23 January 2009

God the Strange Attractor

Filed under: First Lines, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 8:38 am

Beginning is going on. Everywhere. Amidst all the endings, so rarely ripe or ready. They show up late, these beginnings, bristling with promise, yet labored and doomed. Every last one of them is lovingly addressed: “in the beginning.” But if such talk — talk of the beginning and the end — has produced the poles, the boundary markers of a closed totality, if “the beginning” has blocked the disruptive infinities of beginning, then theology had better get out of its own way.

So Catherine Keller begins her extended midrash on Genesis 1:1-2. I’d read her ideas before as summarized by John Caputo in his The Weakness of God, and since I’ve written extensively on the Biblical creation narrative I find this sort of thing more interesting than I might otherwise. I don’t read much contemporary theology, but based on these two books it seems that paradox seems to rule the day. Keller and Caputo apply the strategies of Lacan, Derrida, and Zizek to religion; by exposing the irresolvable contradictions that reveal themselves texts and ideas about God, new truths — or rather new interpretations — bubble up through the gaps. Keller is better at it than Caputo, at least based on what I’ve read. As Adam Kotsko observes in his thumbs-down response to Caputo’s book, “The chapter on Genesis is admittedly somewhat interesting, but that is probably because the whole thing is cribbed from Catherine Keller.”

The general idea driving Keller’s thesis is that the first two verses of the Bible describe not the manly exercise of might to create a universe ex nihilo, but rather the evolution, emergence, and self-organization of a creatio cooperationis. The key textual moves are these:

  • “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void,” is how most translators render the first verse of Genesis. Keller follows the eleventh century Jewish commentator Rashi by reading it thusly: “When, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void.” This way the formless void already exists when God the creator arrives on the scene, making the story correspond more closely to Greek and other Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies.
  • The formless void, or tohu vabohu, isn’t a vacuum, but rather a hodgepodge, a farrago, a blooming buzzing confusion. It’s the immanent flux, the primal source of inchoate and protean difference from which all things form themselves.
  • The word for God in Genesis 1 is elohim. It’s a plural noun that usually takes a singular verb conjugation. Commentators often construe the plural as an indicator of plenitude or intensity, as if this one god is so far above all other gods as to merit the all-inclusivity of a plural ending. Keller suggests that the plural be regarded as an indicator of an “originary multiple without individuation,” a “swarm” a “differential unity,” a “co-creative collective.” Interpreted in this way elohim is not unlike the tohu vabohu of the pre-creation universe.
  • I’ve heard Christian preachers reduce the Bible’s message to its first four words: “In the beginning, God.” In Hebrew, however, the verb precedes the noun: “In the beginning created…” Keller follows the Kabbalistic Zohar in exploring this translation: “With the beginning __ created God.” The empty space between “beginning” and “created” is an unnameable creative process of creativity that is itself divine and that gives form to itself along with the rest of the universe. Per Keller: The creativity itself does not become; it makes a becoming possible… In other words, our responses become us. (p. 181)

I respect the effort that Keller puts into these related moves to immanentize the transcendence of the Biblical creation story. In my view, while each of these textual moves is clever and could possibly represent what some earlier version of the text might have said before it got “theosized,” the Hebrew text as written doesn’t really support these alternative wordings. Still, if you’re looking for a way to reconcile the Judeo-Christian texts with the way the universe really did come into existence, then Keller offers a coherent and only mildly distorted rereading. I make similar small moves to tell my own version of the Genesis 1 story, so I can relate.

If she really believes that this is what the Bible narrative is saying, then she must accept that those early anonymous writers really were inspired beyond any possible human knowledge. And to regard the process of emergence itself as divine is not without precedent in the history of ideas. But why not just go all the way and assert that the writer of Genesis 1 is describing a materialistic process of creation where the gods don’t have any role whatsoever?

I’ll conclude with a particularly evocative passage from Keller’s book:

The Jewish delinearization of the time of creation opens up space for a biblical theology of creation, in which the chaos is neither nothing nor evil; in which to create is not to master the formless but to solicit its virtual forms. Such solicitation, when expressed as divine speech, may sound less like a command than a seduction… If this divine speech no longer blasts royally into a vacuum, how would we then interpret the iterative utterances of the “let there be”? Less, perhaps, in the monotone of command than in the whisper of desire? (pp. 115-116)



  1. Yes, the reading ‘in’ is rather striking but not implausible. I’ve read very little of Keller. There was once a theory of two creations, with tohu vabohu being the end of the first one and the beginning of the second, so I guess there is space for endless speculation…

    I’ve been following a discussion by some biblical ‘minimalists’ (Thomson, Lemche, Davies…) and the results are fascinating. These scholars too seem a bit out of their depth with Gen 1-11 but they have some interesting ideas for the rest of the OT.

    An important question to answer is how this intro to Genesis fits in with the legitimization of Israel’s (rightful) possession of Canaan. There is no doubt at all that there is a concerted effort by later redactors of the OT to strengthen Israel’s case and to vilify their neighbors as abhorrent to God. Religion and politics are after all impossible to separate in older Eastern societies (and in some modern ones too).

    Certainly one can think of the story actually starting with Abram, and this is where many want to begin. Noah and Adam must have come along later…


    Comment by samlcarr — 23 January 2009 @ 12:19 pm

  2. “a theory of two creations, with tohu vabohu being the end of the first one and the beginning of the second”

    Right, Sam: this is the so-called Gap Theory, which purports to explain billions of years of evolved life that somehow returned to chaos, requiring God to step back in and shape everything up again. I think inserting billions of years between two verses of Scripture sets an interesting precedent for intertestamental hermeneutics, where what’s hidden in the gaps is more important than what’s written on the page.

    “how this intro to Genesis fits in with the legitimization of Israel’s (rightful) possession of Canaan.”

    We’ve had this discussion of Israel as microcosm in the midst of a failed creation being used to justify the Canaanite genocide, but I’m not sure how Gen. 1 links explicitly to Canaan. I guess it’s the sense in which the Promised Land corresponds to the Eden of Gen. 2. In my proposed book where I strip God of the title of creator, I’d look at all the ways in which this move would clean up God’s image. E.g., Paul attributes male dominance in social hierarchy to God having created Adam having before Eve — lose that rationale and God is off the patriarchy misogynistic hook. So if God’s creatorliness is used as justification for Canaanite genocide, then there’s another benefit of his shedding the creator title.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 January 2009 @ 12:31 pm

  3. “If she really believes… must accept that those early anonymous writers really were inspired beyond any possible human knowledge.” It is difficult for us to accept that some process such as ‘inspiration’ has anything to do with this necessitating a ‘super Author’. But what is certainly striking about most of the ancient myths that have survived history, and all of its cultural transformations, to still retain some fascination today, is that we do have to acknowledge a genius with insight that is truly remarkable.

    Being in the feminist camp, Keller keeps tying Genesis (and indeed God) in with the Mother myths. I like this as a corrective to the male domination of theology and of the vast bulk of theological thought. But I think anthropomorphism of any sort, and without hard evidence (or even slender evidence) to lean on, is dangerous. Male and female and matter exist, whether by God’s plan or by Chance, but in either case trying to argue back from such broad phenomena to God’s ‘essential’ nature is a dangerous leap.


    Comment by samlcarr — 24 January 2009 @ 3:37 am

  4. I guess it’s important for lots of people to believe that (a) there’s a supernatural creative Force operating behind/through nature and that (b) humans can intuit the workings of this Force even if they don’t consciously understand their own intuitions. Thus the continuing enthusiasm for a theology built on ancient foundations even in an age when the old myths no longer have any rational or empirical credibility.

    I was just reading the Wikipedia entry on Biblical minimalism. The four tenets are:
    * The biblical record is historically inaccurate.
    * The biblical record may be historically accurate, but the archaeological evidence is currently insufficient to substantiate it – more digging may bring such evidence to light.
    * The biblical record is being misinterpreted – the ‘literalist’ hermeneutic used by conservative Christians such as Albright results in an unhistorical reading of the text which the authors did not intend.
    * The biblical record was never intended to be read historically in the first place, and thus such discrepancies are to be expected.

    My reading of Gen. 1 reverses these tenets: reading the narrative literally, I treat it as historically accurate, with evidence to support it. I just interpret the text as referring not to the creation of the material universe but to the social-cognitive construction of a meaningful reality. I have no interest in tying Gen. 1 to ancient Near Eastern cultural movements, except to the extent that some anonymous priestly redactors tweaked the details of the ancient story in order to justify their paychecks; i.e., we need someone to preside over the weekly Sabbath reenactment of God resting from his 6-day workweek.

    Keller’s feminist theme is linked to her reading of God pulling order out of chaos, with chaos being associated with “the deep.” The waters over which God’s spirit hovers in Gen. 1:2 Keller reads as the amniotic creative juices of the primal womb, also associated with the goddess Tiamat. In the Babylonian Enuma Elish creation myth, Tiamat gives birth to the first generation of gods. The Gen. 1 story reasserts masculine control over the free-flowing creative juices of the feminine. I can see that reading too.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 January 2009 @ 5:05 am

  5. “But I think anthropomorphism of any sort, and without hard evidence (or even slender evidence) to lean on, is dangerous.”

    Is there such a word as theomorphism? I think that’s the danger actually. I don’t mean the human aspiration to transcend himself, which gets condemned plenty often in Scripture. I mean the attribution of godlike properties to ordinary human thoughts and actions; e.g., the idea that a bunch of texts written by men are also god-breathed. Or, in a conversation between two people about the nature of the universe, the one guy putting forward most of the ideas gets assigned the “god-slot” in the dyad while the receptive respondent stays human. Or, on the Edenic farm, the landowner gets assigned the god-slot while the workers stay human.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 January 2009 @ 5:21 am

  6. I agree, both are wrong. At the same time one doesn’t get tempted to utilise ‘theomorphism’ (nice term!) unless one believes that one can understand and ‘control’ an anthropomorphized god. The cynical side of this is that I think most folks who have had a religious education (seminary or otherwise) realise that they are on a sticky wicket but yet choose to continue as if all theology is certainty itself.


    Comment by samlcarr — 25 January 2009 @ 2:59 am

  7. Sam, you’ve identified a couple of important contrasts here. One is the anthropomorphism/theomorphism axis: do people make God in their image, or vice versa? Another is maximalism/minimalism in Biblical hermeneutics: is the Bible to be read as a historical account or as a sort of historical fiction, a story with plot and characters based loosely on actual events. The third axis is a philosophical one, related to Harman’s realism actually: which is more basic and important, the forces that move through the universe, or the objects that populate the universe? Keller’s and Caputo’s books, in keeping with people like Spinoza, Whitehead, and Deleuze, retain God as primal creative force while removing his status as object: his personhood, his (im)material form, his unique essence or “soul”. The other way to go, which I’m toying with, is to retain God’s personhood while relieving him of his status as creator. So, this God might have a unique essence, be able to assume physical form, enter into personal relationships with other things and other people, etc. — he just didn’t have anything to do with the creation or shaping of the material universe. It’s an interesting alternative to explore. I’ve asked a few people whether they’d worship God if he wasn’t the Creator, and most have said they wouldn’t. Would they continue seeking his advice, talking to him nonverbally, asking him for things, etc. — i.e., treating him as a unique and rather remarkable individual or collective — if he wasn’t the creator? If not, why not?


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 January 2009 @ 5:45 am

  8. Reminds me of “Oh God” where god is a bit of a bumbling creator… I guess how eople would respond to God would depend on what sort of a god he/she/it turns out to be. This is the part that fascinates me. Is it just possible that god is really the one that inspired the likes of Jesus? Genius certainly exists but would genius (as opposed to some form of madness) have resulted in someone who behaved as Jesus did, all the while knowing quite certainly where that would end up?

    God could turn out to be a lot of other things too, so my answer is “it depends”.


    Comment by samlcarr — 26 January 2009 @ 7:50 am

  9. “We are merely thinking of those relationships between those two groups which are entirely independent of the individual essences of any of the members of either group. This is a very remarkable feat of abstraction; and it must have taken ages for the human race to rise to it. During a long period, groups of fishes will have been compared to each other in respect to their multiplicity, and groups of days to each other. But the first man who noticed the analogy between a group of seven fishes and a group of seven days made a notable advance in the history of thought. He was the first man who entertained a concept belonging to the science of pure mathematics.” – from A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

    In Genesis 1, who is the one counting the days forward from one through seven? It seems to be the narrator, doesn’t it?


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 January 2009 @ 8:19 am

  10. “the anthropomorphism/theomorphism axis: do people make God in their image, or vice versa?”
    It’s possible too that there is no image. God really is quite other, and we can’t look at ourselves or at ‘creation’ for clues about God. I think this possibility frightens us a bit. We’d rather have god as a nasty character – even genocidal – than as someone over whom we have absolutely no control.

    I’m still not sure that I quite ‘get’ how Harman’s realism ties in here, but then I am definitely among the philosophically compromised anyway.


    Comment by samlcarr — 27 January 2009 @ 6:32 am

  11. In Harman’s metaphysics (and not in his alone), image — the whole word-idea of a thing, its logos — has nothing to do with essence. Essence is that which withdraws from all contact with the world and with people, remaining always veiled in impenetrable mystery, remote, vacuum-packed as Harman calls it. This distance can’t be bridged from outside — two objects/people never interact directly. Connections between two objects can only happen on the inside of some merged object: so, self and other connect only inside of a newly-formed object that includes self and other inside of itself. Even then, the components of the newly-formed merged object don’t come into full knowledge of one another. The distinctive idea here is that objects retain primacy of place over relationship, essence over process. Presumably the place to encounter god, and for god to encounter you, is on the inside of a self-god merged object. But your self-god object is different from someone else’s self-god object, and a self-other-god object is different still. A universe teeming with separate and distinct objects encountering each other only vicariously on the inside of merged objects. It’s an interesting idea I think.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 January 2009 @ 6:12 am

  12. “your self-god object is different from someone else’s self-god object,” I already think this is true in practice though that may not have any actual meaning in reality. The thing is that it is not just god but anything at all. Something like a three way intersection is needed to transfer meaning ‘across the boundaries’. A little reminiscent of merging hermeneutical horizons perhaps?

    This is interesting. What exactly is it about anything that lets it be designated as an object? Does ‘god’ qualify?


    Comment by samlcarr — 31 January 2009 @ 6:20 am

  13. Does God qualify as an object? Yes. Is it possible in Harman’s scheme to distinguish the god-object as mental or social construct from the god-object as something that exists in the world independent from such construction? I’m not sure. I finally finished his book last night, so I’ll see if I can string together some thoughts about it.

    Earlier, Sam, when I asked whether you’d still pay as much attention to God if he didn’t have anything to do with creating the material universe, you said that it depends on what kind of God he is. I’m talking about the Judeo-Christian God, the subject of the Bible and of vast swaths of organized religion. What if he’s more or less the same as he’s portrayed except that for the creation part? After all, the creation part of the story covers only a very small part of Scripture. Could you just snip that part off and carry on as usual?


    Comment by ktismatics — 31 January 2009 @ 9:23 am

  14. Just my own personal thoughts here but generally: whatever god actually is, then that I will have to deal with. If god is not a creator but has some sort of personality and impact on life in some way then I will have to deal with that reality. It would be pretty dumb to say that I will not accept god unless he has X or Y characteristics. Even if, god forbid, god turns out to be of the (Russellish) whimsically genocidal variety, one would have to accept that – but to worship it – NEVER.


    Comment by samlcarr — 31 January 2009 @ 10:17 am

  15. I think that’s a fair and realistic response, Sam. It’s like the guy on OST who asserts that Yahweh prizes child sacrifice above all things — it might be true, but that doesn’t make it admirable. Who knows, maybe this sacrifice-loving Yahweh is open to suggestions about self-improvement, or perhaps psychoanalysis…


    Comment by ktismatics — 31 January 2009 @ 10:25 am

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