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)