31 October 2006

A Really Old Joke

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 10:05 pm

What was God doing before the beginning? We don’t know; we aren’t told – but we aren’t the first to wonder. Here’s what John Calvin, in his Commentary on Genesis, has to say about it:

Here also the impiety of those is refuted who cavil against Moses, for relating that so short a space of time had elapsed since the Creation of the World. For they inquire why it had come so suddenly into the mind of God to create the world; why he had so long remained inactive in heaven: and thus by sporting with sacred things they exercise their ingenuity to their own destruction. In the Tripartite History an answer given by a pious man is recorded, with which I have always been pleased. For when a certain impure dog was in this manner pouring ridicule upon God, he retorted, that God had been at that time by no means inactive because he had been preparing hell for the captious.

It turns out this was an old joke even in Calvin’s day. The Tripartite History Calvin cites was a church history written by Epiphaneus Scholasticus early in the sixth century. But Epiphaneus got the joke from Augustine’s Confessions, written more than a century earlier:

How, then, shall I respond to him who asks, “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” I do not answer, as a certain one is reported to have done facetiously (shrugging off the force of the question). “He was preparing hell,” he said, “for those who pry too deep.”

Augustine was writing his personal failings and trusting in God’s forgiveness; maybe that put him in a more tolerant mood than either Epiphaneus or Calvin. Augustine continues:

It is one thing to see the answer; it is another to laugh at the questioner – and for myself I do not answer these things thus. More willingly would I have answered, “I do not know what I do not know,” than cause one who asked a deep question to be ridiculed – and by such tactics gain praise for a worthless answer. Rather, I say that thou, our God, art the Creator of every creature. And if in the term “heaven and earth” every creature is included, I make bold to say further: “Before God made heaven and earth, he did not make anything at all. For if he did, what did he make unless it were a creature?” I do indeed wish that I knew all that I desire to know to my profit as surely as I know that no creature was made before any creature was made. (Book XI, Chapter XII, 14)

The Creation of History

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 12:11 pm

[Another in the Genesis 1 series, as I try to finish off this book. This post excerpts two pages from the exegesis: The Interval and Day One.]

In the Beginning

The Bible doesn’t show us a continually unfolding creation, a perpetual work in progress, with the creator content simply to stay in the flow. The writer describes a process of creation which after six days is finished. The creation narrative comprises only a couple of pages in a very, very long book. From then on it’s a story devoted largely to God’s ongoing engagement with the already-completed creation. Process is important for God, but it’s a process that occurs inside the creation after it’s already been installed. Again and again God would intervene in subsequent human affairs, but as for the creative task at hand? Done, end of day six.

For now we resist the temptation to concern ourselves unduly with the length of those six days. What concerns us here is the bounded duration of time during which God brought the creation into being. Together, days one through six comprise the first recorded interval in history. The Creation was wrought by God over the course of an extended but delimited period of time set aside specifically for that purpose. The writer of the creation narrative even brackets the interval for us. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth marks the front end of the interval; Thus the heavens and the earth were completed is posted at the back end. Not only do the writer’s brackets announce the beginning and the end of the interval; they also pronounce the meaning of the interval: it’s a time set aside for God to create the heavens and the earth, from start to finish. The Genesis creation narrative begins with the single Hebrew word that translates into English as in the beginning. The very first word of the Bible refers to time, to the beginning of an interval of time. One could go so far as to say that, even before creating the heavens and the earth, God created the interval as a duration of time, with a beginning and an end, during which something meaningful happens.

The interval of creation might be short, but it’s not instantaneous. Elohim may well have started things off with a big bang, but his creation didn’t come into the fullness of its existence in that first instant. Perhaps he could have brought forth the Creation fully formed literally in no time at all: first there was no universe, then there was, with no time in between. Elohim didn’t do it like that; he took some time – but he didn’t take forever. Just as we can imagine God creating the universe in an instant, so can we imagine him perpetually engaged in the ongoing bringing forth of the Creation. Things change all the time in our universe: isn’t this continuous transformation of the world – its evolution – rightly to be regarded as an activity directed by the steady hand of God? Maybe, maybe not: what we’re told is that, as far as God is concerned, his job of creating the universe is over and done with.

What happens before the beginning? We don’t know; we aren’t told. Maybe it’s the eternal now, the perpetually present instant, unlimited by past and future. Maybe it’s a timeless time that persists forever, coexisting somehow with what we humans know as linear time. Maybe there is no time at all. Augustine couldn’t accept the idea of an eternal God creating within linear time; Aquinas couldn’t either. Still, in parsing the text as a straightforward narrative, we’ve discovered that in the beginning God opened an interval, a temporal window inside eternity, during which something different could come into being.

Day One, Two, Three…

The interval of creation is divided into six segments, during each of which God creates certain specific things. At the end of each segment the narrator invokes yet a formulaic expression: And there was evening and there was morning, followed by a number: one day, a second day, a third day, and so on. Proponents of Day-Age Theory contend that the “days” of creation refer not to the 24-hour rotation of the earth but to much longer creative eras lasting perhaps thousands, even billions of years. We see an early example of Day-Age Theory in the Epistle of Barnabas. For a thousand years in Thy sight are like yesterday when it passes by, the Psalmist says of God, while in his second epistle Peter reminds his readers that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. In 250 AD Cyprian assured his readers that the first seven days in the divine arrangement contain seven thousand years (Treatises 11:11). Augustine believed that God’s days might not even refer to the passing of linear time:

Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them. (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 408, 4:27).

The work accomplished on day one – separating the light from the darkness, naming the day and the night – sets the stage specifically for the passage of time as successive day-night cycles. To interpret the interval of creation as anything other than the elapsing of six successive mornings and evenings seems to dismiss the very first day’s work as allegorical. If in Genesis 1 day and night don’t mean what we think they do, then what about evening and morning, the earth and the seas and the heavens, the sun and the moon and the stars, the seed-bearing plants and the fruit trees, the flying and swarming and swimming things, mankind – is everything else in the creation allegorical too?

In our exegesis of day one we proposed that God created the idea of light as a way of making sense of natural phenomena. As an abstract property light binds together otherwise very different things; in oscillation with darkness it marks the division of days from one another. Now we see that it’s possible to interpret the other days of the creation interval along similar lines. The precative mood persists throughout – “Let there be,” “Let the waters be gathered,” “Let the earth sprout vegetation,” and so on – supporting the idea of elohim as a kind of philosopher or scientist seeking agreement with a series of propositions that he’s putting forth. The witness verifies the reality of each precative construction, just as he did on day one.

We aren’t told explicitly that God created time during Genesis 1. Certainly God harnesses time during the first interval: light is separated from darkness, day from night, day one from day two; the sun and moon are assigned as markers of time passing. Perhaps time was chaotic at the beginning, and God organized it. I suppose it’s asking a lot of the writer of Genesis to contemplate time quite so abstractly, as a created thing – after all, clocks weren’t even invented until around the tenth century AD.

A spectacle acquires an added richness by the introduction of plot, which requires the passage of time. Day one opens the passage through which the story of creation emerges. In the beginning: the passage that is linear time opens new aesthetic possibilities for the witness. Besides, if the rest of the Bible is any indication, then God likes a good story too. The Bible isn’t a timeless metaphysical treatise or a static manual of rules. For the most part it’s a history book, recounting the ebbs and flows in the turbulent relationship between God and his people, a relationship founded on God’s promises, on his memory of those promises, and on the expectation that one day the promises will be fulfilled. In the continuing reality created by elohim, every present moment is deeply embedded in the past and the future, its meaning defined by the forward movement of time

LATER: Why this interpretation too is doomed to obscurity.

30 October 2006

Why the Creation of Hermeneutics Interpretation is Doomed

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 12:50 pm

[This post is a continuation of the Genesis 1 series. Last Friday’s post described the Genesis 1 conversation between God and the narrator as the creation of hermeneutics. Today I talk about why that interpretation is doomed to irrelevance in the emerging post-evangelical church. These are long posts, but I’m posting in real time, as I write. The faster I write, the sooner I finish.]

In our exegesis we tried to understand what the text means, to see the unfolding events from the narrator’s perspective, to understand what meaning he intended to convey. Paradoxically, we found the narrator doing the same thing: trying to understand elohim, to take his perspective, to grasp the meaning. If our interpretation is correct, then Genesis 1 describes the creation of hermeneutics itself.

The witness writes; we read; we interpret. In our exegesis we consciously allowed ourselves to be constrained by the text as if it was possible to discover its embedded truths. We tried to orient ourselves toward events as the witness might have experienced them. We tried to hear in elohim’s words the meaning he intended as he spoke them; we tried to read in the narrator’s words the meaning he intended as he wrote them. To propose that Genesis 1 describes the creation of natural science might not be a canonical reading in the Judeo-Christian interpretive community, but it’s not an unreasonable reading. More importantly, it’s supported by the text itself. The text exists, independent of its writer, independent also of its interpreter, as a fragment of written language. Language evolved as a means of communicating about and making sense of the world. In allowing our interpretation to be constrained by the text, we act as if we can see what the writer was pointing to, and with what conscious intent he was pointing, when he penned the words.

Still, our exegesis might be wrong. God created the heavens and the earth, the Bible says – not just a scientific description of the heavens and the earth. And the witness: the new interpretation assigns a mighty important role to someone who never makes an appearance in the story itself. Even if we follow the most conservative exegetical practice we can never arrive at a universally-accepted right interpretation. We can’t project ourselves into the mental shoes of the narrator, seeing the world through his eyes so we can understand what sense he makes of it all, because we don’t know who the narrator is. Did we infer from the text what the witness must have been like, or did we just imagine him? At least someone actually wrote the story down; elohim left no record engraved in his own hand. Was there really a witness to the creation, or did the writer have to infer from oral tradition and physical evidence what must have happened so long ago? Maybe the tale began as a campfire story, an island of reassurance surrounded by the nighttime void. The whole project begins drifting toward the indistinct borderland between nonfiction and fiction, between reality and fantasy.

And so we force ourselves to turn back: this is true and real, this is redemption and renewal; God inspired the writer and personally revealed to us what the text means. But… we can never demonstrate to independent observers that it was really God speaking, or that we understood him correctly, or that we’ve entirely set aside our own personal perspectives. We have to create an interpretation that fits the evidence, then wait to see whether anyone else can see what we see. What if they don’t see – are we delusional? What if they do see – have we propagated a collective delusion, or perhaps unwittingly anticipated the next inevitable collective insight of our interpretive community? Did these thoughts go through elohim’s mind, or that of the witness, as together they faced that first dawn?

How would we be able to recognize the “right” interpretation? Our exegesis was careful and detailed; we tried to set preconceptions aside; we arrived at an internally consistent reading. In traditional hermeneutics we would look for the message that the writer embedded in the text, also seeking spiritual enlightenment from God as to the meaning he intended to convey. But if we set aside the possibility of hearing directly from the author and try to extract meaning directly from the “raw” text, there’s no way of knowing how our interpretation corresponds to the truth of the message. The narrator isn’t around to confirm or to discredit our understanding; besides, he might not have understood everything he was reporting. A radical relativism would dismiss the truth idea altogether: if there’s no way of knowing what the truth is, why worry about it? Let hermeneutics be fruitful and multiply, without regard for which of the alternative readings is the “right” one:

Hermeneutics sees the relations between various discourses as those of strands in a possible conversation, a conversation which presupposes no disciplinary matrix which unites the speakers, but where the hope of agreement is never lost so long as the conversation lasts. This hope is not a hope for an antecedently existing common ground, but simply hope for agreement, or, at least, exciting and fruitful disagreement… united by civility rather than by a common goal, much less by a common ground. (Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 318)

Unconstrained by the need to discover any underlying truth, hermeneutics becomes a work of pure imagination, no more subject to independent verification than the spiritual interpretations of medieval scholars.

* * * * *

What’s remarkable, and what might completely undermine the creation-versus-evolution dispute, is that some of the brighter lights in the evangelical firmament are moving out of the traditionally tight text-centered orbit into a more free-floating hermeneutic. The literal hermeneutic that reached its zenith among twentieth-century fundamentalists is increasingly discounted by some evangelicals as symptomatic of a broader rational empiricism that virtually defines modernism in its disregard for spirituality and tradition.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, a twentieth-century philosopher, argued that texts could never give up their “truths” either by treating them as empirical data or by trying to understand the writer’s intentions. What readers look for and find in any text is determined in large part by the culture and the historical moment in which they’re inextricably embedded. We can never free ourselves from our historical and cultural context, so our readings are inevitably biased in ways we cannot even recognize. We can never extract the objective meaning from texts; all we can do is interpret texts from within our own limited perspectives.

Postmodern evangelicals increasingly endorse Gadamer’s conclusions, acknowledging the impossibility of ever arriving at the definitive reading of any Biblical text. The closest we can come is to identify the normative reading of what Stanley Fish called the “interpretive community”: those people with whom we share a similar orientation to interpreting Biblical texts. For Christians the interpretive community is the church – not just the local church, not just the worldwide twenty-first century church, but the church universal throughout history, perhaps even extending back into the Jewish community before Christ. Postmodern exegetes in the Gadamer-Fish tradition try to identify the historically normative beliefs of the church universal, beliefs that not only shape hermeneutical decisions of the interpretive community but that also presumably influenced the canonical writers, themselves participants in this same community. The Biblical canon is itself a collective product of the interpretive community of its writers. No longer constituting imperfect renderings of the eternal Logos; now the Scriptures are artificially stable manifestations of a constantly changing tradition. To use a flagrantly anachronistic analogy, reading a Biblical text is like studying a single still shot extracted from a very long movie in which all the characters are at the same time the directors and the screenwriters.

As applied to Genesis 1, this postmodern evangelical hermeneutic asserts that the text was written within a culture that wanted to assert its belief in a single all-powerful God who created the material universe. The text shouldn’t be read empirically, as if it were a factual account of how and when the universe came into being. The text might be a poem, or a story, or even a polemic – a text not meant to be read literally, as if the author had intended to convey information. What’s important is to recognize the shared beliefs of the canonically interpretive community that gave rise to the text, then to arrive at an interpretation of the text that reflects those beliefs. A reading of the Genesis 1 narrative that questions the central premise of a single God creating the material world is to read out of context, even if that reading preserves a literal rather than an allegorical understanding of the text.

It’s not clear just how important the problematic creation narrative has been in causing the evangelical community to rethink strict Biblical inerrancy. We recall that Jesus’ treatment of Old Testament Scripture as authoritative became foundational to the inerrancy position. Now a revision is underway: Jesus and the New Testament writers regarded the Bible as an authoritative source of revelation to be sure, but they also extended, perhaps even distorted, the meaning of Biblical passages beyond what the writers probably had in mind, and also beyond how first-century Jewish readers were likely to read them. The evangelical community also seeks to reestablish greater continuity with the historical Christian tradition, a gesture that has led to the rehabilitation of the early Church Fathers, of Augustine, even of Aquinas, all of whom were practitioners of spiritual exegesis and who, as we have seen, rejected the strict literal reading of Genesis 1.

Ans so it is that “post-evangelicals” increasingly accept what would have been anathema a generation ago and what remains so among mainstream evangelicals: that Genesis ought to be read as a mythopoetic homage to the creator-God rather than as a source of propositional truth about how the universe was created. Seemingly overnight Biblical literalism has become expendable, whereas preserving the historical Judeo-Christian tradition of a God who created the material universe ex nihilo has become even more essential. We employed a literal empirical hermeneutic for reading of Genesis 1 and, incredibly, we arrived at an interpretation that described God’s creation of literal empirical hermeneutics itself. Ironically, we’ve achieved this interpretation just at the moment in history when evangelicals are moving toward contextual, subjective, even allegorical hermeneutics. The potential impact of our new literal reading of Genesis 1 is undermined from within the very constituency that might have had the most to gain.

There’s even a tendency for the post-evangelicals to question the importance of language as a source of revelation. Encounters with God are existential, mystical, impossible to capture in words. Language is a consequence of man’s separation from God. When perfect union with God is restored, the need for language and its interpretation can be done away with. The Genesis 1 narrative describes elohim using language right from the beginning, even before the Fall in the Garden of Eden which presumably separated man from God. But if the Genesis 1 story is no longer to be taken as literally, then the words of the text were imposed by fallen man long after the fact. God’s speaking becomes an anthropomorphism, a way of describing events in which language played no part. Again the irony is striking: God creates language and communication, but the Church decides that linguistic communication with God is irrelevant.


NEXT: The Creation of History


29 October 2006

Buzzy Cornfield

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 12:15 pm

What I mostly think about is how the world got to be the way it is.

– Leonard Susskind, “The Landscape,” 2003

Willow, willow, o’the wisp again,
Sorrow, oh, t’wIll all win well at end.

– William Harris, “Poems from My World,” undated

Dr. Harris –

I was sitting at my computer reading about string theory and the landscape of infinitely possible pocket universes when the name Buzzy Cornfield popped into my mind. I thought it sounded like a good name for a character in a story. What to do next? Google it, of course. And there they are, your buzzy boys chirping in the cornfield. They opened up one of those pocket universes for me, and I lived in the poem for awhile listening to oboe music.

. . .

Plants that grow in the sun have cool mornings too,
When the morning is heavy on the hills and dew sprays
Back to the sky. Underneath each leaf
We lie to rest, see the giant window panes
Of green embroideries, and hear the buzzy boys
Chirp in the cornfield. Their little violins
Saw in perfection.

. . .

As for Smolin’s speculations about the evolution of the universe, let me say that almost all cosmologists would agree that the universe is reproducing.

Update 30 August 2008: Dr. Harris never did respond to my email.

27 October 2006

The Creation of Hermeneutics

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 10:57 am

[This is a continuation of the last few posts, in which I’m walking through the implications of my reading of Genesis 1. Before I talked about how Gen.1 describes the creation of science; here I say that it also describes the creation of hermeneutics.]

If science is the understanding of what nature means, then hermeneutics is the understanding of what communication means. Over the centuries a variety of hermeneutical principles have informed the exegesis of Genesis 1. If our new interpretation of the text is correct, then Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of hermeneutics itself.

Elohim speaks, a language-user from the very beginning. He speaks not to himself, not to the spirit of the stuff being created, not to the demiurges, but to a witness – the original narrator of the creation event. “Let there be light” isn’t a magical incantation to bring the material world into existence, but a kind of hypothetical proposition offered to the witness: “Let this abstract property of the universe be called ‘light.” And there was light, confirms the witness. Elohim is creating a cosmology and teaching it to the witness, a cosmology that makes sense of raw phenomena in a way that makes sense to other intelligent beings. By understanding elohim’s communicative intent, the witness becomes like elohim: a participant in linguistic systems of meaning. Man becomes a hermeneutician, an interpreter of a verbally mediated reality.

In the beginning the witness lived in a raw world, where meaning systems hadn’t been created yet. The world was proto-reality; the witness, proto-man. In making sense of the raw world, God began to transform proto-reality into reality. By showing reality to the witness and describing it in words, God began transforming proto-man into man. “Let there be light;” and there was light: God speaks first, to reveal the creation; the witness, understanding God’s meaning, echoes God’s words. As he offers the responsorial there was, the witness proclaims that God’s revelation has been received.

We’ve been assume that God was speaking to the witness. Then to whom is the witness speaking as he reports the events that transpired on that first day, offering his verbal vouchsafe of the newly-created reality of light? Not to God: there is no dialogue between God and the witness in the Genesis 1 creation narrative. Does the witness speak to himself? Are there multiple witnesses speaking among themselves? We’ve faced this same puzzle before. Perhaps the answer here is the same as before: the witness too has witnesses. The narrator of any story is addressing an audience. The audience may be a group of people gathered at the feet of the storyteller or a solitary reader separated from the writer by five thousand miles and three thousand years. Either way, the narrator utters the words and the audience, in receiving the words, bears witness to the story. This is the first story ever told, the first meaningful narrative conveyed verbally among human beings.

Elohim sees, imagines, thinks, hypothesizes, speaks. The witness looks, hears, imagines, thinks, hypothesizes, interprets. The ability to understand the world is crucial in human learning; the ability to understand one another, perhaps even more so. Realities aren’t just embedded in language; they’re communicated through language. For the speaker to make himself understood; for the hearer to make himself understand; to achieve a shared linguistic orientation toward the world and it means: this is how realities are established.

Lower animals experience the world but have no conception of it, no words or ideas for making sense of it, no reality. Humans have a collective reality: we use the same words to describe the same phenomena. The words and the acceptable ways of assembling them into statements are the collective human creation of language. A complex cultural artifact, language has been assembled incrementally and cumulatively as a means of orienting one another towards the same things. Language is possible only because of the uniquely human capability to take the other’s perspective. It’s a remarkable feat of imagination, to imagine oneself as the other. But no matter how successful you are at taking my perspective, you remain you. You bring your own perspective with you. And because you do that, you never see exactly what I see or understand exactly what I’m trying to say. This mismatch between speaker/writer and interpreter opens up the realm of creation. Partly you’re filling in the gaps in your ability to “be” me; partly you’re going beyond me, filling in the gaps of meaning, creating something else.

More Doom: Science and Faith as Separate Domains

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 5:44 am

[This morning I added the following paragraph to the analysis of why the “creation of science” interpretation of Genesis 1 is doomed (see preceding two posts). Later today I’ll move on to hermeneutics]

Those who seek a more peaceful cohabitation propose that faith and science be allowed to operate within their own separate domains. Religion deals with matters of purpose, morality, community, God; science, with the investigation, explanation and technological control of the material world. Modern science is intrinsically empirical, whereas faith occupies intangible realms of faith and spirit where there can be no hard evidence. The post-evangelical community seems increasingly committed to the intrinsic incommensurability of faith and science. They are prepared to acknowledge the truth claims and the pragmatic value of science, even to the point of accepting the validity of evolution. However, they dismiss as intellectually crude those “empirical fundamentalists” who insist on subjecting spirit to matter, who scoff at the lack of tangible evidence for phenomena that transcend evidence. If the people of faith were to encounter, right at the beginning of the Bible, evidence of God as the first empirical scientist, the barrier between domains would begin to crumble, along with the uneasy truce which that barrier makes possible.

26 October 2006

Why the Creation of Science Interpretation is Doomed

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 11:45 am

[Note: Today’s post is a continuation of yesterday’s. In response to a comment on yesterday’s post I’ve put up a Page over on the right called REALITY. It gives an extended “systematic ktismology” of how the creation of the heavens and earth could refer to something other than the creation of the material universe. Now on with the jeremiad… ]

Our exegesis preserves the literal truth of a particularly treacherous passage of Scripture without discounting the findings of modern natural science. Not only that, but it turns out that Genesis 1 describes the creation of natural science itself. We haven’t merely reopened the Platonic real-versus-ideal dispute that distracted Biblical exegetes for more than a thousand years. The material world exists, and not just as an imperfect representation of pure idea. Neither are ideas pure and eternal forms rendered imperfectly in minds. Ideas are created by thinking, imagining, perceiving beings trying to make sense of the world. For the Greeks science was a kind of revelation, an insight into the perfect and immutable forms of which nature is but an imperfect reflection. In contrast we see the elohim of Genesis 1 as an early empiricist trying to understand the world on its own terms. According to the traditional interpretation the creation narrative puts the sheer power of God on display; the new interpretation emphasizes God’s intelligence and imagination. Rather than being an aloof conjurer, God reveals himself as a teacher – an image that’s consistent with the lawgiver of the Torah and especially with the Jesus of the Gospels explaining the Kingdom of God to his small circle of disciples.

Creating a way of making sense of the data without doing violence to the data itself: this commitment to imaginative realism, in conjunction with the widely-acknowledged ethos of workmanlike perseverance, fueled the creative and economic boom of the Western world. The Scientific Revolution, far from being a reaction against religion, was the most obvious manifestation of imaginative realism as applied to the natural world. Kepler wanted to be a Lutheran Minister; Newton devoted much of his time and energy to Biblical exegesis; most of the important figures in the development of a resolutely empirical science were Protestants.

Suppose people begin to accept the idea that Genesis 1 describes the creation of science. A test of blind faith, a stumbling block, a proof text of religious irrationality – Genesis 1’s prominence would begin to recede in the contemporary creation-versus-evolution debate. The literal truth of Scripture would be preserved without invoking literary genres in which literal truth doesn’t count. Even traditional theism can be preserved: Genesis 1 might not describe God’s creation of the raw material universe, but that’s not to say he didn’t do it anyway. Even for Judeo-Christian believers the timeline and sequence of the creation narrative have always posed interpretive problems; now, with this obstacle removed, the faithful could agree to disagree about when and in what order God actually did the work, what methods he used, and how long it took him to complete the job. Of course we haven’t even touched on the second chapter of Genesis, a text that seems to offer an alternative creation story which many interpreters deem incompatible with Genesis 1. Perhaps the revised reading of Chapter 1 would shed new light on Chapter 2 as well.

The specific irony of the new interpretation wouldn’t be lost on evolutionary scientists. How richly fitting that the Biblical creation story should describe not the creation of the physical universe but the creation of natural science. Emissaries from an advanced civilization teaching Cosmology 101 to a protohuman tribe: scifi-savvy scientists would have no trouble recognizing in themselves the image and likeness of elohim. In a dramatic reversal, religious conservatives might abandon their efforts to dilute scientific education in the public schools, instead embracing empirical science as a distinctly Judeo-Christian calling.

But things won’t turn out that way.

Believers in the Judeo-Christian God are unlikely ever to abandon their belief in God as creator of the material universe. Even if they accept evolution, even if they reject creation science or intelligent design, they will not reject the idea that behind it all, beyond all scientific probes, God set everything in motion and holds everything in place by his power. But perhaps the fatal blow to the new interpretation’s potential impact on creation-versus-evolution is the belief, firmly held by theists and atheists alike, that Genesis 1 is a narrative about God’s creation of the material universe.

Central to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is the worship of an all-powerful God; in that religious reality, Genesis 1 is a message about, and from, that God. Jews and Christians have long acknowledged factual contradictions in all the proposed literal readings of Genesis 1. Remarkably, even some evangelicals have begun to read the narrative figuratively. The new generation of evangelical exegetes treat the creation narrative as an archaic literary form in which the writer had no intention of conveying scientific fact – a poem, say, or a saga. What then did the writer intend to convey? That there is an all-powerful God who created the material universe. Now a new reading of Genesis 1 comes along, one that treats the text as a straightforward and accurate depiction of a historical event. This new reading suggests that the Genesis 1 narrative describes an event other than the material creation. Evangelicals are faced with a choice: preservation of Scriptural literalism, or preservation of the traditional underpinning of theism. Guess which one is going to win the day?

Evolutionary scientists, on the other hand, may dismiss the new interpretation of Genesis 1 as a last-ditch attempt to salvage an obsolete religion by subsuming all of science under the mighty hand of God. Attributing the initial creation of science to God is to invoke a supernatural intervention – a “skyhook” in Dennett’s terminology – to account for a completely natural development. Empirical science explores the impersonal forces of nature; in that scientific reality, Genesis 1 is relevant primarily as an ideological impediment to the widespread acceptance of empirically-tested and generally-accepted scientific conclusions. Just as an exegesis of Genesis 1 that doesn’t unfold within a theistic framework is meaningless to the Judeo-Christian religious reality, so too an exegesis that doesn’t speak directly to the origins of the material universe is meaningless to the reality of modern science. Our reading of Genesis 1 doesn’t fit well in either of these dominant realities. We read the text as if it was literally true – an evangelical foundation stone – but we leave open the possibility that the creator might have been a group of gods, or even a group of humans. In our interpretation God does not create the material universe in Genesis 1 – an acceptable conclusion to evolutionary scientists – but we don’t debunk the inerrancy of Scripture or the possibility that God might still have created the physical world. From inside the theist and atheist meaning systems there’s nothing in the new exegesis to grab hold of. It’s irrelevant, meaningless, unreal.

The most likely outcome, then, is that both sides in the creation-evolution debate will ignore the new interpretation altogether. It’s not the next iteration in the argument; it doesn’t clearly support one side or the other; it doesn’t even split the difference. If we wanted to make sure people paid attention, it might have been shrewder to embed our exegesis in one of these larger realities. There’s nothing to be gained by playing it coy: in an already-heated debate, strong partisanship sells. We’ve entered the controversy neither as theologians nor as natural scientists but as creators. Within a creators’ reality it’s not clear what the debate points are, let alone which side we support. The new interpretation of Genesis 1 is an anomaly, misaligned with the zeitgeist, difficult to classify or interpret according to any of the prevalent worldviews. Generally speaking, anomalies are doomed to obscurity.

TOMORROW: The Creation of Hermeneutics

25 October 2006

The Creation of Science

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 11:26 am

[This post is an alternative reading of Genesis 1:3; it combines the slightly edited version of the LET THERE BE page and a portion of the AND THERE WAS page, both clickable on the right side of this blog. We’re jumping into the middle of the exegesis here; if you want the context you might want to read the Genesis 1 pages from the beginning.]

Let There Be

“Let there be light” – what does this phrase mean? In Hebrew the verb conjugation expresses the “precative mood,” by which the speaker expresses the intent to influence the listener’s behavior in some way. The precative falls somewhere between a direct command (“Light, come forth!”) and a simple indicative (“There is light.”). For most Hebrew verbs the precative and the indicative are conjugated identically; mood has to be inferred from context.

A speaker uses the precative to express an indirect command or request or intent: “Please let there be light” or “Would that there was light” exemplify the use of the precative in English. God could have been issuing a polite command, either to a demiurge or to the animistic spirit of the light itself. Maybe God was thinking out loud, tentatively putting forward his preference about what to create before taking definitive action. Maybe the angels had been discussing various ideas about what to create, and God was offering a gentle suggestion. Maybe “Let there be light” was a diplomatic announcement, the politely-expressed resolution of a debate among the members of a collective. It seems odd that the almighty God would have expressed his creative intentions in this roundabout way.

A speaker also uses the precative to elicit agreement from the listener. For instance, a mathematician or a scientist might invoke a phrase like “Let there be X” when stating an abstract proposition: a formula, say, or a proof. There is a property in the universe, shared by things like the sun and the stars, fires and lightning and volcanoes, to which I’d like to call your attention: let it be called “light.”

At first blush this abstract, hypothetical way of using language seems anachronistic in the context of Genesis 1. But consider verse 14, which documents day four of the creation:

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament to separate day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.

In the first part of this Let there be… pronouncement, God is creating lights in the heavens, just as he created light more generally on day one. But when he says to let them be for signs and seasons, he’s no longer just creating the lights; he’s assigning a function to them: the lights can be “read” as a source of meaning and as a metric for keeping track of the passage of time. When God says to let be this second time, he might be making a more elaborate prescription about the kind of lights he intends to create; or proposing the link between lights and signs, between lights and seasons; or making an observation about ways in which someone – the witness, perhaps – might be able to make use of the lights. Each of these interpretations is valid grammatically and syntactically; each demands a more abstract, conceptual reading of the let be phrase than calling something into physical existence.

Professor Elohim steps to the podium. He shows a series of slides: sunrise, burning branches, lightning strike, volcanic eruption. “Let the word ‘light’ stand for this particular physical property,” the Professor begins. It’s possible. Still, this grammatically legitimate alternative interpretation doesn’t solve the larger contextual puzzle; namely, to whom was God directing his remark? Perhaps he was speaking to the witness. God thought about something, and he spoke the word that conveyed his idea to the witness.

How could a bit of scientific categorization possibly be regarded as an act of creation? Light is so commonplace a property we detect it instinctively, beneath the level of conscious awareness. But that might be just the point. What if being consciously aware of the light wasn’t commonplace at all; what if, in fact, no one had ever actually thought about light, or given it a name, in the history of the universe? The sun, a forest fire, a bolt of lightning, an active volcano: diverse phenomena share a certain property that links them together and distinguishes them from other kinds of phenomena like the sea, the trees, men. To grasp mentally the shared element is part of what it means to create an abstract thought. To assign a word to the abstract property is to create language. Suppose elohim was the first intelligent being ever to create the cognitive-linguistic abstraction called light: would we regard that as an act of creation? What about the first time someone proposed the idea that light is made up of waveicles: was that a creative act?

We’re trying to understand Genesis 1 from a vantage point located inside the text. Maybe up until day one there were no light-emitting objects to be found anywhere in the universe. If so, then certainly no one present in that eternal darkness, no witness to the creation, would ever have thought the idea or said the word light. Suppose instead the universe was already full of light-emitting objects, but there were no sentient beings around who can understand the idea of “light-emitting object.” One day someone with advanced cognitive-linguistic capabilities arrives in this light-infused universe. He looks around, thinks for a minute, and speaks: light. Either interpretation of God’s proclamation in Genesis 1:3 can be supported by the text.

And There Was

“Let there be light;” and there was light: only the single word and intervenes between precative and declarative, between intent and fulfillment. The writer might be emphasizing God’s physical power, such that his will is accomplished instantaneously. Or the writer might be emphasizing God’s cognitive and linguistic power, by expressing immediate agreement with God’s proposition to recognize this abstract property and to give it the name “light.” Elohim speaks using the precative mood: he is trying to get his listener to do something. In addressing his remark to the witness, elohim is trying to get the witness not to create the light, but to understand the light.

“Look,” says God, pointing first to the still-smoldering campfire, then to the eastern sky at the beginning of what would be the first day of creation: “there is light.” Someone else is there, a witness, listening to what God says, looking, understanding. “Yes,” confirms the witness; “there is light.” Who is it that sees, that hears, that understands, that speaks the echoed words of the Creator? It can’t be man, because man isn’t created until day six. But it might be proto-man.

With the dawning of day one, God sees light-emitting objects shining in the universe and he also thinks the light as an abstract idea. It’s the idea that gives the substance meaning, transforming proto-light into real light. When God says light, he speaks the word that means the idea. It’s the word that lets the meaning be understood by the witness. As the witness simultaneously hears the word and sees the specific stuff to which the word refers, the light becomes real to the witness. It’s the reality that God has created, but now the witness begins to participate in the same system of meanings. Reality, created when God matched idea to substance, begins to extend itself to other minds.

Let’s say it’s forty thousand years ago, and you are the witness. Language for your tribe is a tool but, like your stone axe and your fire sticks, it’s a relatively primitive tool, concrete and pragmatic. In your tribe you can tell someone to run, or you can offer a gesture of friendship, and you will be understood. One day there arrives in your territory a band of migrants, perhaps a scouting party dispatched by a distant civilization, possessed of a language you cannot understand. They are a peace-loving people, in no great hurry to move on, and they seem unperturbed by your inability to understand what they have to say. At first, as they set about the task of learning your language, you think they must be a backward lot, not knowing the true names of things. Then, as they develop competence in communicating with your people, they begin to ask the names of things for which there are no names. Grain, onion, meat: what do you call all these things together? They are nothing together, you say; they are grain, onion, meat. Then they give you a word: food. Now you have learned two things from them: the name for all edible things, and the idea that so many different kinds of things can be the same in some important way. What, they ask, are the names for this kind of grain and that kind of grain? There is only one name, you reply, though less confidently this time: grain. It turns out the strangers have two names: this grain is wheat, that one is oat – and so you learn that the same things can also be different.

There is light, one of the visitors says. No, you say, that is the moon. Then the visitor points to the campfire: there is light, he says again. Is he confused? He points to the eastern sky, just before dawn: there too is light. You’ve never really had reason to consider what these very different things have in common, but now it dawns on you. You have the innate cognitive capacity to understand, to see what the other sees, to say what the other says. There is light, you reply at last. In hearing the word you’ve learned the word; in considering the abstract idea you’ve learned the idea; in saying the word you’ve entered a larger world. You are at the beginning.

Elohim saw, then inferred an abstract idea from what he saw, then assigned a word for what he saw, and you were there to witness it. When elohim pointed and spoke the word, you looked around and behold: there was light! Until elohim spoke the word, you had never before understood. Now, for the first time, you do. Genesis 1 is a written record of the witness’ own astonishment – a record of God’s creation, in humans, of a consciousness of things.

Is it fair to call this hypothetical linguistic exchange a creation? Bear in mind that we’re not just talking about teaching a new language to people who already speak a language of comparable complexity, like when you or I learn (or try to learn) French. Elohim would have used a more sophisticated language, carrying within itself a more advanced level of thinking, than that of their prehistoric students. The words and ideas of elohim carried systematic hierarchical abstraction to levels never before imagined by the witness and his people, encompassing the very heavens and earth. Still, the linguistic and conceptual gap wasn’t so vast that the witness couldn’t understand what elohim meant. The raw light-emitting things were already there – maybe they evolved from more primitive things, or maybe they had been fabricated long ago by this same roving band of Namers. What’s important here and now, in this hypothetical meeting between elohim and the primitive tribe, is the context in which the raw things are embedded, their structure, their meaning – in short, their reality. To create a system of meaning that embraces everything is to create a reality.

TOMORROW: Why this story of the creation of science is doomed to oblivion.


24 October 2006

The Spectral Illumination of Moonshine

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 10:37 am


The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I spent eight months writing a book about Genesis 1. After I finished I thought, naturally enough, about getting it published. As best I can tell, publication in the popular press isn’t so much about what you write as who you know. If you’re famous, people might buy your book. If you’re buddies with literary agents, one of them might go to bat for you. I’m not famous and I don’t know anybody in the biz. I thought maybe if I could generate some buzz about the book, then maybe I could catch some agent’s attention, the agent might catch a publisher’s attention…

Who, I wondered, is most likely to be interested in this new reading of Genesis 1? Well, the text sits at the center of the creation-versus-evolution firestorm. My exegesis is relevant to that debate, even though it’s not clear which side in the argument it supports. I concluded that perhaps the evangelicals stood to benefit the most. I’m offering a literal reading of Genesis 1 that doesn’t contradict modern astrophysics or evolutionary science – the only such reading that I’m aware of. Still, my exegesis reaches unconventional conclusions about the text. Are there any evangelicals out there who are prepared at least to entertain a radically different interpretation of the Genesis 1 narrative in order to preserve its literal truth?

It had been twenty years since I’d spent any time in evangelical circles. About three months ago I started browsing around the internet in search of something like a postmodern evangelicalism. To my surprise, I found such a thing almost immediately. And so I built this blog, posted up the exegesis portion of my book, and started trolling around the blogosphere seeking to engage the post-evangelicals in a discussion of my exegesis. If I could build up a constituency of supporters, or even a strong and vocal resistance, I might achieve enough visibility for getting the book noticed, published, read.

Egotistical, manipulative, unrealistic? Idealistic, overly cautious, unrealistic? Say what you will, my mad ambition has proven to be a fantasy. As far as I can tell not one person has actually read the entirety of the Genesis 1 exegesis that has been sitting on this blog from the beginning, the exegesis that was the reason for building the blog in the first place, the blog that was the impetus for me to undertake my peregrinations through the virtual world of the emerging postmodern church. Not only that, but I’ve come to believe that this avant-garde sector or evangelicalism wouldn’t be much interested in what I have to offer even if they saw it sitting on the new releases shelf at Barnes & Noble. Cutting-edge evangelicalism has moved away from dead center, but it’s moved in a direction that makes my work tangential at best.

I believe the exegesis is a good story if you immerse yourself in it long enough to let it get to you. But even if you can suspend your belief and engage your imagination long enough to see it, the whole thing is almost sure to evaporate into unreality once you step out of the story and back into the “real” world. While no one I know of has learned anything about Genesis 1 from my blog, I’ve learned a lot from the blogosphere. I’m now beginning to draw on that knowledge in a rewritten last section to my book. It’s called “The Spectral Illumination of Moonshine,” and it’s about why the story I’ve spun in the rest of the book will never become important in the world. It’s a melancholy ending I grant, but I believe I can occupy that mental space long enough to get the thing finished. Then, of course, comes the depressing prospect of approaching the literary marketplace without a platform – worse, without even the hope of a platform emerging in the future.

Most of the next installments of my blog will draw on this final section to the Genesis 1 book, which I’m writing right now (I took a break to put up this post). If you want to brush up before the next post, you might want to read the book summary. The lead-in goes like this:

We’ve spent lifetimes in the darkened theater, immersed in the story, watching an entire universe spin itself out of thin air around us. Maybe it’s all true: the exegesis, the elohimic ethos of creation, the emergence of civilization from the formless void, the ancient story itself. Reluctantly we leave our seats, walk up the aisle, step outside. The hard and merciless sun has set, and we’re grateful for it. How many new realities did we just witness: five? six? Where have they all gone? The moon gently guides us back to a world in which these creations play no part. The five or six creations haven’t been forgotten in this world: they never were, and almost surely they never will be…

Tomorrow: The Creation of Science.


23 October 2006

Weak or Thin: You Decide

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 1:17 pm


Stepping in from the weak cold rain that had been falling for as long as anyone could remember, John hung his cloak on the peg by the door and slumped into an empty chair by the fire.

This is how the first line of “A Night at Sir Toby’s” originally read when I wrote it two days ago as a comment on Open Source Theology (you should go there, by the way, for the great follow-on comments). Later I wasn’t so sure about that word “weak.” “Weak rain”: when I said it aloud to myself it sounded confusing. Was the rain puny, or had it been raining for seven days? Later in the day, when I posted the story again here (see the immediately preceding post), I decided to change “weak” to “thin”: Stepping in from the thin cold rain… Same idea, an interesting adjective for rain – I’ll keep it.

That night I’m reading a short story by Anton Chekhov – “The House with the Mansard: An Artist’s Story.” The narrator is recalling one of his last visits to the home of the two girls who feature prominently in his story:

For some reason I remember and love all these petty details and, although nothing special happened, I still have a vivid memory of that whole day. After dinner Zhenya read, lying in the deep armchair, and I sat on the lowest step of the veranda. We did not talk. The sky was overcast, and a thin, fine rain began to fall.

Wait a minute… what was that – “a thin, fine rain”? I know I had not gotten to this portion of Chekhov’s story before making the subtle change in my own.

Last night I was reading to my daughter from a novel by Jerome K. Jerome called Three Men in a Boat (Not to Mention the Dog). This is a rather ridiculous book about a rowing excursion up the Thames and all the little misadventures that befall the three men, and the dog, on the way. Having finished supper, two of the travelers have gone into Henley, one of the riverside towns:

Henley was getting ready for the regatta, and was full of bustle. We met a goodish number of men we knew about the town, and in their pleasant company the time slipped by somewhat quickly; that it was nearly eleven o’clock before we set off on our four-mile walk home—as we had learned to call our little craft by that time. It was a dismal night, coldish, with a thin rain falling…

I had already told my daughter about the Chekhov passage, so she was too was struck by what had just happened. For two consecutive nights thin rain fell in our apartment. Is this such a hackneyed phrase that, if I were to pick up any book at random and select a ten-page passage, I would be sure to encounter it? Both of these books are more than a hundred years old; perhaps it’s a quaint archaism? And what if I hadn’t changed my own story: would the rain have fallen weakly on the Russian countryside and the English riverbank?


21 October 2006

A Night at Sir Toby’s

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:19 am

[This may look familiar — I wrote it as a comment elsewhere this morning. I didn’t want to lose track of it, so I dragged it back here. Besides, this is a different context: maybe it’ll mean something different here.]

Stepping in from the thin cold rain that had been falling for as long as anyone could remember, John hung his cloak on the peg by the door and slumped into an empty chair by the fire. The wench brought him a beaker and, raising it in good cheer to the assembled theologians, he quaffed deeply and spoke.

“God knows I’m not an emotional man, nor a kindly one. Some might deem me cautious; others, arrogant.”

John waived his hand dismissively. He filled his pipe and, plucking a glowing twig from the edge of the fire, slowly coaxed the dried leaves to smoldering life. Not without irritation did the others wait for the emissary to continue.

“Wouldn’t this be more…,” John hesitantly began. “Imagine if all this were imaginary. The cabal, the inn, even the endless rain, each one of us – all conjured by the imagination.”

“Not the ale though, I trust, lad?” The hearty laughter of well-fed men and women circled the room without echo.

“Not my imagination,” John clarified. “I would not have imagined the tobacco, even as I find myself smoking it.” Though they had wondered about the pipe, speaking of it among themselves, none had asked John about it, assuming it to be a custom, perhaps even a ritual, associated with his obscure legation.

“What of God then, brother?” asked the Cistercian.

“You mean is it God’s imagination that gathers us comfortably around this congenial hearth?”

“Your thought, not mine,” the Cistercian muttered to the oblate, who was too busy attracting the attention of the serving girl to notice. Dogs wandered hopefully among the theologians.

“Perhaps God,” John mused. “Or perhaps God is as we are.” With his pipe he gestured vaguely around the room, shimmering in the steamy heat of the fire.

20 October 2006

Whose Name No One Knew

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 9:28 am

Old Semyon, whose nickname was Preacher, and a young Tartar, whose name no one knew, were sitting by a campfire on the bank of the river; the other three ferrymen were inside the hut.

– Anton Chekhov, “In Exile,” 1892

“Well, this is no paradise, of course,” Preacher told the young Tartar. A few yards away the dark, cold river flowed, growling and sluicing against the pitted clay banks as it sped on to the distant sea… Far away on the opposite bank crawling snakes of fire were dying down then reappearing – last year’s grass being burned. Beyond the snakes there was darkness again.

“God give everyone such a life,” said old Preacher as he took another pull at the bottle. No wife or children or family, no pleasures or comforts; just live. For twenty-two years he has shunted travelers across the river into exile. He has witnessed the foolishness of those who yearned for more, who brought wives and children into this remote waste only to see them flee, sicken, die. The devil lures the exile into hope of a happy life; listen to the devil even once and you’re lost. “I don’t want anything, I’m not afraid of anyone, and the way I see it there’s no man richer or freer than I am.”

The nameless young Tartar struggled to find the words in the language of this cold and empty land. That his beautiful and clever wife might come from his distant village; that she might be with him for three months, a month, a day. “Better one day of happiness than nothing,” stammered the young man, and he wept.

In the morning a call came from the other shore, then a pistol shot, summoning the ferry. The ferrymen, shivering and still sleepy, clambered into the ungainly boat. They took up the crablike oars and the boat began crawling across the dark water. In the darkness it looked as if the men were sitting on some antediluvian animal with long paws, and sailing to a cold, bleak land, the very one of which we sometimes dream in nightmares. The thin old gentleman on the far shore was in a hurry; his consumptive daughter was worse again, and he’d heard of new doctor in Anastasyevska. Manning the tiller, a triumphant and nearly joyful Preacher steered the old man across in pursuit his futile hope. “What freaks,” scoffed Preacher as he watched the old man gallop across the frozen dawn.

The Tartar went up to Preacher and, looking at him with hatred and abhorrence, trembling, mixing Tartar words with his broken Russian, said, “He is good – good. You bad! You bad! Gentleman is good soul, excellent, and you beast, you bad! Gentleman alive and you dead… God created man to be live, be joyful, be sad and sorrow, but you want nothing… You stone – and God not love you, love gentleman!” Back in the frigid hut, Preacher and the three ferrymen heard a sound like the howling of a dog. It was the young Tartar, outside by the fire. “He’ll get used to it,” Preacher remarked, and instantly he went back to sleep.


19 October 2006

In the Houses Always People and People

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 9:22 am

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1875

Unhappiness seems so tiresome, so repetitive, so routine, it’s hard sometimes to remember what Tolstoy had in mind. Tolstoy got his inspiration for writing the book from reading a newspaper article about a woman who threw herself in front of a train. I wonder if he was a happy man or an unhappy one as he set the train in motion that would eventually run down Anna Karenina.

There was a time when I understood. Here’s something I wrote a few years ago in a novel, when I was more optimistic:

A friend of mine had been a therapist, but she quit to become a business consultant. She said she didn’t care enough about people. As the slow flow of clients merged into a monotonous stream, she began to forget from one week to the next: is this the one whose wife is threatening to leave him, or the one whose neighbor is trying to kill her dog, or the one who’s trying to quit shopping? Everyone who came into my friend’s office could be slotted into one of a sadly small number of garden variety pathologies. No florid hallucinations, no multiple personalities, no hysterical anesthesias. Plenty of anxiety, paranoia, anger, narcissism, failure, victimhood.

Adjustment falls within a narrow bandwidth; the therapist is charged with tuning everyone to the same channel. Like Tolstoy said, more or less: every unhappy person is unhappy in his own way, but happy people are all alike. Stretched out on the procrustean couch, the client knows what the therapist is trying to do to him, and still he keeps his appointments with the executioner. He wants to be happy; he’s ready to be purged of all those idiosyncrasies that keep him unhappy. He comes prepared to tell stories about himself, stories he chooses specifically to elicit the helping reflex. It’s a ritual: the therapist bestows the recognized rites of restoration on the transgressor and the outcast. My friend found this work increasingly distasteful. So she quit.

When I was new at the Salon, I believed I could avoid falling into the trap. I had faith that the unhappy outsiders would prove far more interesting than the happy insiders they wished to become. Instead of snipping away at their stray threads, I would look for an alternative weave, a secret and subtle delirium unique to each individual. My job as I saw it was to enter into the client’s real strangeness; to have the client guide me into other ways of seeing, into exotic regions of the soul that we could then explore together. What I really wanted, of course, was to become the client. I didn’t want to pull them out into my normalcy; I wanted to climb with them into their madness. I guess I’m just a romantic at heart.

The narrator is looking back at a more optimistic time in his life, a time when certain forms of heroism could be attained only through the pursuit of unhappiness. It turns out, though, that unhappiness is mostly just boring, the endless repetition of failure and the disappointment that comes with hope.

Here’s my dream from last night:

I’m in high school, at my oboe lesson. My oboe teacher isn’t home; his wife is going to teach me today. She’s doing something in another part of the house. I’m waiting for her in the room where the lessons are taught, listening to the radio, a clunky black box shaped like a suitcase sitting on end, or maybe a loudspeaker from a P.A. system. I turn up the volume; it’s got too much bass. It’s playing some song by Led Zeppelin I’ve never heard before. In his instantly recognizable high-pitched voice Robert Plant sings about picking up a book off the shelf, perhaps it’s a dictionary. A piece of paper falls out of the book. He picks the paper up off the floor: it’s written by Courtauld, a beautiful aristocratic woman from days gone by, dead long before the singer was born. “Because of Courtauld,” the verse ends, then repeats, and I wake up.

18 October 2006

Carriers of the Collective

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 11:23 am

We are all carriers of the collective.

It’s not surprising. We’re humans, and as a species we’ve gotten where we are today because of our remarkable ability to imitate. By the time we reach adulthood we’ve loaded ourselves up with a whole bag of adaptive tricks, cumulatively known as “culture.” Participation in the collective – being “we” – isn’t only a hindrance to personal freedom and creativity; it’s also the wellspring of our ability to create. Whenever we create, every tool we use is an artifact that’s been handed down to us by our genes and our culture. Even imagining that there could be anything other than what already exists, which is perhaps the essential insight behind any act of conscious creation – imagination too is a skill. Imagination is a capability that’s uniquely human but also common to all humans, a cultural artifact that has been incrementally shaped by the generations of creators who have gone before, a skill that each individual can improve with practice, a tool that’s been shaped by the past in order that it might be used more effectively to shape the future. Even our imaginations embed us in the collective.

Still, wouldn’t it be an honor to participate in shaping the future of our species, to contribute in some small way to the incremental advancement of human culture, to create not the merely ephemeral but the one thing in a million that lasts? The sheer volume of man-made stuff testifies to the power of creation to shape reality. And it’s not just the material things; it’s also the ideas, the fantasies, the ways of seeing both what is and what is not that make up the created world. A lot of it is junk, of course, but at least some of it isn’t. To be worthy representatives of the species; to let our higher natures be drawn to true, the beautiful and the just; to put forth our best creations out of sheer love for our fellows; to transcend the “I” in service of the “we” – is it such an ignoble herd instinct after all?

Is it even necessary that we know we’ve contributed? The advance of human culture isn’t planned; it emerges spontaneously from the countless actions and interactions that comprise ordinary life. Maybe it’s just an ego thing to think of creation as a conscious individual act of heroism. Human life is a collective long-term undertaking and, like it or not, I’m not at the center of it. I don’t live “my” life; I live inside a life that includes me. It’s embedded in any number of overlapping and concentric circles – family and tribe, neighborhood and nation, company and profession – that collectively comprise the life of the species. “We” live the human life, and whatever creating there is to be done within it, “we” are the ones to do it.

We understand the idea of creation without a creator: the spontaneous emergent of order from indifferent forces. Cultural phenomena like languages and the marketplace, social status hierarchies and democratic political systems organize themselves this way; so, of course, do natural phenomena like quantum physics and chemical reactions, fetal development and the activation of neural networks. What if some combination of indifferent forces eventually managed to bring into existence a being with advanced cognitive and linguistic capabilities, possessed of curiosity and imagination and intentionality – in short, a creator? Now this creator, be he god or man, contemplates the forces that brought him forth from the formless void. He comes to understand these forces, gives them names, builds from them a system of meaning that encompasses the entire universe – in short, he creates the reality that spawned him. Because this intelligent creator of the universe came forth from and remains part of the universe itself, can it be said that the universe is really the intelligent creator of itself, the inherently indifferent and mindless forces of nature having acquired by reflection the properties of the beings they’ve generated? Instead of it happening from the beginning, though, the universe doesn’t create itself until much later, perhaps billions of years after the sequence of events that eventually begat the gods and the humans first got underway. Causality gets reversed too: instead of saying that the universe came into being because gods first created it, we’d say that the gods created the universe because the universe first came into being – or something like that. I have to admit that I’m reaching the limits of tolerance for my own rhetoric – it’s beginning to sound like some distorted mélange of Eastern mysticism, Hegel’s universal Spirit, and bad science fiction.

Without knowing quite how you got here, you find yourself at the beginning. To an observer you appear as one without history or precedent, but in fact you do have a history. You are the product of genes and chance, history and culture – mindless forces over which you exert no control. A series of accidents – or is it a unique destiny? – leads uniquely to you as an individual, but you’re floating in a wide stream that holds all mankind in its current, pulling us apart and forcing us together, making us one and making us many. Maybe your history holds you down, keeping you from being anyone other than who you are, from seeing anything new, from creating anything different. Or perhaps your history equips you with the knowledge and skills you’ll need to pursue your calling into realms never before imagined. This is the beginning, and all you have to rely on is what your history has made you, and what you’ve made of your history. It’s time to enter the interval of creation.

[Note: After a couple months off to let the text settle, I’m back to editing the Genesis 1 book. This post contains a chunk of text that I’ve chopped back severely in order to avoid exposing too much of my crackpot tendencies. But for the blog? You bet.]

16 October 2006

A Hermeneutic of Jazz

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 6:40 pm

Heiddeger reacts against the transcendence of Western philosophy, the idea that man can achieve a God’s-eye view of Truth or Beauty or Goodness:

“The Christian definition was de-theologized in the course of the modern period. But the idea of ‘transcendence’ – that human being is something that goes beyond itself – has its roots in Christian dogma.”

Heidegger cites, as an exemplar of the Christian dogma of transcendence, Calvin:

“For the fact that human being looks toward God and His word clearly shows that according to his nature he is born closer to God, is somehow drawn toward God, that without doubt everything flows from the fact that he is created in the image of God.”

Heidegger allows no transcendence. Human being is always human being-in, or Dasein. To live authentically is to live inside a world. The meaning of any given world isn’t imposed from outside or above, or grasped by stepping outside that world. Rather, meaning arises from within that world itself. And even meaning can never be given; it can only be interpreted by someone who lives inside that world.

What does jazz mean? Better question: what does this jazz performance mean? A jazz performance is a world. Who can grasp its meaning? Only someone who lives inside the performance. And the performance is interactive, involving composer, musicians, audience. It’s a dynamic world, always bounded by the music, always moving forward in time. To step outside of that world is to lose the ability to interpret it.

But the performance always goes beyond itself, says Bruce Ellis Benson:

“If we say (modifying Heidegger) that a piece of music opens up a world, it should be clear this “world” of the piece of music is one that is not self-contained. Rather, it is a world within a world, a musical space that is created within and out of a larger musical practice. Moreover, just as the world of Dasein is not a physical world but a world of activity, so the piece of music is likewise a world of activity. It is a ‘space’ that is both created by and allows for musical activity.”

To hear a performance of “’Round Midnight” is to hear echoes of everyone who has ever interpreted that tune. Every improvisation is a tribute, bringing the past forward into the present.

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