Ktismatics

31 January 2007

Maybe the Witness is Me

Filed under: Genesis 1, Language — ktismatics @ 6:14 pm

Three weeks ago I put up a post at Open Source Theology summarizing my understanding of what a “True Myth” might be, based on a couple of posts I’d previously put up here. The discussion has been a stimulating one. Eventually the other participants in the discussion (one of them being samlcarr, who since Christmas Eve has been having an extended conversation with Ivan here at ktismatics) invited me to put forward my own exegesis of Genesis 1 — which I did. Interaction around the exegesis too has been gratifying. As we near the end of that part of the conversation, I just put up this summary comment:

It’s customary to interpret the Bible by the Bible, to regard the entire canon as an integrated whole by which the reader can make sense of the separate parts. For Christians the life of Jesus is interpreted in the historical context of Israel and Abraham, of the “first Adam” and the creation that was made “through Him and for Him.” Reciprocally, the Creation story acquires eschatological meaning by pointing forward to Israel and the Word made flesh and the new/renewed creation. This holistic hermeneutic both builds and reinforces a coherent worldview. If, on the other hand, the reader focuses on the details rather than the big picture, the holistic coherence can sometimes feel a bit forced. Any isolated bit of text supports alternative readings, but it has to be made to fit into the whole picture. Sometimes the fit isn’t perfect.

Genesis 1 seems to be a straightforward narrative about a historic event. The story is of a piece with the rest of the Bible as it has come down to us (discrepancies with the second Creation narrative of Gen. 2-3 notwithstanding). The reason we’ve explored alternative interpretations is that the story doesn’t fit inside the “book of nature” as written by modern empirical science. There are three basic strategies for resolving the discrepancies: either natural science is wrong, or the text is wrong, or the traditional ways of reading the narrative are wrong. In this post we’ve been exploring the third way.

Reading Genesis 1 as a “True Myth” resolves discrepancies with natural science by freeing the text from literal interpretation. True Myth turns Genesis 1 into an allegorical story about something other than the creation: the superiority of the Hebrew God, say, or the importance of the Sabbath to religious practice. We’ve also touched on some alternative literal readings. Extend the timeline from six days to six eons. Insert an extended “gap” between verse 1 and 2, during which the original creation deteriorated. Re-envision the narrative scenario as the repeated alternation between the eternal-spiritual register and the temporal-material.

I’ve offered a different literal interpretation, one in which God creates conscious awareness of the material universe. This reading reconciles the text with natural science essentially by seeing God as the first natural scientist. The downside from a Judeo-Christian perspective is that Genesis 1 remains silent about how the physical universe began. This isn’t a bad thing for those of us with no a priori theistic beliefs but with confidence in the modern scientific method. What difference whether God created the material world, or intelligently designed it, or had absolutely nothing to do with it? Isn’t it more important for God to be able to define the meaning of things and to teach that ability to humanity? Man could never have wondered about the origins of the universe until he first grasped the idea of a universe. To create the conscious awareness of something: it’s not the same as creating that thing, but surely it is an act of creation in its own right and not merely a metaphor? Surely it is man’s sentience rather than his raw power that sets him apart from the rest of the beasts and makes him more like the God in whose image he is created? And doesn’t this theory of Genesis 1 recapitulate the “anthropic principle” of cutting-edge astrophysics?

… and so on. Inevitably I find myself defending my exegesis, arguing its merits when they aren’t sufficiently self-evident, seeing in it the one true reading hidden since the foundation of the earth. Who is the unnamed and previously undetected witness I place at the scene of the creation? Maybe it’s me. Trying to put myself in the narrator’s shoes, seeing what he saw, hearing the words that elohim spoke – maybe without realizing it I inserted myself into the story. There are worse mistakes a reader can make.

Perhaps the lesson is a postmodern one: Genesis 1 is open enough to sustain a limitless number of possible interpretations. An Eastern monist will see in Genesis 1 the universe emerging as an emanation of pure Mind. A Gnostic will see a secondary deity mistakenly creating an imperfect universe. One Christian will see the triune God creating everything from nothing and establishing the precedent for the new Creation in Christ; another will see a well-meaning storyteller trying to capture something beyond his grasp. One scientific secularist will see a teacher explaining the basics of natural science to his students; another will see the source of an anti-scientific superstition. How you interpret the text depends on what presuppositions you bring to the text and what worldview sustains you. But the interpretation also depends on the text itself, which has outlasted a hundred generations of exegetes. The ability to see this one ancient text from so many different points of view is surely a tribute to human creativity. Whether this hermeneutical flexibility is a sign of man’s goodness or of his corruption is, of course, open to question.

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7 Comments »

  1. “Isn’t it more important for God to be able to define the meaning of things and to teach that ability to humanity? Man could never have wondered about the origins of the universe until he first grasped the idea of a universe. To create the conscious awareness of something: it’s not the same as creating that thing, but surely it is an act of creation in its own right and not merely a metaphor? Surely it is man’s sentience rather than his raw power that sets him apart from the rest of the beasts and makes him more like the God in whose image he is created?”

    I find that very interesting. And, precisely because ideas are “pre-given in consciousness”…beyond me. But interesting. In one sense I want to tell the fundamentalists to quit assuming that they exist on the other side of consciousness, but then my next thought is that, duuhhh, I don’t exist on the other side of consciousness. But I like the mythic approach basically.

    Jason

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 31 January 2007 @ 10:15 pm

  2. I have been very much enjoying the genesis discussion especially with your startlingly new perspective to chew on!

    Can’t wait to see where it goes…

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    Comment by samlcarr — 31 January 2007 @ 10:44 pm

  3. Jason – I believe that there are many realities besides the conscious-scientific one that man, unique among creatures, is able to participate in. Art is a particularly notable reality in that it so clearly opens onto so many different realities. Maybe in the Greek worldview there is only one absolute Beauty, but I think to be able to look at a totally unprecedented thing and to see its aesthetic uniqueness is perhaps an elohimic virtue.

    Thanks, Sam. I think it might be interesting to open up some of the Christian ideas about these Creation stories: death as a result of the Fall, the Church as a manifestation of the new creation, etc.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 1 February 2007 @ 7:42 am

  4. As I’ve mentioned before I appreciate your approach. It has made me reconsider my interpretation of Genesis.

    I now find myself, interestingly enough, interpreting Genesis as all three – creation of material universe, mythical/allegorical elements, as well as the instantiation of meaning into the physical universe via naming. It is this third and last option that you have opened up so well. It is something we had kind of all missed these days in the midst of our Creation-Evolution debates, but I wonder if it is not the more important of them all. At the very least it should be given due consideration.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 1 February 2007 @ 2:34 pm

  5. Thanks, E-man, I appreciate it. Maybe given the postmodern shift to hermeneutics and interpretation this particular reading of Gen. 1 became inevitable. Your persistent Gadamerian relativism made me realize that I don’t have to be quite so committed to my exegesis as the one true truth of the text. It sounds like Genesis 1 itself is being fruitful and multiplying interpretations in your mind as well.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 1 February 2007 @ 2:58 pm

  6. At the risk of oversimplifying, I appreciate your writing, because it is a creative approach to Gen.1 and it opens the way for creative thinkers to approach the text in a more creative way, as if it were new.
    This is what I mean with scaffolding, that we challenge each other to learn more, to see other dimensions of reality that make sense.

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    Comment by Odile — 1 February 2007 @ 10:44 pm

  7. Jonathan,
    On taxonomy, you philosphers are after all the experts! Being such an essential part of our human makeup, it’s one of those little things that makes one think that Genesis may indeed be a truer myth than paleontology!

    Like

    Comment by Sam Carr — 18 February 2007 @ 7:42 pm


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