Ktismatics

25 December 2013

Ancient of Days

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:15 am

“I no longer recall precisely when I first arrived in this place,” the old man began, “but if the cobbled clatter of my stick had momentarily distracted you from more ethereal concerns you would have given little heed to the greybeard canted slightly forward like a man carrying a heavy burden uphill – and so I felt myself to be, but that is of no concern… The fact of the matter is this: I could have been a brigand or a prince, a troubadour or a contriver of schemes, and you would have paid me no more mind than if I had been one of these wretches.”

Reaching out a crabbed hand the old man snatched by the scruff a dog that had been snuffling about at the hem of his robe. The scrofulous cur, used to ill-treatment, cowered, its whimper inaudible to all but his canine fellows skulking silently to the other side of the room. With one hand the old man pulled the dog’s muzzle up and forward while with the other he swabbed a piece of bread through a mostly empty bowl of soup. The abbé, whose soup it was, shrugged and muttered a common but colorful French obscenity. The old man dropped the sop to the floor and released his canine captive. The dog quickly gulped down the morsel before slinking between the tables and through the kitchen door. In a trice three other dogs moved to the speaker’s side.

“What if I were to tell you,” he continued, “that that stooped old fellow hobbling along the road was a figure of legend, a traveler from a land unknown even to those who have traded in the silk bazaars of Samarkand or passed among the floating spice islands of Shikoku or gazed upon the unveiled faces of the blue women whose footsteps leave no trace in the endless desert – a man as ancient as the world he walks, one for whom the times to come are even more tediously familiar than the times that have already been, one for whom there had been neither direction nor destination until that unreckoned day he passed unnoticed through the city gates and happened upon this particular inn?”

“I would say,” said the Trappist without looking up from the ball of string he had been unraveling, “that I would never have known.”

“Precisely,” remarked the old emissary.

“And your point is what, precisely, my dear Sage?”

The Sage considered whether this question, posed archly by the smartly-dressed young Westerner, constituted an invitation or a challenge. Neither, he decided. A gangly acolyte passed through the Great Room ringing the sacristy bells, alerting the gathered scholars and contemplatives that sabbath services in the town would begin soon. “Which summons shall we heed this morning?” the old man asked of no one in particular.

“But it was my understanding…”

“Yes of course. However, my dossier instructs me to respect the local customs.”

“A man of legend holds no portfolio,” challenged the Antipodean.

“This is the usual objection,” the Sage acknowledged as he hoisted his coat over his shoulders. “It is not obligation but curiosity that impels me.”

Without restraint the bitter wind scattered the voices of the cloaked and cowled theologians, figures from an unremembered dream who drifted toward their appointed but unstated destination.

***

This book has been finished for nearly four years now, and until this month I hadn’t given it much attention since then. “Let the beginning serve as the annual Christmas story,” the Sage suggested in a precative mood, and it was so.

11 November 2013

Time Out of Joint in the Creation Narratives

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:48 pm

Stephen had parked in one of the reserved spaces behind Martin’s office but, since he had nowhere in particular to go, he left the car where it was and strolled back into downtown. He was exploring without curiosity the side streets branching off from the pedestrian zone, peering into the rehabbed frontier-era storefronts, when a sign caught his eye. Black print on a four-by-six white index card, stuck with yellowed tape to the wall, the sign certainly wasn’t designed to grab the attention of the passing window-shopper. It read:

SALON POSTISME
Portals, Intervals, Alternate Realities
Henry Adamowicz, Proprietor
“Get Different”
Walk-Ins Welcome
(ring bell for service)

A short corridor and a long stairway were all that could be discerned through the smoky glass door. With nothing to do and less to hope for, Stephen rang…

***

Here’s another reason why narrating the story in the present tense might be misleading, or at least weird. It’s because time is out of joint between the making-of and the made.

In diagetic time, Stephen and Martin are the two guys walking out of the bar in the opening scene. They part ways, and the narrator follows Stephen on his solitary walk down the block from Martin’s office. Diagetically, this is a single continuous scene. From the making-of standpoint it is not. The opening scene in the bar and the beginning of the out-the-door stroll were written in November 2010, but the passage in which Stephen happens upon the Salon Postisme was written much earlier. I don’t even know quite when I did write it. In November 2003 I incorporated the bit about Hanley finding the Salon into an earlier version of this book, but the annotation I wrote at the time indicates that it was a fragment “imported from prior work.” I probably wrote it sometime in 2001, but I can’t put my hands on the original. Between one sentence and the next in the same paragraph there’s a gap of nearly ten years. Portals, intervals, alternate realities.

***

In the beginning the Elohim created the heavens and the earth and the earth was formless and void…

In the beginning, Genesis 1 reads like a continuous narrative: only the small and ubiquitous Hebrew conjunction and separates the Bible’s first two references to the earth. But doesn’t the continuity convey the impression that the Elohim did not create the universe ex nihilo, but rather that he (or they) came upon a pre-existing formless void and organized it? That’s heresy. To reconcile the canonical text with orthodox theology sometimes calls for hermeneutical creativity. Advocates of what has come to be known as Gap Theory propose that something went wrong between verse 1, when God created the earth, and the formless void of verse 2. Perhaps an extended interval should be inserted between the first two verses, an interval that lasted for eons. Geologic eras came and went; ice ages alternated with times of tropical warmth. A wide array of life forms emerged and thrived. Maybe even the primates, even those which paleontologists regard as forerunners of homo sapiens, appeared on the scene. Then some sort of widespread evil corrupted the earth, causing everything to wind down and to fall apart. Floods and earthquakes, volcanoes and meteors disrupted land and sea and sky; every species went extinct. What had been created as an orderly world degenerated into the formless void of Genesis 1:2. There’s something alluring about the idea of opening up the tiny space between verse 1 and verse 2 and seeing inside of it an entire prehistory of the world lasting billions of years. It’s an exegesis based on the space between words, on the absence of written evidence – as if the meaning of the text is to be found not in the words themselves, but in the spaces between the words; as if all Biblical meaning consists of what is not written.

[Editorial Note:  In the prior paragraph there’s a temporal gap in the writing. The first four sentences I wrote just now; the rest I cribbed from a nonfiction book about Genesis 1 that I wrote in 2005-6. Three years later I dismantled and fictionalized that book, turning it into what is now the seventh volume in the cluster of novels.]

***

Then the Elohim blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it he rested from all his work which the Elohim had created and made. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that Yahweh Elohim made earth and heavens…

The first sentence wraps up the seven-day creation narrative; the second introduces the Garden of Eden story. There’s not even a chapter break separating these two accounts: one follows the other as part of Chapter 2. But the details of the creation as it unfolds are not compatible between the two accounts. In the second story Yahweh creates Adam out in the desert, then he plants a garden in the east, then he brings Adam into the garden to tend it, then he creates all the beasts and birds and brings them to Adam so that he can name them. It reads as if the gods (elohim is a plural noun) created the larger world first, and then later one of the gods, named Yahweh, created his own microworld inside that larger world, in the desert of the Real as it were, outfitting it with his own plants and his own gardener.

But what about the sequence in which these creation narratives were written — the making-of of the Making-Of? The Documentary Hypothesis contends that the Garden narrative was written hundreds of years before the Seven-Days narrative, and that only later did redactors reverse the sequence in the canonical merged text. Now the Seven Days can be read as a just-so story contrived by priests for justfiying landowners’ exploitation of peasants. Why do we have to work six days straight, with only one day off? Because that’s how God did it. And why do we have to go to temple? Because God blessed and sanctified the seventh day. For the landowners that sort of mystification must have been worth the ten-percent tithe. Of course it’s only a hypothesis: the originals can no longer be retrieved from the archives.

***

If there’s one book that has exerted the greatest influence over my fictions, it’s the Bible. Here we find a congeries of textual fragments, written by many authors in many styles over hundreds and hundreds of years, cobbled together into a single, continuous, third-person preterite narration. But the seams and the sutures are still evident in places. Prying them open, the reader gets a glimpse into the tohu vabohu, the Formless Void, on whose surface the whole Creation bobs along like a flimsy raft.

2 June 2012

A Blog Post Returns from the Dead

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:15 am

Yesterday I was carrying two bags of groceries in from the car when I stopped dead in my tracks. There, lounging across the  top two steps of the front porch, was a bull snake. He was a robust specimen, at least five feet long and nearly as thick as my wrist. I showed him respect, going around to the back door. About ten minutes later he slithered off through the undergrowth. This morning I found myself thinking about the other time I posted about a snake encounter.

Most of my blog posts have a short halflife. People give each new post a look, then maybe they participate in or follow the discussion for a few days. After that the post sinks rapidly in popularity.

Then there’s the Ouroboros post.

I put it up mid-afternoon on 17 April, and it got 15 page views that day. The hits jumped to 105 the second day, then down to 68 the third and 46 the fourth. After that the post followed the usual pattern, with the hit rate dropping to 0-3 per day. Then the post rose from the dead. Traffic abruptly picked up again: 20 hits on the 18th day, 60 on the 19th, 38 on the 20th, 49 on the 21st. Since then the hit rate on this post has never dropped below 57. Yesterday, six weeks after I first put it up, the Ouroboros post was viewed 62 times; two days earlier there had been 104 hits.

While I think the post is a good one, I doubt that people are showing up because they heard about its merits through the grapevine. More likely people are googling the word “Ouroboros” and my post pops up. Is there some sudden interest in this fairly obscure term — has, for example, a movie or an album with that title recently been released? Not that I can see. Maybe there are lots of Gnostics and alchemists and Jungians out there looking for content. But that doesn’t explain why the post went dormant for two weeks before experiencing a renewal. Surely it didn’t take that long for the search engines to find it.

From Wikipedia:

The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end (compare with phoenix).

17 April 2012

Ouroboros

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:31 pm

[Ouroboros image by Saki BlackWing]

On my morning walk I saw a real live ouroboros. Well, it was real dead actually, lying right on my path. Stretched out straight the snake was probably less than a foot long. But it wasn’t straight: it was configured in a circle, the head just nudging the tip of the tail.

Maybe two years ago I was writing a scene in which a character stood in front of the bathroom mirror removing her gold necklace. I was trying to picture her taking it off. Would she slip it over her head? No: the chain wasn’t that long. A clasp then. What sort of clasp? How about a snake head biting the tail? Now I could picture this chain with the reptilian scaly golden skin slithering off her neck and coiling itself inside a gold mesh bag…

Three posts ago I wrote something about the Order of Melchizedek, where the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews sees Jesus foreshadowed in the legendary priest-king of Salem, mediated by a messianic verse from the Psalms. Earlier in this same epistle the writer executes the same maneuver: Jesus as fulfillment of an ancient legend, mediated by the Psalmist. This time though the sequence doesn’t just go back in time, because this time it turns out that the past is the future — a temporal ouroboros. Here’s how it works.

The writer of Hebrews is trying to show that Jesus is more powerful than the angels. Curiously, his argument isn’t predicated on Jesus being God, but on his being man. Here is Hebrews 2:5-9…

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,

WHAT IS MAN, THAT YOU REMEMBER HIM?
OR THE SON OF MAN, THAT YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT HIM?
YOU HAVE MADE HIM FOR A LITTLE WHILE LOWER THAN THE ANGELS;
YOU HAVE CROWNED HIM WITH GLORY AND HONOR,
AND HAVE APPOINTED HIM OVER THE WORKS OF YOUR HANDS;
YOU HAVE PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET.

For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:5-9)

This looks like an apocalyptic prophecy in which Jesus the Messiah will one day come back to rule the world. The capitalized portion of the text cites Psalm 8, so we flip back from New Testament to Old to find the source document:

O Yahweh, our Lord,
          How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
          Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!
From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength
          Because of Your adversaries,
          To make the enemy and the revengeful cease.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
          The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
          And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God [or than the angels; literally than the gods],
          And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
          You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
          And also the beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
          Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
O Yahweh, our Lord,
          How majestic is Your name in all the earth!

The writer of Hebrews got the citation right, but in the original context the passage doesn’t seem to apply to some specific man but rather to man in general, to mankind. The Psalmist marvels at the magnificence of the moon and the stars, and then he turns his gaze on puny humanity. Why, he wonders, does God bother with the human race? Not only does He bother; He appoints man as ruler over the whole world, over sheep and oxen, beasts and birds and fish… And now it begins to dawn on the reader: haven’t I read this litany of creatures great and small before?

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

This is day six from the Creation narrative. The writer of Hebrews points back to the Psalm, and the Psalmist points back to the writer of Genesis, who points all the way back to the beginning of time. But wait a minute. Go back to the Hebrews passage and its introduction to the Psalm quotation:

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying…

“The world to come”? I thought that the Psalmist was testifying to the world of the deep and legendary past, when humans ruled the world, before Eve listened to the serpent and she and Adam ate the forbidden fruit and God threw them both out of the Garden. Is this the Hebraist’s story, that Jesus will restore to mankind the power and glory lost in the Fall? That’s not what he says:

But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.

“Not yet”? “The world to come”? Isn’t this writer, the author of a canonical New Testament text, saying that the Genesis 1 narrative refers not to the past but to the future? The world wasn’t created seven thousand years ago, or seven billion years ago. It hasn’t even been created yet.

Today we read a text written two thousand years ago, which cites a poem written a thousand years before that, which cites an even more ancient legend that goes all the way back to the beginning, and the beginning is in the future. Ouroboros.

19 March 2010

The Universe as Divine Temple

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:49 pm

Before putting John Walton’s 2009 The Lost World of Genesis One on the shelf, I’ll summarize his interpretation of the Biblical creation story, because I found it interesting, distinctive, and not ridiculous. (I previously posted on Walton’s preliminary remarks about mythic and scientific accounts.)

Walton, an evangelical Old Testament scholar, begins by contending that the Hebrew scriptures should be read as artifacts produced by people who lived inside of a distinct historical culture rather than as timeless expressions of truth that transcend time and place. It should not surprise us then, says Walton, that God couched his Genesis 1 revelation in terms of an ancient cosmology — earth as the center of the universe, a “firmament” in the sky that keeps the heavenly floodwaters from pouring down onto the earth, and so on. That’s what the people of the time understood, and God didn’t see fit to enlighten them with more up-to-date information about. One wonders whether Walton might take the same stance about other aspects of the Biblical revelation that aren’t scientific but, say, ethical or political. E.g., did God reveal himself as jealous and punitive because that’s how the culture expected gods to act back then, and the people weren’t yet ready to understand the idea of a benign and forgiving deity? Did God present himself as championing a preferred nation that perpetrated genocide on its neighbors because national gods were a popular idea back then, and the people weren’t yet ready for a god of all nations, or a god for whom the concept of nation was irrelevant?

So, if Genesis 1 wasn’t intended as an accurate representation of cosmology or cosmogony, what was its purpose? Walton contends that the ancient Near Eastern culture subscribed not to a material ontology but to a functional ontology, in which objects and forces are characterized by their uses and purposes. A material object doesn’t exist in a functional ontology until its uses have been identified. So, e.g., unless that wooden thing across the room, consisting of a horizontal surface suspended 2 feet off the ground from four legs with a raised back, is recognized as something that can be used to sit on, it doesn’t exist as a chair.

Moving forward through the six days of the creation, Walton reiterates a set of distinctions that have long been recognized: days 1 through 3 establish functions, while days 4 through 6 identify functionaries. By setting light in oscillation with darkness, Day 1 establishes the beginning of time. I think this is an excellent interpretation, and it makes the literal passing of days an important part of the story. Day 2 marks the beginning of weather, separating the waters above (source of rain) from the waters below (sea). Day 3 is the beginning of food via plant life. The lights in the sky (day 4) are the functionaries for marking the passing of time (day 1). The sea creatures and birds and land creatures are the active agents of day 5. Man is the key functionary in the system on day 6. Again, all this is fine and has been proposed as a logical scheme by which functions are organized, rather than the temporal sequence of material ontogony.

Now we reach the heart of Walton’s interpretation. If Genesis 1 isn’t about God making the material universe or giving form to it, and if Gen. 1 is about assigning functions to the stuff of the universe, then what functional system is he assembling? Walton says that in Genesis 1 God is preparing the universe as his temple, as a place where he can live. In Genesis 1 God is assigning temple-related functions to various parts of the universe.

I think this is a fascinating position. Walton cites examples from elsewhere in Scripture that fit this reading; e.g., God lives in the heavens and uses the earth as his footstool. Walton identifies parallels in other ancient Near Eastern religions, whose gods likewise regarded the universe as their house, where they rested, accepted worship, and exercised kingship over their domains. Material temples built in honor of the gods often patterned themselves after the cosmos as a whole, with fountains of waters, pillars of earth, heavenly vaults, and so on. Genesis 1 should be read not as a history of the construction this cosmic temple but as its dedication ceremony. The material universe might have been billions of years in the making, but the dedication takes six days to accomplish. On the seventh God takes occupancy of the prepared temple — he “rests” in his prepared and dedicated home. Says Walton:

“In short, by naming the functions and installing the functionaries, and finally by deity entering his resting place, the temple comes into existence — it is created in the inauguration ceremony.” (p. 89)

After going through this part of Walton’s book I woke up in the middle of the night imagining Genesis 1 as a grand celebratory recital. Start the light show! Put in the flowers and greenery! Let everything be fruitful and multiply! Bring on the human assistants! Roll out the red carpet! Wonderful! I can picture the Genesis 1 text — as can Walton — being read ceremonially every year as a spectacular rededication of the universe to God.

In short, I quite like this interpretation. A few further points are worth considering:

Walton contends that the Bible “implies” that God created the material universe even if it’s never explicitly stated and even though Gen. 1 doesn’t speak to the topic. The few Scriptural verses he offers to justify this position aren’t convincing, inasmuch as they could be interpreted as referring to the creation of function rather than matter, just as Walton interprets Genesis 1. If Christian theology is driven by Biblical exegesis, and if exegesis makes no definitive assertion about whether God created the material universe, how might Christian theology be affected by that acknowledgment? Since the Bible doesn’t make a big deal about God as material creator ex nihilo, would it make sense to downplay or even to eliminate this divine attribute from theology? Isn’t it possible that the Hebrew Bible remains entirely silent about God’s status as material creator ex nihilo? Would it be acceptable for faithful Judeo-Christians to acknowledge agnosticism regarding whether their God might have had nothing to do with material creation?

It is possible to assign functions to objects that already exist. Someone can find a stone and use it as a hammer, or as part of a wall, or as a medium from which to chisel out a sculpture. Why then couldn’t God have simply arrived on the scene billions of years after the universe had taken shape and simply decided to “move in,” adapting it as his dwelling place? The objects and processes comprising the material universe may have a set of functions relative to God’s dwelling place, but this need not exhaust their function. E.g., the sun might be useful for distinguishing day from night in God’s temple, but it might also be useful for keeping the earth from spinning out into space and for keeping it warm enough to live on. I.e., the same material object can serve more than one function. There’s no need to claim that the universe took the material shape it did specifically and exclusively in order that it might eventually serve God’s purpose as a home. Walton contends that God no longer uses the universe as his temple (though I’m not sure why). Nonetheless, the universe and its contents persist, serving all sorts of other functions.

Walton says that God’s temple serves not just as his home, not just as his place to “rest,” but as his base of operations for running the universe. Part of God’s purported operations include keeping the material universe running, all the way down to holding individual molecules together. Again, I don’t see why that necessarily follows from the exegesis. If Genesis 1 makes no reference to material creation of the universe, why assume that God’s running of the material universe is implied? It’s certainly not stated. Why not assume that the universe runs itself, just as it had been running itself before God decided to make it his temple?

15 March 2010

The Sage Speaks!

Filed under: Christianity, Fiction, First Lines, Genesis 1, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:19 am

[UPDATED: Due to popular demand (well, it’s one guy actually, and it’s more a question than a demand), I offer not just one but three exciting installments!]

I’ve just finished rewriting and editing my book about Genesis 1, and I’m pretty pleased with it. What nearly 4 years ago was a 95,000-word treatise has been converted into a 35,000-word work of fiction. Here’s me reading the first two pages or so with only a few minor verbal fumbles…

The second installment is a re-edit of an old Ktismatics post from 2007

And here’s the third and final videotaped reading…

10 March 2010

Science as Myth

Filed under: Christianity, First Lines, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 11:10 am

“One of the principal attributes of God affirmed by Christians is that he is Creator. That conviction is foundational as we integrate our theology into our worldview. What all is entailed in viewing God as Creator? What does that affirmation imply for how we view ourselves and the world around us? These significant questions explain why discussions of science and theology so often intersect. Given the ways that both have developed in Western culture, especially in America, these questions also explain why the two often collide.”

– John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (2009)

Over a year ago Erdman, well aware of my persistent obsession with the Biblical creation story, alerted me to this book’s publication. I bought it awhile back, but only now am I getting around to reading it. Walton, professor of Old Testament at the evangelical Wheaton College, argues in his book that Genesis 1 describes the creation not of the material world but of its function in God’s ordained order. This interpretation fits nicely with my own non-theistic reading, so I’m intrigued. All the same, the early going reveals that I’m not going to see completely eye to eye with Walton.

Walton begins by proposing that the Hebrew scriptures should be read as texts produced by people who lived inside of a distinct historical culture, and that understanding the texts requires understanding the culture. That proposition seems fair enough, though as Walton admits it’s easier said than done. Only fragmented evidence is available to us that describes ancient cultures, and much of that evidence consists of the very texts we’re trying to understand. At the same time, we’re all part of the same species, and even ancient Hebrew is just as modern structurally as any modern language. So I’m fairly optimistic that we can understand texts produced by ancient writers. The earliest known writings were material inventories and records of local events: kinds of writing with which we’re still very familiar.

At the end of the intro Walton explains what he means by “myth”:

“The Canaanites or the Assyrians did not consider their myths to be made up works of the imagination. Mythology by its nature seeks to explain how the world works and how it came to work that way, and therefore includes a culture’s ‘theory of origins.’ We sometimes label certain literature as ‘myth’ because we do not believe the world works that way… By this definition, our modern mythology is represented by science — our own theories of origins and operations. Science provides what is generally viewed as the consensus concerning what the world is, how it works and how it came to be… For the Israelites, Genesis 1 offered explanations of their view of origins and operations, in the same way that mythologies served in the rest of the ancient world and that science serves our Western culture. It represents what the Israelites truly believed about how the world got to be how it is and how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelation from God.” (pp. 14-15)

I’m fine with Walton’s contention that the creation narrative probably does reflect what the writer truly believed happened. I’m not fine with his equating premodern myths with scientific explanations.

The sequence in putting forward any cosmogony, be it mythic or scientific, is roughly this: certain events happened; someone arrived at a belief regarding what happened; that person wrote it down. There is a gap to be spanned between what actually happened and what someone believes happened. Science consists of a set of systematic replicable methods for bridging this gap between event and belief. It seems to me that Walton wants not to bridge the gap between actual event and belief but to do away with it. He proposes that the shared cultural beliefs about reality are the reality for that culture. One culture says that its god created the material universe from nothing in six days; another culture, that its god gave birth to the material universe; a third, that the universe originated in a big explosion and organized itself over billions of years. Apparently Walton regards these three accounts as equally mythic and equally true for the cultures in which they arose.

This strikes me as a rather radical assertion for an evangelical to make, but it’s certainly not unprecedented. The material world is inseparable from the thoughts and words we use to talk about it; the world is what it means to us, subjectively and intersubjectively — it’s a variant on the postmodern hermeneutics of world-as-text. We discussed implications of this orientation in a recent post on Fear of Knowledge.

I’ll keep you posted on other aspects of the book I find interesting as I go along.

13 January 2010

Christianity as Fiction

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:01 pm

Yesterday I received an email from my old buddy Steven Pinker. Well, it’s not like he’s a really close friend: about three years ago I quoted him in my nonfiction book about Genesis 1 and sent him the relevant passage, which he commented on. So I guess I got automatically stored in his email directory. Anyhow, my pal Steven wanted to let me know that his wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, had just published a new book called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

As you can imagine, especially if you’ve been reading my recent posts, the title immediately captured my attention. Goldstein, being married to one of the more famous of the “new atheists,” isn’t really offering an apologetics — the 36 Arguments appear in an Appendix, each accompanied by a convincing counter-argument. Besides being a novelist, Goldstein is a serious scholar, having taught philosophy at the university level and having written biographies of Gödel and Spinoza. One of her novels in a fictionalized account of the life of William James. The new novel was just released just yesterday, and today it’s number 200 among all books, fiction and nonfiction alike, on the Amazon bestseller list. [I just checked again: it’s down to 246]

The update from Stephen dovetails nicely with the sixth of seven randomly-selected sentences from which I’m hoping to discover personal meaning and direction for the new year. It goes like this:

“Thus he is given almost equal status to Peter, who sits in a similar position to the right of Christ, and they are distinguished from the other disciples in being accompanied by two female figures, one representing the church of the Jews and the other the church of the Heathen, offering wreaths to Christ.”

The “he” who serves as subject of this sentence is the Apostle Paul, on whose writings I’ve written frequently at Ktismatics. The sentence appears on page 200 of Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind, a book which I found in the giveaway box at the local library and which I’ve not yet read. According to the back cover, the book traces the decline of scientific and rational thought in the West as a consequence of Constantine’s consolidation of a Christianized Roman Empire in the fourth century. Previously the church had emphasized the Gospels, in which Jesus is presented as a Jewish national hero and a rebel against Roman authority. After the crucifixion Peter had sustained the essential Jewishness of Christianity. Paul, on the other hand, universalized the Christian faith to embrace Romans and barbarians alike, imposed a hierarchical church authority structure, and counseled cooperation with the political authorities — an approach that proved much more compatible with the consolidation of the Empire. Augustine emerged in the fourth century as the pre-eminent Pauline theologian and enforcer of a standardized Christian dogma.

In my nonfiction book about Genesis 1 I made the opposite argument: that a revival of Augustinian influence within Christianity during the Protestant Reformation restored a more empirical and creative orientation to Western culture. In all likelihood I was being overly charitable, largely because I was trying to establish a basis for collaboration and compromise between believers and nonbelievers. Three years later I don’t care as much about compromise, or even about religion-bashing. I’m prepared to regard Christianity as the fiction I believe it to be, along with most other forms of metaphysical speculation, and to exploit it for my own amusement. At the same time, I agree with Fabio’s contention that

“In the West we cannot ignore how the history of Christianity influences our every step (and on this point, I find extremely telling the constant subtle interest of extremely timely ‘radical thinkers’ such as Badiou and Zizek with Christianity, not to mention of course Meillassoux own polemic against fideism and yet his confrontation with theological, or divinological, issues)”

So, like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, I’ll continue incorporating religion into the fiction I write, as long as it stimulates my imagination and contributes to my glee.


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)

31 December 2008

Return of the Ktismatically Repressed

Filed under: Culture, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 5:16 pm

I originally started writing this blog with the intention of promoting a book I’d just written about the Genesis 1 creation narrative. Subsequently I’ve come to realize that, while the central exegetical premise remains strong, the book itself is kind of lame. But I can do better, and now I’m ready to get on with it. Here’s a tentative outline for the rewritten nonfiction, working title 7 Creations Redux.

* * *

The book would begin by putting forward two basic and seemingly incompatible commitments. One, evolutionary and cosmological theories are right: the gods had absolutely nothing to do with creating the material universe. Two, the Genesis 1 creation narrative is literally true. This sets the stage for the paradoxical reading of Genesis 1; namely, that it’s the story of two guys having a week-long conversation about the universe. What gets created isn’t the material stuff of the universe but the conceptual-linguistic structure by which the idea of a universe came into being. It’s the archetypal story of that first singularity when prehumanity became fully human.

By looking closely at this reading of the ancient text the reader witnesses a sevenfold creation.

  1. The creation of science: the first attempt to match observation with thought.
  2. The creation of hermeneutics: the first attempt to understand one another through language.
  3. The creation of creation: the recognition that, even in a pre-existing universe, it’s possible consciously to create something unprecedented.
  4. The creation of history: the first time something recognizably new happens in human experience.
  5. The creation of culture: the beginning of a cumulative and communicable result of human invention.
  6. The creation of man: the emergence of that which most distinguishes humanity from the other animals.
  7. The creation of god: man’s amazement in witnessing his own seeming transcendence of nature.

This “original” version of the creation story preserves the words of the Biblical text as written. It also is surely a true story. At some point prehistory turned to history: early humans developed language; they began to arrive at an understanding of the world they live in; they started progressively reshaping the world; they arrived at self-awareness. Even if we don’t remember the details, each of us has personally lived through this true story of achieving sentience.

With the creation of god the original narrative undergoes a mystifying transformation. The basic story remains recognizable, but the meaning of the story is completely inverted:

  1. Creating the idea and structural concept of a thing gets conflated with creating the thing itself. This mystification leads to the reification of the social order.
  2. The mutual give-and-take of conversation gets replaced with revelation and reception, making belief more important than understanding and agreement.
  3. Instead of marking the beginning of human history, the sixth day marks the beginning of the end, when man starts falling away from God’s created order.
  4. God is the only creator, with man demoted to the position of maintenance engineer.
  5. Instead of arising as a cumulative “second nature” built on and complementing the first, human culture is regarded as the degenerate product of human arrogance.
  6. Man, rather than ratcheting himself up on these earliest experiences of invention and self-awareness, immediately descends into decadence.
  7. God, instead of being indistinguishable from man, becomes wholly other and above.

Despite updated theologizing, or perhaps because of it, the contemporary Christian church maintains its commitment the creator-god of its scriptures and traditions.

  • By adopting the postmodern rejection of the scientific “metanarrative,” the church is able to discount the massive empirical support for a creatorless cosmogeny.
  • By adopting a postmodern reader-centered hermeneutic, the church is able to discount the factuality of the Genesis 1 narrative while upholding its “truth.”
  • By upholding a postmodern skepticism regarding progress, the church is able to discount human cultural advances.

Even in limiting God’s role to that of designer, first cause, or immanent force of creativity driving the evolutionary process, the church retains its belief in God as ultimate creator of the universe, with humanity still relegated to an infinitely lower status in the cosmic hierarchy. Suppose this belief in a creator were completely excised from the Bible: what would a creatorless Judeo-Christianity look like?

  • By abandoning the idea of the Creator’s ultimate power over the world, the theological justification for holy warfare is nullified.
  • By abandoning the idea of a created natural order, moral rationales justifying institutionalized homophobia and misogyny are nullified.
  • By abandoning the idea of humanity’s fall from an original created purity, the notion that human culture is intrinsically corrupt is set aside. In addition, there remains no justification for perpetuating the belief that Christians are magically restored to the original pure human state, which supposedly bestows on Christians an ontologically superior essence relative to non-Christians. This sense of superiority has been used to discount the significance of violence and persecution perpetrated by Christians on non-Christians.
  • That God is creator is seen by New Testament writers as the reason why God can restore humans to life after death. Without a creator the notion of the immortal soul would be jeopardized.
  • Similarly, abandoning the idea that the creator can decide to destroy his creation and start over would presumably reduce Christians’ belief in unlimited abundance of natural resources and their tacit zeal for bringing on the apocalypse.

The proposed book concludes with an exercise in speculative theology. Would Christianity survive if it lost the creator? Would people continue to worship the Christian God, seek his counsel, pray to him, etc. if he no longer claimed to control the universe? Is it possible to reconfigure the basic job description for the Christian God if his creatorly credentials and functions are eliminated? Would God have to be radically redesigned? Or does the whole point of God slide down the slippery slope into irrelevance? Does the Apostle Paul’s concept of a “new creation” render the old creational underpinnings of the religion obsolete?

* * *

One good thing about this proposed book is that I’ve already done the background work on almost all of it. Portions of the old book I can cut-and-paste into the new one. I’ve also written a number of blog posts that could be adapted for the book. But perhaps the main thing I like about 7 Creations Redux is that it’s more irreverent and less conciliatory to the Christian tradition than was the old book. Plus the speculative theology bits should be fun to play around with.

I’d given considerable thought to rolling this whole idea into a novel. I do think there are interesting fictional implications to be exploited. But separating out the detailed exegetical and theoretical components and gathering them inside a tightly constructed speculative nonfiction gives me greater freedom to loosen up the fiction-writing.

30 December 2008

The New Creation in Paul: Summary Observations

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 3:16 pm

Based on the Pauline passages describing the “new creation” and “new man” on which I’ve posted here, here, here, here, and here, I draw three general inferences. First, the new creation constitutes a radical departure from what preceded it. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the event that marks the end of the old and the beginning of the new. Second, perhaps the most important hallmark of the new creation is that the traditional distinctions between groups of people no longer hold. Jew or Gentile, circumcision or uncircumcision, male and female, freeman or slave – the “Christ event” has rendered these differences irrelevant. By implication, the Old Testament’s structural division of humanity into microcosm (Israel) and macrocosm (everyone else) is an old-creation concept that died on the cross. Third, for Paul the old and new creations overlap not just in space and time but in the lives of individuals. The historical Christ event is binary: his death brought an end to the old creation, while his resurrection ushered in the new. But the individual’s subjective participation in the Christ event is always a matter of here and now, of continually and simultaneously dying to the old man and being renewed in the new man.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the breadth of Paul’s thought isn’t fully encapsulated in these five crucial but brief passages. It’s clear elsewhere that Paul does distinguish between believers and unbelievers. While believers may experience a chronic internal split between the old man and the new man, unbelievers presumably define themselves solely in terms of the old man. So, while Paul insists that the wall separating Jew from Gentile has been demolished in the cross, he seems to lay the groundwork for building a new division between Christian and non-Christian. Though the post-crucifixion entrance requirements may have changed, the practical upshot may be the same: a chosen microcosm arises from within a failed and dying macrocosm.

The most important question concerns the nature of the barrier separating inside from outside.

  1. Following the Jewish precedent, is the division between Christianity and non-Christianity a structural one, marked by distinctly Christian confessions, worship rituals, creeds, moral codes, fellowship with one another, dedicated physical spaces, and so on?
  2. Is the distinctive mark of the Christian primarily a matter of an ongoing subjective experience of dying to the old man and being renewed in the new man?
  3. Do Christians distinguish themselves by their working together in filial love and resurrection hope to manifest collectively the new creation throughout the world?

If I were to choose based on the Pauline new creation texts, I’d say that the second and third options more closely correspond to Paul’s expressed thoughts on the matter.

Relegating most of the human race to the status of a failed experiment, subject to termination at a moment’s notice by the Experimenter, might be okay if you happen to be one His laboratory assistants, but for us rats running through the maze the whole concept smacks of fascism. Having read, thought about, and discussed Paul’s descriptions of the new creation, I think it’s not only possible but scriptural for Christians to disavow this sort of antagonistic us-versus-them mentality as a relic of the old-creation thinking that Jesus’s death and resurrection rendered obsolete. I came not to judge the world but to save it, Jesus said (John 12:47). It would seem that, for Christ’s fellow-heirs and co-workers and participants in his death and resurrection, saving the world is the work that still needs to be done.

* * *

In reviewing these passages I wanted to determine whether Paul said that the pathway into the new creation passes through Israel, and whether he emphasized the “peculiar people” idea for separating the chosen people collectively and structurally from the macrocosm. I think it’s fair to say that he does not. That Jesus was a Jew isn’t a mere matter of happenstance, inasmuch as he did play a pivotal role in Israel’s national project. However, in the aftermath of his death and resurrection Jesus’ Jewishness is irrelevant: in the new creation there is neither Jew nor Gentile, as Paul is repeatedly at pains to emphasize.

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the grounds of their faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:28-30)

So now we have to think about a different way of characterizing the in/out distinction (again, presuming there is one). For Paul the way in passes through the person of Christ, and in particular through his death and resurrection. Jesus experienced these events personally, and it’s through personal identification with these events that the individual enters into the resurrection life of the new creation. The “Christ event” isn’t universal, happening to all nations through a multicultural array of different saviors. Rather, the specific event attains its universality by opening up a personal subjective possibility for everyone, a possibility that’s actualized by faith. One can of course draw the inference that the subjective possibility is nullified by lack of faith, thereby establishing the in/out criteria of traditional evangelicalism. But Paul seems to emphasize the observation that even the people of faith often act in ways that are indistinguishable from those who have no faith. At the same time he emphasizes the idea that Christ died for all, that all might be saved. It seems that Paul wanted to exercise caution in erecting a new set of criteria for separating sheep from goats.

Like many others, I cannot reconcile myself to the “ungenerous” elements in the Old Testament story. Retaining a generally high view of Scripture seems to demand that the reader accept the editorial stance of the Biblical writers when they assert that Israel perpetrated mass genocides and enslavements on God’s explicit order. In the early days of Christianity the Marcionites, appalled by Yahweh’s vengeful bloodthirstiness, concluded that Jesus represented a different God altogether and that his mission was to save the world from Yahweh. (Marcion was condemned as a heretic and excommunicated by the elders in Rome, but his particular Christian variant enjoyed considerable popularity for a couple of centuries at least.) Many evangelicals acknowledge their own revulsion at the Canaanite genocide recorded in Deuteronomy 7 without explicitly endorsing or disavowing it. At minimum I would hope that Christians would reject the genocidal Scriptural passages as tragic misrepresentations of God’s intentions, or perhaps even as an ill-chosen strategy in God’s historic dealings with Israel. At least it should be clear that, following the “Christ event,” this sort of divisive policy has no place in the new creation.

When God encourages Noah and Abraham and Israel to be fruitful and multiply, He’s echoing the blessing He bestowed on the original creation narrative of Genesis 1. Though the words are never explicitly stated in Scripture, I can see how one might regard these blessings as repeated efforts to renew the original creation. However, Paul speaks not of yet another renewal of the old creation but of a new creation. Disjunction rather than continuity characterizes Paul’s language. In this new creation Paul says that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, and that in Christ’s crucifixion he reconciled the two into one new man. (Gal. 6, Eph. 4). Paul speaks not at all here about the work of Christ bringing about another renewal of Israel as a microcosm and another destruction of the surrounding macrocosm. Rather, addressing himself explicitly to the Gentiles, Paul says that Christ destroyed the dividing wall that had previously separated these two mutually antagonistic subdivisions of the old creation (Eph. 4). While Paul elsewhere acknowledges God’s distinct blessings on Israel, I see nothing in these passages to indicate that he regards Israel as retaining a distinctive microcosmic status in the new creation.

In Gal. 3 Paul contends that the whole era of Israel and the Law constituted not a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, but rather a temporary measure instituted “because of transgressions.” The Abrahamic promise finds its fulfillment not in the national identity of Israel but in solidarity with the dead and resurrected Christ. It’s a blessing that extends not to just one nation but to all, as envisioned in the original promise. Paul pointedly does not say that the Gentiles have become part of Israel; rather, the two, formerly divided by a wall of enmity, have been merged together into something altogether new. Paul regards those who believe in Christ as a blessing to the whole world. But God’s particular blessing on Israel, setting them apart as “a kingom of priests and a holy nation,” is precisely what Paul sets aside. This sort of spiritual aristocracy is old-creation thinking that’s been nullified in Christ.

It’s impossible to miss the parallels between the Genesis 1 creation narrative and the blessing on Noah. These parallels highlight the continuity between the two events, both of them playing in the same register. From within the corrupted world God chose Noah and his family to embark on a renewal and a purification of the old creation. Periodic renewals and purifications are characteristic of the Old Testament narratives, most of which deal specifically with Israel as the chosen microcosm: their separation from the world as a chosen people; their periodic disobedience, punishment, and repentance as indicators of God’s continual and specific concern for their well-being; and God’s use of the unchosen macrocosm as his usually unwitting agents in dealing specifically with Israel.

This is all old-creation stuff, says Paul; it died on the cross. Paul never uses the biological be-fruitful-and-multiply formula in describing the new creation. That sort of language is inadequate to describe the radical break created in Christ’s death and resurrection. Also, repeating the old-creational tropes would likely trigger old-creation associations especially among his Judaizing readers, and Paul is relentless in insisting that the old paradigm of separation and purification of a chosen race no longer holds.

Paul explicitly addressed his Epistle to the Romans to a Gentile audience. In chapter 9 he shifts his attention to “my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,” who are Israelites. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I could imagine that the Gentile believers wondered whether, in light of the “new creation,” God had abandoned Israel. As he did also in the Galatians letter, Paul shifts the temporal context back in time, from Israel to Abraham, emphasizing that

it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants (Romans 9:8)

In other words, the Abrahamic promise isn’t fulfilled through the biological “be fruitful and multiply” apparatus of the old creation — the means by which the nation of Israel attained distinction — but through some other channel altogether. Specifically, the biopolitical collective entity called “Israel” is not that channel, and it never was. Why? Because the channel passes through Christ and is apprehended not by biological inheritance nor by moral superiority but by faith in a resurrected Christ — the same channel by which Paul’s Gentile readers have entered into the new creation.

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him. (Romans 10:12)

Paul begins Romans 11 by distinguishing a chosen and faithful remnant of Israel — a microcosm within the microcosm one might say. But he says this narrowing of Israel is a temporary measure, intended to make possible the expansion of the promise far beyond the geographic and ethnic boundaries of Israel. When Paul speaks metaphorically of the olive tree (11:17ff.), he’s again referring not to Israel according to the flesh but to the descendants of Abraham according to the promise. While some of the “natural branches” — i.e., Israelites according the flesh — have been pruned from the branch, they can be grafted in again through faith.

…a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles have come in; and thus all Israel will be saved. (Rom. 11:25-26)

Is Paul saying that “all Israel” is a newly-pruned olive tree of the spirit, consisting of a faithful remnant selected from among Jews and Gentiles alike? Or is he saying that all Israel according to the flesh will eventually be reconciled and regrafted into the spiritual descendants of Abraham, along with the “fullness” of the Gentile descendants? It’s hard for me to say, but Paul wraps up his excursus on Israel, embedded within this longer letter to the Gentile believers in Rome, with this:

For just as you [i.e., Gentiles] once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these [i.e., Jews] also now have been disobedient in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that he might show mercy to all. (Rom. 11:30-32)

As I read this extended passage, Paul contends that the pruning of the Israelite branch down to a remnant constituted a temporary measure. The pruning was implemented in order to make possible the explosive growth and flowering of the whole tree, Jew and Gentile alike, fulfilling the expansive promise made to Abraham long before Israel had even sprouted. Participating in this promised expansion — call it the “new creation” — is achieved by faith in God’s grace and mercy bestowed despite disobedience, or even because of it, through the death and resurrection of Christ.

To regard Israel as any sort of model for building the new creation in Christ seems fundamentally ill-conceived. A radical spiritual exceptionalism in which God acts with benevolence on behalf of only a small subset of humanity while dismissing the rest as degenerates worthy of enslavement and destruction: I suspect I’m not the only one who regards this sort of thing as barbaric and fascistic. It’s the ideology of separation, elitism and violent suppression of infidels that has fueled so much destruction and insular self-absorption in the name of Christ over the centuries, and that still motivates the American religious right’s “crusades” in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. As a collective force of militant separatism, Christianity presents itself as an imminent threat to outsiders, bent on eventual world domination and the concomitant destruction of its enemies. This radical anti-humanistic aggression might be an inescapable feature of Christianity in all its guises.

* * *

In looking carefully at those five passages I was tentatively exploring the possibility of discovering a more all-embracing version of Christianity in Paul’s writings, one in which grace and resurrection life replace judgment, punishment and insular separatism as the basis for new life in Christ. If those five texts are a valid indication, then Paul regards Christianity as a radical break from the old us-versus-them paradigm. He does not commend anything about Israel — its ethnic purity, its law, its separation from the other nations — as exemplary of the new creation. When he looks for a precedent he hearkens back before Israel to Abraham and the expansive promise God made through him to all nations. He speaks of grace and faith and an explosive opening outward of God’s benevolence.

The reason I react with such vehemence to distinctions between microcosm and macrocosm, between sheep and goats, between regenerate and degenerate, is that on all these divides I occupy the position of the rejected “other.” I would have been one of the Canaanites slaughtered by the Israelites in the name of their God; I am the one whom many evangelicals regard as unregenerate and under condemnation; I am the one who will presumably be swept away in the last judgment so that the regenerate microcosm can fill the whole earth.

Now my condemnation might be justifiable if this particular God really exists: His ways are beyond our ways, the clay can’t question the potter, etc. The radical barrier distinguishing membership in the regenerate microcosm consists in believing that this God does exist, that He is right, and that one should cooperate with Him — even if it means actively helping Him slaughter entire nations or affirming His right to destroy everyone who doesn’t believe in Him. From the non-believer’s standpoint this sort of radically non-humanistic theism is fascistic by definition. And the barrier is a rigid one: join us, believe what we believe, or our Leader will execute you. Of course one can choose to believe in order to save one’s skin, but isn’t there more integrity in upholding one’s beliefs even under threat of death?

So when I read attempts to come to grips with the Canaanite genocide by acknowledging God’s right to do away with whole nations man, woman and child, I regard it as a justifying an all-powerful fascistic regime whose ruler may change tactics but whose strategy (microcosm versus macrocosm) remains constant throughout history. But there are other ways of reading Paul’s new creation texts, even within a Christian exegetical framework — ways that emphasize disjunction from Old Testament fascism rather than continuity, ways that emphasize the expansiveness of the resurrection life rather than its restrictiveness, ways that destroy barriers between in and out rather than erecting them, ways that emphasize grace rather than judgment. It’s in the context of these more gracious readings that I can find at least the possibility of common cause with Christians, in which all of us retain the integrity of our beliefs in the spirit of love. Of course evangelicals aren’t obligated to make the effort; neither am I obligated to search for a version of the Christian faith that I can live with. And there’s no assurance that our efforts will bear fruit that satisfy everyone’s tastes. But I do make that effort, for reasons that aren’t always clear to me — maybe it’s masochism, as some of my non-Christian friends suggest. Sometimes I get tired of it.

* * *

It would be wise for me to stop here, but I’m interested in the practical implications. What happens when Christians explicitly to regard themselves as participants in the new creation as Paul describes it? Not being a professing Christian I’m clearly not the best man for the job, but I’ll have a tentative go at it.

New-creation Christians break down structural differences between groups of people. Wars, racial and ethnic insulation, economic mechanisms maintaining the class divide between rich and poor, legal obstacles to the free movement of workers across national and regional boundaries – these sorts of antagonistic divisions would seem to be appropriate areas for intervention.

New-creation Christians make the boundary more permeable between sacred and secular realms. That some undertaking is a church project should be less important than the nature of the project itself. Just because Israel divided the calendar between the work week and the Sabbath doesn’t mean that the new creation is irrelevant in the workplace and the schools. Instead of buffering themselves inside the microcosm, Christians can leaven the dough of the world with resurrection life.

New-creation Christians acknowledge the dividedness of the Christian self. Death an resurrection are the two moments of the Christ event; both are part of the believer’s participation in that event. The urge to self-gratify and the urge to self-justify, the desire to obey and the desire to violate, the conflict between what we think and what we find ourselves doing, the compulsion to impose barriers between ourselves and others along with obsession to imitate and to compete – the death throes of the old man are continual and perpetual. But there’s also this other self, this new man, that is continually coming alive – what is he like, I wonder? Both are part of the Christ event; both are part of the Christian’s subjective participation in that event.

26 December 2008

The New Man in Ephesians 4

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 8:44 am

So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old man, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. (Ephesians 4:14-24)

In Ephesians 2 Paul said that Christ had created the Jews and the Gentiles into one new man. Here Paul tells his readers that the new man is created in the likeness of God. But wasn’t the first man created in God’s image and likeness? Does this passage imply that man lost the imago Dei in the Fall, and that now it’s being restored? Or is it possible that the original imago wasn’t complete? Genesis 1 focuses exclusively on God’s creational activity, implying that man is like God specifically in being able to create. At the end of Genesis 3 God says that man, in acquiring knowledge of good and evil, has become even more godlike. Here in Ephesians 4 Paul links the likeness of God specifically to His righteousness and holiness — yet another aspect of the imago.

Paul tells his readers that they’re acting like the Gentiles: ignorant, hard-hearted, impure and greedy. This sort of behavior Paul associates with the old man. Is Paul contradicting himself from two chapters earlier by now saying that the Gentiles are the old man and that the Jews, or perhaps the Christ-following Jews, are the new man? I don’t think so. Paul addresses his readers as “Gentiles in the flesh” (2:13) who through Christ have been joined together with the Jews into the one new man (2:15). Now, however, Paul sees evidence of his readers relapsing into their old ways, as if they were still defining themselves according to the old fleshly distinctions between peoples. The old Gentile way of life is characterized by enmity, ignorance, and immorality — in short, it’s a life that doesn’t manifest God’s holiness. Presumably Paul would levy the same criticisms against those “Jews in the flesh” who slipped back into their old Jewish ways.

Apparently it’s possible for a follower of Christ to slip back and forth between the old man and the new man. Though Christ has already created the new man, the old man persists, even among those who follow Christ. Paul enjoins his readers to “lay aside” the old man and to “put on” the new man, as if the transition were as easy as changing one’s clothes. If Paul was talking here about a distinctly new human nature having been implanted in believers, one would expect him to use different imagery. For example, if the old man is a fleshly, surface-level identity whereas the new man is deeper and truer, then Paul might exhort the backslider to lay aside the old man in order that the new, true man might shine forth. Alternatively, if the old man is deeply ingrained in human nature, then Paul might suggest that his readers put the new man over the top of the old man as a means of disguising or ritually purifying the old. Instead Paul seems to regard the old man and new man as interchangeable. He also assumes that the reader possesses an autonomy independent of the old man and the new man, a constant and continuous self that can take off the one and put on the other.

The old man and the new man are not static entities: the one is “being corrupted,” whereas the other is “being renewed” (Eph. 4:22f.). More precisely, Paul encourages the reader to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man.” It would seem that, in Pauline psychology, the mind has a spirit that can either be corrupted or be renewed. Here in Ephesians the old man and new man are envisioned as alternative life trajectories or mindsets, and the individual self can at any given time be guided by either the one or the other. A person who sets his life course by the new man must put aside the traditional intercultural enmities (2:15f) and the ignorance and callousness (in Greek it’s “analgesia,” the numbness to pain) that lead to impurity and greed. Instead the person participates in the ongoing life of God (4:18), a way that leads in the opposite direction, toward peace, knowledge, sensitivity, purity, generosity.

walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God… (Eph 4:17-18)

The old man is aimed toward corruption and death; the new man, toward renewal and life. Paul isn’t enjoining his readers to assume a new personality or nature. He’s asking them to respond appropriately to the singular twofold event of Christ’s death and resurrection, to “walk in a manner of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). It’s possible not to respond appropriately, to “put on the old man” even if you’re already a participant in the “new man” that Christ created in the cross. Those believers who put on the old man act just like those who never responded to Christ’s calling in the first place.

* * *

The unbeliever and the believer who is currently “wearing the old man” — are they the same? In other words, is there anything that distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian? Is it the initial statement of faith, or is it the walk, that identifies someone who has life in the Spirit? Or is neither of these subjective responses definitive? Is it instead the “Christ event” itself that creates the new man in the flesh and the new life in the spirit? Whether you acknowledge the event or not, whether you live inside the new man or not, is it the event itself that has already changed everything?

I think that for Paul the subjective response is determinative because the “Christ event” is itself the emergence of a new kind of subjectivity, a “subjectivation” that continually renews itself in spirit and in life. Paul’s injunction to lay aside the old man and to put on the new presumes the kind of free subjectivity that the resurrected life in Christ makes possible.

The “Christ event” has two parts to it: death and resurrection. The new man is one, but this unity participates in both parts of the event. There’s a continual dying of the old man and his concerns for fleshly distinctions, laws and desires; and there’s also a continual resurrection of the new man and his freedom to act in faith, hope and love. Is there something distinctive about the individual who participates in this sort of bivalent subjectivity, or does everyone engage in these same ongoing struggles to become a free subject in the world? Sometimes I see it one way, sometimes the other, but I’ll be damned if I know which is true.

I have a sense that many, perhaps most, at least occasionally consider living a life concerned less with inconsequential distinctions and more with truth, beauty, justice, love. I also think that, at best, people vacillate repeatedly and perpetually between the two. In this regard I’m not personally persuaded that those who proclaim themselves Christians are qualitatively different from those who do not. But this is idle speculation of one observer of the human condition and not a systematic treatment of Paul’s writings.

Awhile back I wrote some posts about contemporary continental philosopher Alain Badiou’s little book Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, which explores issues we’ve been addressing here. Badiou contends that Paul offers not a universalist expansion of the traditionally exclusivist Jewish faith but rather “the possibility of universalism.” Paul doesn’t point either to a universally true set of philosophical propositions nor to the universally commendable life that Jesus lived on earth, but rather to the distinctive event of Christ’s death and resurrection, an event that was in its very nature subjective, experienced by Christ alone. This intensely private event offers the possibility of universal truth and love not to those who abstract its truth or who testify to its miracle but rather to those who participate subjectively in the event itself. So, paradoxically, it’s a universalism that depends on subjective participation.

Drifting again, this time into sociology, it seems that Christianity — or is it Christendom? — has established itself as a kind of universal cult, with its rituals of initiation, its creeds, its liturgies, its moral codes, its communitarian festivals, and other structural apparatuses for distinguishing inside from outside, Christian from non-Christian. It’s a sort of synthesis between Jewish excusivism and Greco-Roman inclusivism. While this is the use the church leaders made of Paul, and while Paul himself may have encouraged this sort of thing in the interests of rapid expansion, I’m not sure it’s what he really had in mind.

In reading these Pauline texts one by one we discover that, instead of reinforcing the boundaries between micro and macro, Paul insists that the boundaries have been torn down — neither Jew nor Gentile. The old and new creations overlap in the world; now in Ephesians 4 we find that they overlap even in the lives of individuals who have already declared their faith in Christ. For Paul it’s less a matter of in versus out and more a matter of how one lives one’s life that’s at stake.

Maybe even Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 6 against being unequally yoked with unbelievers isn’t about unbelievers being sinful while believers are holy. Maybe it’s about the hazards of living inside a dark and dead reality defined by law in which everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, falls under condemnation. Maybe it’s not the unbelievers whom Paul is calling satanic, but the satanic “old creation” in which they find themselves inextricably mired. The important thing is to die to that dead reality in order to live inside the resurrection reality. Again and again the dead old life keeps coming back — the return of the repressed and the death drive in Freud’s formulation. Paul wants his readers to recognize what’s happening. When the old man returns, don’t condemn yourself for backsliding, don’t conclude that the old reality is the only valid existence possible, don’t repress that which you’ve unsuccessfully tried to repress so many times before. Paul seems to invoke a kind of cognitive-behavioral intervention: in Eph. 4 he asks his readers simply to lay aside the old man and put the new man back on. Maybe that’s the best he could do in written correspondence with a bunch of people he probably had never met.

23 December 2008

The New Man in Ephesians 2

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 5:49 am

In trying to understand the Biblical idea of the “new creation” we’ve looked at the only two Biblical passages that explicitly use the phrase: Galatians 6 and 2 Corinthians 5. There are also three passages which refer explicitly to the “new man,” beginning with Ephesians 2:11-22.

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, hope and without hope and having no God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; for through Him we both have our access in one Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a building of God in the Spirit.

Parallels between this passage and Galatians 6 suggest strongly that for Paul the “new man” and the “new creation” are closely related concepts. The differences between the circumcision and the uncircumcision, between the Jews and the Gentiles, have been abolished. Previously Israel had been granted privileged access to God. But now, through Christ, everyone has access. Paul doesn’t say that the Gentiles have now been granted entry into the commonwealth of Israel, nor that the Jews were already the “new man” even before Christ. Instead, Paul asserts that the barrier that formerly separated Israel and the Gentiles has now been broken down. What previously had been two separate and antagonistic old men — the Jew and the Gentile — God has now joined together into one “new man.” Paul says that this joining-together by Christ is an act of “creating,” the verb κτιζω referring exclusively in the New Testament to God’s acts of creation (and serving as the root of my imaginary English word “ktismatics”).

What was it that had previously kept the two old men apart? Paul doesn’t blame the Gentiles’ sinfulness or unbelief. Instead, he says that the dividing wall was the Law: the commandments and ordinances that distinguished Israel from its neighbors. As in the Galatians passage, Paul here associates the Law with the flesh: circumcision is “performed in the flesh by human hands” (v. 11); Jesus “abolished in the flesh” the enmity between Jew and Gentile, which is the Law itself (v. 15). In destroying the barrier and in creating the one new man, God reconciles Jew and Gentile to one another and establishes peace (v. 15f). Now Jews and Gentiles are fellow-citizens (v. 19), being built together into a spiritual home of God (v. 21f).

Paul doesn’t say that Christ’s resurrection unites the Jew and the Gentile into the one new man. Death in the flesh is the great leveler of fleshly distinctions like Jew and Greek. We are all one man in death. Paul says in Ephesians 2 that Christ broke down the dividing wall of the Law that brought enmity between Jews and Gentiles. This was achieved by “the blood of Christ,” “in His flesh,” through the cross” — that is, through the physical death of Christ. But oneness in death is only the starting point. There’s a change in tone beginning in v. 17:

And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.

I think it’s here that Paul shifts from death to resurrection, from flesh to spirit. The Gentiles were far away, the Jews were near, but in the crucifixion these distances were erased. Now, in the resurrection, Christ preaches peace to everyone, grants spiritual access to everyone. Again, Paul says nothing about his readers’ response: it is the efficacy of the resurrection that’s the source of this new spiritual life. The dividing wall is leveled in Christ’s death, making everyone equal in the flesh. In His resurrection everyone is “being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”

*  *  *

Now that the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been torn down, does all of humanity come together in the new creation as members of the collective “new man”? Or does the traditional interpretation hold: because the structural barrier is broken down, no one is barred access to the new creation, which is entered only by those who exercise faith? When Paul speaks of “God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the corner stone,” is he saying that the household includes only those who follow this trajectory of faith?

We’ve observed that Christ’s death is the great social leveler, breaking down the old distinctions between Jew and Gentile and uniting them in one new man. Paul says nothing about Christ’s death being made efficacious only by virtue of his readers’ response of repentance or faith or love. Later in Ephesians Paul begins to emphasize his readers’ active participation in Christ’s work. He entreats them to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, with patience and love, in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. This is the new resurrection life that Paul is talking about here.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling. (Eph. 4:4)

The one body comes together in Christ’s death; the one Spirit arises from His resurrection: this is the twofold offer from God. Paul then outlines what will happen as his readers continue to walk in a manner worthy of this offer: grace, gifts, service, maturity. This leads to 4:17, the beginning of the next passage talking about the “new man,” and the subject of a separate post. The thrust of Ephesians is generally this: Christ reconciled everyone in the body of His death; Christ offered new life in the Spirit through His resurrection; Paul encourages his readers to respond appropriately to what Christ has already accomplished. Does Paul propose that a new distinction be made between Christian and non-Christian? Is he collapsing the old distinctions between Jew and Gentile, near and far, microcosm and macrocosm, only to open a pathway to a new microcosm along a different axis, leaving a newly-configured macrocosm separated from God outside a newly-erected dividing wall?

In Chapter 5 Paul does invoke certain threats about the loss of inheritance in the kingdom and about the wrath of God. And in 4:17 he encourages his Gentile readers not to live the way they once did, in a life excluded from God. But the thrust remains consistent: Christ did these things for you, therefore you should respond appropriately to what Christ has already done. If you don’t, then you’re living the life of the “old man,” where fleshly distinctions like Jew versus Gentile still hold sway. It would appear that even believers can slip back into the fleshly old man, separated from the spiritual life of God in the resurrected Christ. Does this mean that individual believers can go back and forth between saved and lost, between being Christian and being non-Christian? I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind here.

* * *

It seems that, for Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection was an objective event that ushered in a new way of becoming a subject, of becoming a self. Paul presents this new subjectivity in contradistinction to the two main alternatives on offer in the first century: Israel and Greece/Rome.

Jewishness was based on exclusivity: the distinct geography, ethnicity, laws, and rituals were all intended to establish boundaries between inside and outside. To be Jewish would be to participate in this exclusivity, defining oneself according to collective and rigidly defined differences. The Gentile nations had their own distinctives too of course, turning the ancient Near East into a hodgepodge of separate nations whose perpetual conflicts derived from their essential similarity to one another as exclusionary microcultures.

The Empire model of Rome replaced exclusive communitarianism with universalism. Local distinctions could be maintained as long as everyone paid tribute to Rome. Military might ensured compliance. Greece provided a philosophical basis for this sort of universalism: all local differences constitute imperfect variations on the one ideal model of self, society, law, etc. To be Greco-Roman is to become generic, to define yourself in a way that disregards differences.

I think that Paul’s “new man” constitutes a different way. Local variations aren’t important, but not because they’re immersed in the universal solvent of comprehensive political, economic and legal systems that dissolve all differences. No law, says Paul; I’m dead to law, alive to love and the spirit. No Jew or Gentile, but no Roman or Greek either. One new man, but a man comprised of a wide diversity of men walking and working together toward some unprecedented truth and maturity and plenitude that can barely be glimpsed from here.

Whatever else Jesus was, he was a man. Jewish exclusivity and Roman universalism conspired together to do him in. But there arises in the resurrection some other way of being a subjective agent in the world rather than just an object defined by these two competing ways, both of which lead to the same death. I don’t think this makes the resurrected Christ a libertarian, carving his idiosyncratic course like some Nietzschean superman. Instead his is a subjectivity that’s characterized not by ego but by love: fellow heirs, free subjects freely working together. This is neither an us-versus-them exclusive cult nor a one-size-fits-all empire of universal indifference, nor even a scattered multitude of free-ranging individualists, but rather a new way of being an active collaboration of free subjects freely joining themselves together in common cause.

21 December 2008

2 Corinthians 5 and the New Creation

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 10:09 am

For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-20)

The other day I posted on Paul’s idea of the  “new creation”  in Galatians 6. Here in 2 Cor. 5 Paul explicitly links the passing away of the old creation and the arrival of the new to the death and resurrection of Christ. The phrase καινη κτισις, here translated by the NASB as “new creature,” is rendered as “new creation” in Galatians 6. There is no indefinite article in Greek, and there’s no verb in the phrase, so a more literal translation might be: “if anyone is in Christ, new creation.” I like the alternative reading presented in a footnote to the NASB: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” One might say that each new creature in Christ participates in the more comprehensive new creation. Paul is saying that Christ’s death and resurrection didn’t just affect Christ Himself: these events changed the world. Therefore, those who are in Christ participate in this radically transformed world, which is the “new creation.” The death and resurrection of Christ don’t just transform individuals into new creatures; it’s an all-inclusive event.

When Paul associates the old creation with the flesh, he’s referring not to the sinful passions but rather to the materialistic worldview. Formerly he and his readers knew Christ “according to the flesh” — surely he doesn’t mean that they lusted after Jesus. Rather, they knew Christ as a flesh-and-blood human being who lived and died; now, though, they know him as a resurrected human, the firstborn of the new creation. Paul says that the reason they now know Him this way is that when Jesus died, somehow all died with him and are now resurrected in him. Jesus’s death brought to an end the old creation and ushered in the new creation for all. Just as he and his readers no longer know Christ according to the flesh as a merely mortal human, so they no longer know anyone according to the flesh. This is the case, says Paul, because in Christ God reconciled the whole world to himself.

Through Christ’s death and resurrection the old creation died and the new creation is born, a transformation that affects the whole world: what does Paul mean here? Is he saying that the whole world, all of humanity, died in Christ and is now resurrected in Christ? That the whole world is now reconciled to God? That what remains is for us to recognize the reality of this transformation, no longer seeing things according to the fleshly old-creational perspective of a material world that’s been rejected by God? That all of us participate in the resurrection life of the new creation whether we realize it or not? That now, having been accepted by God, we in turn ought to accept God?

Or is Paul saying that the new creation affects only those who through faith accept Christ’s resurrection as ushering in a new creation, who accept Christ’s work of reconciliation and reciprocate by reconciling themselves to God? Is he saying that as long as someone continues to see Christ, himself, and the world “according to the flesh,” that person remains bound to the old creation, doomed to mortality, or perhaps to eternal torment? This is the usual interpretation of the passage. I think the text is ambiguous and could be read either way. Did Christ really die for everyone and through resurrection reconcile everyone to God — which is what Paul explicitly asserts here? Or did Christ die for and reconcile only those who can see things from this perspective? In other words, is each of us living in the AD era participating in the new creation whether we realize it or not, or do we have to perceive the new creation subjectively in order for it to apply to us personally?

Either way, Paul’s emphasis is clear in 1 Cor. 5: the old creation died with Christ; the new creation began with Christ’s resurrection. The new creation is meant to embrace the whole world, reconciling everyone to God through Christ.

At the end of the passage Paul exhorts his readers to serve as Christ’s ambassadors. It’s a call for a reciprocal response to God’s proactive move. This is similar to Paul’s call for reciprocity in response to the “new creation” in Galatians 6, where he says that through the cross “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). God has already reconciled the world to Himself through Christ (2 Cor. 5:19) — whether or not this is achieved through substitutionary atonement isn’t really the focus of this particular passage. “Reconcile to Himself” means in effect that God is willing to let bygones be bygones, to disregard whatever it is that people have done against Him. What might it mean for someone to “be reconciled to God”? I think it means reconciling God to myself. In what ways do I feel that God has harmed me, opposed me, offended me? Can I let those go; in effect, can I forgive God? That seems to be what Paul’s ministry of reconciliation is here: God forgives you; it’s time for you to forgive God. I understand that it’s not polite conversation to complain about God publicly, but I think a lot of people (me included) resent the hand that’s been dealt them as well as the new cards they draw. (Of course I’m veering away from the “new creation” topic here, but that’s the case with any passage: it’s hard to stick with one theme when so many others intertwined with it call for attention.

In 2 Cor. 5 Paul places the emphasis on the objective work of Christ: He died for all, therefore all died. It’s not just that I am crucified to the world through Christ; everybody is. The reader doesn’t have to look for a universal salvation theme in this passage; it’s there in the words of the text: Christ died for all, through Christ God reconciled the world to Himself. Reading this passage in 2 Cor. 5 it’s conceivable that the subjective response of the individual to the cross doesn’t activate salvation for that individual, but that instead it’s a matter of the individual subjectively recognizing what already happened objectively to everyone. In other words, maybe everyone already came through the cross during the historical event of the crucifixion. Paul sounds a similar note in Romans 5:

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (Rom. 5:10)

Three times in a row Paul in 2 Cor. 5:14-15 says “all”: “…one died for all, therefore all died, and He died for all…” It seems he’s emphasizing inclusiveness here. One would be hesitant to say that what Paul really meant was “all except” or “only those who.” He also says that through Christ God reconciled the world — cosmos in Greek — to Himself. Again, Paul seems to broaden the scope as far as possible. One could argue that participation in this universal new creation is conditional: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:18). However, it’s not necessary to interpret the “if” here as distinguishing between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. I think, given the context, the “if” is a link in a chain of logical argument that Paul has been outlining: if A, then B. For example, earlier in 2 Corinthians we read:

For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory. (2 Cor. 3:11)

Paul has just gotten done arguing that the “if” clause is true — in this case he’s referring to the temporary glory of God that shone on Moses’ face when he came down from Sinai with the Law. In 2 Cor. 5 Paul has just gotten finished saying that all died in Christ, in order that those who live might live for Christ. Therefore, following the logic, if anyone lives in Christ (which Paul asserts is true), then he/there is a new creation. I’m not prepared based on this one passage to argue that, for Paul, all who die in Christ also live in Christ. Still, it’s clear that in this passage emphasizes the all-inclusiveness of the new creation.

19 December 2008

The New Creation in Paul: Galatians 6

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 6:02 am

In thinking about rewriting my book about Genesis 1 I find myself looking at references to creation in the New Testament. Awhile back I wrote a series of posts on Alain Badiou’s book about Saint Paul, in which Badiou touches on the “new creation” as a pivotal concept in Paul’s movement away from flesh and law to spirit. It turns out that Paul uses the phrase “new creation” only twice in his epistles, with the cognate “new creature” appearing three times. No other NT writer refers to the new creation, nor does Jesus as his words are recorded in the Gospels.

Briefly, what I see Paul working out in this idea of “new creation” is a path toward the universal reconciliation of all humanity. This reconciliation is achieved neither through universalizing a social and moral code (as represented by Israel), nor by participating in a universal empire (as represented by Rome), but through some sort of universal participation in Jesus. It seems that this participation has already been accomplished through Jesus’s historical death and resurrection, even if the consequences of this cataclysmic event aren’t yet widely recognized.

In the spirit of this Epiphany season — no wait, I guess it’s Advent isn’t it? — I’m going to look at each of the 5 Pauline references to “new creation” one at a time. The first one is in Galatians, a Pauline epistle on which I’ve previously written several posts.

Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh. But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:12-16)

Throughout his letter to the Galatians Paul mounts an argument against those who would require Gentile believers in Christ to follow the Mosaic Law. Here at the end of the letter he reiterates his position. Paul frequently uses “circumcision” as a synecdoche, a figure of speech where a part stands for the whole. Thus circumcision stands for the whole Mosaic body of law, of which the specific act of circumcision constitutes only one specific law. Paul explicitly identifies the part-whole relationship in the preceding chapter:

And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. (Gal. 5:3)

So in Galatians 6:15 Paul is telling the Galatians that it doesn’t matter whether they follow the Law of Moses or not. But the specific act of circumcision isn’t lost sight of. In 5:12 and 5:13 Paul twice links the word “circumcision” to the word “flesh.” This is important too, because Paul wants to distinguish flesh from spirit. Synecdochally speaking, circumcision doesn’t just represent the whole Law; it also represents the whole flesh. Those who think the Law is important are those who judge matters according to the flesh rather than the spirit.

Now we get to the key phrase in Gal. 6:15:

For neither circumcision is anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

The distinction between those who follow the Law and those who don’t is unimportant, because this is a fleshly distinction. Instead what’s important is a new creation. By implication, then, the world that distinguishes between circumcision and uncircumcision, between Law and not-Law, together comprise the old creation characterized not by spirit but by flesh.

Those who insist on preserving this old fleshly distinction are, of course, the Jews. Is Paul saying that Jewishness itself is an old-creation construct, that from the perspective of the new creation Israel doesn’t matter any more? Gal. 6:16 suggests we think again:

And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

As far as I can tell, the phrase “Israel of God” is used nowhere else in the Bible. In contrast, “God of Israel” is a very frequent construction throughout the Old Testament. Is Paul calling attention to something by inverting the customary word order? He doesn’t elaborate here at the end of Galatians, moving directly from this verse to the closing of his letter. We might speculate from the larger theme of the letter to infer something like this: The Jews act as if God were their possession, as if they controlled the Gentiles’ access to God through the traditional means of circumcision and the Law. But Paul says it’s the other way around: Israel is God’s possession.

So does Paul mean that God gives access to Israel rather than vice versa? I don’t think so. Earlier in Galatians Paul talks about two sons of Abraham: Ishmael, born of the servant Hagar; and Isaac, born of Abraham’s wife Sarah. The nation of Israel traces its lineage through Isaac; the Gentile nations, through Ishmael. But Paul turns the story around:

This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. (Gal. 4:24-25)

Paul distinguishes between earthly Jerusalem, capital of the nation of Israel, and “the Jerusalem above.” How is earthly Jerusalem enslaved? Israel has become a province of the Roman Empire, so in a political sense Jerusalem is enslaved to Rome. But the subject of Paul’s Galatian letter is freedom from the Law. In Chapter 5 he describes the Jews’ subjection to the Law as enslavement. But, says Paul,

It is for freedom that Christ set us free… for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. (Gal. 5:1,6)

Earthly Jerusalem is enslaved to the Law, but “the Jerusalem above is free.” So in Gal. 4 does “the Jerusalem above” trace its lineage through the Gentile Ishmael? Paul doesn’t complete the analogy in quite this way; rather, he’s making the distinction between the physical and the spiritual descendants of Sarah. Physically, the nation of Israel sets itself apart from the other nations, and this “fleshly” Israel controls access to its God via fleshly circumcision and adherence to the Law. Spiritually, the “Israel of God” isn’t distinguished by ethnicity, national boundaries, or Law. Rather, the Israel of God, the “new creation” to which Paul extends peace and mercy at the end of his letter, is identified by the freedom from these fleshly distinctions between “in” and “out” that characterize the old creation, a freedom made possible by faith and love.

By believing God, Abraham received the promise of a new creation, a promise which was to be fulfilled in the future. This promise, says Paul, has now been fulfilled in Christ’s death, ushering in the new creation. All who believe God can receive now that which had been promised long ago to Abraham. This is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Galatians:

Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Gal. 3:6-9)

Throughout the centuries the Jews anticipated the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, which remained in the future. They failed to recognize that participation in the Mosaic Law — i.e., membership in the nation of Israel — wasn’t the portal offering entry into the new creation yet to come. The real portal is faith, by which many nations may participate in the fulfillment of the promise.

Many nations are to be blessed by the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. In Gal. 3:16 Paul emphasizes that “the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed: singular, not plural. Paul goes on to say that the seed of Abraham is Christ. I think Paul’s intention here is to assert that the promise wasn’t extended directly to the many nations that would eventually benefit from the promise, nor was it channeled through Israel the grandson of Abraham, nor through Moses by whom the Law was given to the nation of Israel. Instead, the promise passed through Jesus.

What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later [i.e., after Abraham], does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. (Gal. 3:17-19)

Paul is saying that the promise to Abraham, the “new creation” through which many nations would be blessed, remained a promise rather than a fulfillment throughout all the intervening centuries between Abraham and Christ. It wasn’t until now, through Christ’s death, that the promise is fulfilled and the new creation begins.

But before faith came, we [i.e., the Jews] were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you [i.e., the Gentile believers] are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3:23-29)

There remains an element of the promise yet to be fulfilled, an aspect of the new creation not yet made manifest.

For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. (Gal. 5:5)

Paul directs this remark to the believers who, realizing that they haven’t yet become sinless, are tempted to revert to the Law as the means of achieving sanctification. Paul is reassuring the believers that, even though the promise is now fulfilled in Christ and the new creation is begun, it’s not yet complete. And so Paul begins his discussion of walking freely in the Spirit rather than obeying the Law as the right way to live in new creation.

NEXT UP: 2 CORINTHIANS 5

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