implies comparable intellectual application and methods of observation. In both cases the universe is an object of thought at least as much as it is a means of satisfying needs.”

Levi-Strauss cites example after example of idiosyncratically complex taxonomic schemes devised by “primitive” cultures around the world. His conclusion:

“[A]nimals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known. It may be objected that science of this kind can scarcely be of much practical effect. The answer to this is that its main purpose is not a practical one. It meets intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs.”

And we’re only on page 9 of his book.

“Let there be light,” proclaims elohim. “And elohim separated the light from the darkness; and elohim called the light day, and the darkness He called night.” Light and darkness, day and night: are these the properties of a raw natural universe that God is creating? Or is God imposing a system of abstract categories on raw nature? We are at day one, when God began creating the first science of the concrete.

For more on the first science of the concrete, see my exegesis of Genesis 1 on this blog, especially LET THERE BE and SEPARATE AND NAME.

28 August 2006

That Ghastly Whiteness

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:35 am

“Call me Ishmael.”

Ishmael: is this also the name by which he calls himself? Rarely does the narrator speak of himself; rarely do others speak of him. On that pilgrimage all eyes are fixed elsewhere: toward the horizon, into the Deep, upon the voiceless terror that bears another name.

“Praise be to God who has given me Ishmael and Isaac in my old age!” – so said father Abraham; so is it written in Surah 14. Had not Ishmael helped his father build the Sacred House of Ka‘bah, to which all the faithful must bow, to which all shall make the Hajj? Say: “We believe in God and that which has been revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes; to Moses and Jesus and the other prophets by their Lord.”

Queequeg the South Sea islander; Tashtego the red man; Daggoo the black African – each harpooneer squires one of the mates, good New Englanders all. Fedallah the yellow Parsee, servant of Zarathustra, leader of the five dusky phantoms, “a muffled mystery to the last” – he it is who steers the monomaniacal captain to his fate, who wields the iron of death.

“Fedallah was a creature such as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams, and then but dimly. The likes of him glide among the Oriental isles – those insulated, immemorial lands, which even in modern days preserve much of the ghostly aboriginalness of earth’s primal generations. There all men eye each other as real phantoms and ask the sun and the moon why they were created and to what end. There, according to scriptures, angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men – and devils also indulged in mundane amours.”

And the captain himself, his leg carried off in the whale’s jaws, his leg now fashioned of the jaw of a whale — already mystically united with his nemesis, he lurches toward the  one final reconciliation. All array themselves against the spectral monster of brooding cruelty becloaked in his “ghastly whiteness.”

“I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things,” Ishmael exhorts us near the beginning of his tale, “and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits.” We good Presbyterians – why does Ishmael, ever cautious, choose to grant us this glimpse behind the veil? Spewed from the black vortex of that watery desolation, buoyed by Queequeg’s floating coffin, was he born again as one of us, or as another, as Ishmael?

26 August 2006

In Theology There Is No Novelty Without Danger

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 4:38 pm

The gardens ravaged, the altars and chalices profaned, the Huns rode their horses into the monastery library and mangled the incomprehensible books and reviled and burned them – fearful perhaps that the letters of the books might harbor blasphemies against their god, which was a scimitar of iron.

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Theologians”


A palpable nostalgia broods over a beginning catastrophe. Of course the gardens were paradisiacal; of course the holy vessels, untarnished and empty, had graced the sacred space. The codices and palimpsests, whose subtle illuminations granted iconic access to the thrones of heaven itself – had they fueled the very holocaust that consumed them? Annealing themselves in those enflamed words, the worshippers of the forged blade bridled their ungainly horses as, tentative and ashamed, they pawed the ashes.

Though the labyrinthine gardens had for a time perplexed the victorious riders, they had come to know that in such places the heart and the mind are one. In their legends the garden itself was the center; in their conquests they would fight themselves as, breathing the scented and bowered air, they maintained their soldierly discipline until the devastation was fulfilled.

The altars they recognized but did not fear, for their god had been born of fire. But the books? That the monks would seek protection from their books seemed madness, for the monks themselves had made them, had rendered them vulnerable. It was an honor to destroy those who would render homage to such weakness.

When, seeking tribute and refreshment, the riders returned to the monastery, they would not find the scriptorium where the monks labored, bringing forth the fragile new gods of their infinite pantheon.


Rules of engagement. Freud drew our attention to the obvious — that all the people who occupy our dreams come from within our own imaginings. Does this make them also part of ourselves?


24 August 2006

We Creators

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:22 am

Writers concentrate all their craft into the shaping of a first sentence. They want it to be masterfully crafted, and they want it to grab your attention. Here’s the first sentence from one of the books I happen to have on my shelves:

We knowers are unknown to ourselves, and for a good reason: how can we ever hope to find what we have never looked for?

This sentence links together two abstract ideas, both of which are controversial: we don’t know ourselves, and we’ve never tried to understand ourselves. The writer begins with the second person plural, present tense – we are – then links the two big thoughts together in the form of a question. We presume that the author is trying to engage his readers in a dialogue. What common ground do we as potential readers share with the writer, so that we might want to accept his invitation to participate in a verbal exchange with a dead white male (for the writer is all three)?

We are, asserts the author, knowers. The author seems to be addressing a pretty broad potential audience, since everybody knows things. Still, how often do I think of myself as a “knower”? It’s a strange noun, though maybe it’s fairly common in German (for this sentence was originally written in German). I have knowledge, but the writer is asking me to think of myself as a knower. He’s directing my attention away from the world, from what I know, and toward myself. And I’m to think of myself not as a knowledgeable person, nor even as a learner, but as someone who actively knows, as one of those honey gatherers of the mind that he describes three sentences later. It’s a little disconcerting, this beginning

We knowers are unknown, says the writer. It’s a paradox: we know, but we ourselves are not known. Isn’t that part of the fun of being a knower? It’s like being a spy, keeping the subject of investigation under covert surveillance. By remaining in the shadows, we’re able to exert a kind of power over the world. But the author goes on: We knowers are unknown to ourselves. It’s a double paradox: we lay claim to being knowers, but something is eluding our scrutiny, something very important and close to us: ourselves. How can we hope to find what we have never looked for, the author asks us. Is that true? I tend to believe that we already spend inordinate amounts of time trying to understand who we really are, to the point where we barely bother to know about anything other than ourselves. Maybe this first sentence was generally true at the time it was written (for it was written over a hundred years ago), but now? Maybe the book is obsolete.

But now I’m reminded of another first sentence – not first sequentially in the book where it appears, but first in a historical sense: I think, therefore I am. Without question our writer was familiar with this older and more famous sentence (for our writer was a philosopher, or at least that’s how we think of him today). The grand edifice of modern Western philosophy was built on Descartes’ assertion of self-awareness. Was our writer blatantly claiming, right in the very first sentence, that the foundation stone is set in sand? Also, he seems deliberately to contrast Descartes’ thinking with another mental activity: knowing. This is probably an important distinction, but since I’m not a professional philosopher maybe the rest of the book isn’t really meant for the likes of me. But the writer begins with “we knowers,” not “we philosophers,” which encourages me: he’s proposing to take the dialogue outside the walls of the academy into the world at large. As I move on to the next sentence, I’m expecting neither a modern self-help book nor an impenetrable and arcane work of scholarship, but the ideas of someone who wants to engage me simply as a fellow-knower.

The book is The Genealogy of Morals; the writer, Friedrich Nietzsche.


We believe that we can know morality by discovering it; Nietzsche spends the greater part of his book spinning out alternative versions of how the human race created morality. For Nietzsche, knowing isn’t just a matter of gathering honey. Knowing too is an act of creating. If we want to know ourselves as creators, where do we look? Can we gather this self-knowledge and store it up for ourselves, or do we also have to create what we know about ourselves?

Start picking books off the shelves and reading the first sentences. Not just philosophy books, but all kinds of books – also short stories, plays, screenplays… Post, comment, file under FIRST LINES.

21 August 2006

It’s Hard Getting Noticed

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 12:12 pm

Here’s a transcript of a recent round of email correspondence with one of my old seminary professors. This bit of whining isn’t really the start of my blog — unless it is.

17 August

Dear Dr. ___

When I was at ___ in the late 70s I greatly admired your teaching and scholarship. Since getting my MDiv I’ve had zero contact with the old school. Now I approach you with some trepidation.

I’ve been working on an exegesis of Genesis 1 (yes, another one). It’s a literal exegesis, but I suppose it manifests the “postmodern” approach in a fairly rigorous sense. It’s a close reading, but a “post-structural” one; that is, it doesn’t rely on the rest of the Bible as interpretive context. As a result, that pathway takes some unexpected turns.

Briefly, I assert that the creation narrative has a narrator, an eyewitness to the events described. The “Let there be X;” and there was X creation formula is read as a dialogue between elohim and the witness, where elohim is teacher and the witness is student. Elohim asserts a series of scientific propositions about the material universe, and the witness confirms his understanding of these propositions. In the end the witness becomes like elohim: able to make sense of the world he inhabits, able thereby to use this knowledge to subdue the earth. In essence, and ironically, Genesis 1 becomes a text about elohim creating an empirically-based natural science.

I think it’s a pretty sound exegesis, though clearly not an orthodox one. It does solve certain problems in the current creation-vs-evolution controversy, only to open a different can of worms.

I’ve written a book embedding the exegesis in a broader interpretive and cultural context, but I’m not sure if anyone besides me will find it interesting. Not being an academician or a radio talkshow host, I have no ready-made platform from which to launch publication success. So, starting this week, I’ve been lurking around in the internet looking for people who might resonate with what I’ve done. The creation science people are too dug in to their own interpretations to look at mine; the evolutionists are interested mostly in Bible studies that debunk Scriptural accuracy.

Now I’ve come across the “emergents.” Having never heard of them before, I started reading some of their stuff. It’s kind of interesting, though I haven’t yet figured out the content of their “conversation.” In this search I found a reference to your critiques. I read one of your articles online: civil, reasonable and rigorous.

So, I wonder if you’d be interested in seeing what I’ve come up with. I understand that your a New Testament specialist, but I’d bet good money that your knowledge of the Old Testament and of Hebrew exceeds mine by a long shot. Also, as a kind of spokesman for “traditional evangelicalism” in the discussion with the emergents, you might have an interest in what I at least regard as a civil, reasonable and rigorous — if perhaps heretical — treatment of a Biblical text.

I’ve posted the exegesis on a website — the Introduction Page can be found by clicking here. If it captures your interest you can read the whole exegesis on that website. The rest of the book deals with the current controversy, early church debates, creativity within the Reformation, and the ascendancy of a hedonic ethos of creativity. Following the exegesis I discuss implications for an “elohimic ethos of creation” that contrasts with hedonism and social Darwinism. I can, if you like, email you the rest of the book.

I probably will send an email also to Dr. ___, from whom I learned to enjoy the exegetical practice. What his position is regarding the emergents I don’t know — but I don’t know my own position in that regard either.

John Doyle


August 20

Dear Mr. Doyle:

Thanks for your email of 17 August. Unfortunately, so many book-length manuscripts are offered me, usually several a week, that I simply have to turn down the overwhelming majority of them. Sorry!

With all good wishes,

Yours faithfully,


20 August

Dear Dr. ___

Thank you for your timely response, in which you graciously declined to look at my manuscript called Creating Like Gods. It’s disheartening to think that my book constitutes such an indistinguishably insignificant contribution to the sludge conduit passing through your office that it merits no personalized comment from you or your asssistant as to why my particular offering is chosen for rejection. Wrong topic? Wrong theology? Don’t know me from Adam?

Maybe you could customize your standard rejection letter a little bit; e.g. by cutting and pasting any random phrase from the writer’s petition and saying it doesn’t suit you. Try this:

Dear X,
In your letter of 17 August you say: The “Let there be X;” and there was X creation formula is read as a dialogue between elohim and the witness, where elohim is teacher and the witness is student. Unfortunately, I’m not currentlly pursuing this line of inquiry…

Or how about assigning the unsolicited manuscripts to your students for review? When I was in seminary I would have been thrilled if you or one of my other professors had asked me to preview an unpublished manuscript. You wouldn’t even have had to pay me. Frankly, as an unpublished writter I’d be thrilled to have anybody read my book, even a lowly sem student.

John Doyle

19 August 2006

Seeking a Raison d’Etre

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 9:32 pm

I set up this blog as a sounding board for the GENESIS 1 REVISITED project, which is presented as a series of rather long Pages over there on the right of the screen. Being new to blogspace, I wasn’t aware that nobody reads the archives and nobody comments on anything that’s been posted for more than a week. So I’m starting to get the hang of it. Now I have to decide what to write that spotlights the Gen1 exegesis without just repeating chunks of it as Posts or duplicates stuff that’s on some of the other excellent blogs out there. I’ll keep you posted.

9 August 2006

Introducing Ktismatics

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:14 pm

… a website dedicated to the theory and practice of creation. Artist or scientist, revolutionary or entrepreneur, adventurer or dreamer — if you create, Ktismatics is for you. Here you can read and comment on the GENESIS 1 REVISITED project, a new literal reading of the Biblical creation narrative. The SUMMARY OF FINDINGS identifies the core themes of the Western creative tradition embedded in the ancient text and outlines a profoundly ironic resolution of the creation-versus-evolution debate. Read, think, comment, pass the word.

Regular updates, called KTISMATA, will focus on pertinent aspects of the contemporary creative calling, as well as consensus and controversy surrounding the issues raised on the website.

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