Sunday, August 31, 2008

Things Get Complicated

We last looked at the creation of man, Adam, from the earth (adamah in the Hebrew), and finished with God's command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The punishment for transgression was death, but the phrasing is interesting: Genesis 2:17 "but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." — when you eat of it you you will surely die.

The phrasing suggests a natural outcome and not simply a punishment as a quid pro quo of a juridical law. But we'll leave that for now and go forward. In Genesis 2:18-25 we have the account of the creation of woman. God sees that it is not good for the man to be alone and creates all the animals, but they are not adequate companions for the man. So God casts Adam into a deep sleep and creates ishah from ish, that is woman from man. The words distinguished only by their endings. This is the same distinction between Adam and adamah only the formation direction is the opposite. Adam comes from the earth, adamah. Woman ishah comes from the man, ish. And in death both return to the earth.

If we look at the passage Genesis 2:22-25 we find that first God presents the woman to the man. The man acknowledges the woman as flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, and then we are told: Genesis 2:24 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." The prefatory phrase "For this reason..." has to go back and refer to something and it isn't Adam's acknowlegement alone but the fact that God has presented the woman to him. Just so, going forward, it is God that presents each man with the woman who will be bound to him in intimacy. We find the words of Geneses 2:24 on the lips of Jesus (Mark 10:3-10) rejecting divorce and St. Paul (Ephesians 5:25-33) when he explains the mystery of Christ's union with the Church.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Engagement with Faith

I was reading a book about faith. I think it was by Cardinal Suenens. But whether that is correct or not what I remember is a bit about religious responses. The author made the point that there are three kinds of religious responses and that everyone's response is made up of some mix of those three kinds.

The kinds are:
  • Autogenous — the response of personal responsibility to make up your own mind and inform your own conscience. One might say personal intellectual discernment.
  • Programmatic — the response of obedience to duly constituted authority such as the pastor, the bishop, the scripture, the pope, or whatever authority is recognized in your particular case.
  • Pneumatic — the response to the Spirit as experienced in your own faith life. This is the response to personal inspiration under appropriate discernment and is the kind of response often characterized as charismatic.
I think there are also three characteristic and related resposes required in each case and these are: Humility for the besetting sin of the Autogenous is likely to be intellectual arrogance. Submissive Obedience for the likely sin of the Programmatic is disobedience when he or she ought to obey. Finally, Prayer and Discernment for the danger to the Pneumatic is Spiritual Pride and mistakenly following false spirits.

Over the years I've often reflected on these things. I am personally rather Autogenous, probably 60% at least, and maybe 30% Programmatic, and only 10% Pneumatic. I'm not entirely sure how useful this sort of taxonomy is more generally, but it has been useful to me.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Another Garden, Another Tree

If the first Adam was placed in a garden and disobeyed God, the second Adam came to repair the damage. As St. Paul says in Romans 5:14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
Adam was made in the likeness of God, and the second Adam was God Himself come to restore us. 1 Cor 15:45-49 gives — 45 So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

At the beginning of time one man brought death into the world. At the end of the age, God came to the world as Man and restored Man to union with God even accepting death Himself.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Garden and a Tree

Adam in the Hebrew sounds like the word earth, adamah. And Adam is set in this special Garden which God has made. It is full of food bearing trees and In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then God gives the single command which is that they may eat of every tree of the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they eat of that tree they will die. So that's the scenario. There are also rivers flowing out of the garden that divide into a whole bunch of rivers with names that are current even today. Stopping at verse 17 (Gen 2:17) we might reasonably ask: What's going on here?

This is highly figurative language. God is presented as the proprietor of a perfect place. From the earth he creates Man whose name is like earth and puts him in charge of taking care of the garden with only one restriction. This is fairy-tale-like. The obvious question is why is the story framed this way and why such a pointed story? — A single command with ultimate obedience required and an ultimate punishment to be imposed if the command is not obeyed.

This is clearly a story intended to teach a single primary point for it turns on a single primary command. Any reader can see already at this point that there would be no story if the command were not to be disobeyed. Obedience and disobedience are the core of the story.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Compare and Contrast

In academic circles the phrase compare and contrast is a mantra. It's what academics do, especially with multiple sources. Now the last entry looked at Genesis 1 through Genesis 2:3. We now enter upon new ground with Genesis 2:4. It is the garden of Eden story, a second and apparently independent account of creations.


Well yes independent. The last story ended with the creation of man on the sixth day. Now we find that in the initial verses, Genesis 2:4-7 that man is created, but "no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up"— if you go back and look you'll find that God created the plants in the first account on the third day, so if man was created before them either it was early on the third day or on the second day. Isn't there a problem here? I mean if you are a bible literalist, how is it you can reconcile the two accounts? You can't. Day three is much less than day six. What is implied is that the days don't matter. They are only there for the purpose of making the sabbath holy not for keeping a detailed account of the time of various things being created.

The Garden

After creating man God places him in a garden which He has planted ahead of time (before the other plants were planted presumably) — the chronology is decidedly muddled. The function of the garden seems to be to provide an idyllic place for man. God is depicted as full of fruit bearing trees and God gives Adam this command (Genesis 2:16-17): "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." The scene is set. We will return.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


The creation story in Genesis 1 is rather obviously not to be taken literally. I don't say that with any disrespect for the word of God, only based on the fact that it is a story with several manifest lessons that have nothing to do with the ancient cosmological content in which the story is set.
We don't know if the text had an external setting in the life of Israel as possibly a ceremonial reading. The lessons it teaches are straightforward:
  1. God created everthing that is.
  2. Everything God created is good.
  3. God made man in His own image.
  4. God gave man stewardship of the earth.
  5. God rested on the seventh day which is why we have the Sabbath.
That I think is the religious content of Geneses 1:1 through 2:2

Now the story is set over the seven days of creation and part of the story fits more or less well into the chronology that modern science would recognize and part simply reflects the ancient cosmology of the author.
Day 1: God creates light and separates it from darkness and there was evening and morning the first day. This is rather poetic language. It isn't clear what evening and morning mean in the absence of the cycle of light and darkness provided by the sun. Light scientifically is something while darkness is simply the absence of light.

Day 2: On the second day God separates the water into water above the sky and water below the sky creating the sky. This sort of explains how it can rain, but it's a primitive and incorrect cosmology.

Day 3: God does quite a bit more on day three. He separates the water from the land and creates plants, vegetation and seed and fruit bearing trees.

Day 4: God creates the sun and the moon. Now it's always seemed a bit odd to me that He would create vegetation before there was a way for the vegetation to get light. I don't think it makes much sense as an actual account of origins.

Day 5: On the fifth day God creates the creatures that live in the sea and the birds of the air.

Day 6: On the sixth day God creates the animals and man, creating man in his own image and giving him dominion over all the other creatures.

Day 7: God rests on the seventh day blessing it and making it holy. (Note: we transition at the end of the sixth day to Chapter 2 which is strange. It is important to note that the chapter and verse divisions of the bible are not original coming about only in the 13th century and hence not divinely revealed.)

So that is the first creation story in the bible. It has resulted in all kinds of squabbling. The general sequence is not too hard to reconcile with modern science with the exception of the creation of vegetation before the sun if you imagine that the days are in fact eras. But that's really wrong headed. The cosmology doesn't really have any religious content. It doesn't matter. It's the trappings in which the religious content is wrapped. It would be hard to imagine God trying to give a modern science lesson to migrant shepherds or ancient agrarian farmers. It also does not constitute a basis for contradicting evolutionary theory. Whether evolution is right or wrong is simply irrelevant to the religious payload of Genesis 1, at least that's how I see it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In the beginning ...

Let's return to Genesis chapter one. To understand any text it is important as Mortimer Adler points out in How to Read a Book to know what kind of text it is. Is it history, poetry, a teaching story (midrash), prophecy, and so forth through all the possible genres one could imagine? It is also important to understand the point of view of the author. In the context of scripture one might expect people to say something like "But the author is God" and that somewhat begs the question. For while God doubtless inspired sacred writings, they are still written down by human authors with human intent. God doesn't turn the author into some sort of robot.
The first verse of Genesis is: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Already we have some key concepts to consider.


The idea that things were not always as they are, that the world had a beginning was not a universal idea. Aristotle, for example, taught that the world was eternal. It is probably hard for us to appreciate how significant the idea of a beginning of the world actually is. We are not really able to imagine nothing or existence before time itself.


God created— is also a concept when we tend to misconstrue. When we create it is to assemble from previously existing things. The whole concept of God is of a being who preexists all that exists and is the root cause of all that exists. That's actually a pretty tall order. God creates then ex nihilo—from nothing in that existentially formative moment, the beginning.

The Heavens and The Earth

With this phrase we leave the modern world and its cosmology of deep space and enter an ancient understanding of the world. The heavens are a place of perfection and the earth a place of imperfection. The world is composed of earth, air, fire and water. Life itself is the breath and the blood. But we are getting ahead of the text.
The second verse reads: Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Notice that the heavens are dark for light does not yet exist. The world is all the waters, the deep, for the dry land will only come later. Even the sky does not yet exist. We are in an ancient cosmology, one familiar to the author but not to us. We are not in the cosmology of the present day.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Knowing When You're Done

As one lecturer I heard from Oxford said once:"The Oxford way is to begin at the beginning and go straight through to the end and then stop." That, of course, begs the question if you can't tell when you've reached the end.
The general rule when reading scripture is to accept the plain meaning if there is one and allow for a deeper meaning, possibly symbolic or figurative or metaphorical in addition to the plain meaning. If the plain meaning seems to make no sense (something we have to discern) then the meaning must lie in the other dimensions.
A second rule is that scripture, if it has God's authorship, is all of a piece. The pieces can't contradict each other without making God the author of error. Apparent contradictions therefore much imply that we don't understand what is being said.
Of course there is the other construction in the face of contradiction, that this is evidence that the material is not divinely revealed or that it contains errors. Now on the face of it, going back to what I said when setting out on this journey, we are all reading translations. So a contradiction may only be an error in translation. It may be simply an error in our understanding.
But the question before us is: How do we know when we are done?
The short answer and one that will satisfy for now is: We are done when we have achieved a stated understanding which is consistent with all the passages that we have considered. However, we are undone, i.e. we have to go back and review, if we find that subsequent passages contradict our prior understanding or expand it. Each advance in understanding broadens the reach of the light, but may also cast shadows back behind us which adumbrate what we thought earlier was understood.

The Indwelling of Reason

Thomas Aquinas ( c. 1225 to March 7, 1274), following Aristotle, would define man as a reasoning animal. The capacity to reason is a defining characteristic of man. It is only through our reason that we are able to distinguish truth from error.
We saw yesterday that light dwells within us as the life of man, the Divine Word. One aspect of this is reason and through reason we hope to attain wisdom which is the knowledge conveyed by the light received from the spirit we receive from God.
Aquinas points out "The prime author and mover of the universe is intelligence ..." He goes on to say "Blessed is the man that shall dwell in wisdom (Ecclus xiv, 22). The more sublime, because thereby man comes closest to the likeness of God, who hath made all things in wisdom (Ps. ciii, 24)."
In short than, human reason is a primary path to the clarity we require. In fact, human reason stands at a higher level than scripture in the sense that without reason we would be unable to judge what is scripture and what is not. The canon of scripture was set informally at first by those books and writings read in the assembly. As writings mulitiplied it became important to separate those that were authoritative from those that were not. This process continued through the 4th and early 5th centuries. We'll consider the canon closed by roughly the first decade of the 5th century, between 405 A.D. and the council of Carthage in 419 A.D. See this interesting discussion.
The canon was set through the action of reason on the documents received. Reason alone, taken in its modern sense as the operation of logical thought, was not enough. More properly reason is the whole aspect of human discernment which allows us to distinguish the truth from falsehood.

We have addressed to some degree the aspect of light but not yet the question of when we have illuminated matters enough. We'll work on that a little next.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Let there be light ...

It seems significant to me that in both Genesis 1 and John 1 we find Light mentioned early. Genesis has God create first the heavens and the earth but the earth is formless. Then God through the action of his Word says: Let there be light!
If we turn now to John's gospel we see that there is more to be understood. The Word is with God from the beginning because He was God and made all that was made.

John goes on to say that the Word was life and this life was the light of man. This is very figurative and poetic language in both Genesis 1 and John 1.

The first chapter of Genesis goes on to say after detailing the creation that God in His climactic act of creation makes man in the image of God. The life, the Word, is the light of man.

Light and Looking

I like the story of the slightly drunken guy looking for his car keys under a streetlight. A passer-by asks him what he's doing and he says he's looking for his car keys. "Why are you looking under the street light" asked the passer-by. "Because that's where the light is," answers the inebriated man.

The problem of clarity is not solved by looking where the light is because the surrounding area is dark. So the problem is to strive to increase the light to the greatest degree. That often means looking at ways of thinking about things you have not considered before.

If you approach scripture by a single route, with a single point of view, you are searching under a streetlight. There may be other lights that should be considered, that reveal more or at least different. So the first rule is not to create shadows. Don't assume that your streetlight is the only one worth looking under.

Well after I wrote this I ran into the following juicy example of what I'm talking about. It's titled the tyranny of scripture and is an example of someone who thinks he has all the light. It's sort of a in-your-face counterexample since it is by a fellow who thinks scripture is just fantasy and bigotry. I think he's using a pencil beam and not even the whole streetlight. If you have seven minutes Click Here and don't blame me if you're offended. I warned you ahead of time.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Discourse on Method

With apologies to Descartes for stealing his title, I think I'll briefly address method before getting underway. The term method doesn't mean much in the absence of a goal statement. "A method to accomplish what exactly?" is the obvious question. For Descartes it was to reach certitude. I'm a good deal more humble than that since I harbor existential doubts about pretty much everything. A human being saying they are "certain" of something is really another way of saying that they don't have to think about it anymore. The subject is decided. Not only that, but everyone else is wrong. Since that seems to me at least to claim far more than human beings have a right to claim, I don't think certitude can be my goal. So what is?
I think the goal should be Illumination which is the state of seeing something in the clearest light possible. Achieving clarity of vision is important. We can envision that as the light cast upon a cluttered room. You can't clean up what you can't see.
So the question of method when the goal is clarity comes down to the answers to some questions:
  1. How do I cast light on the subject?
  2. How do I know when I've reached as clear a view as possible?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ancient Languages

When we read the bible it is almost always in translation from the ancient languages, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and if we are reading from the surrounding apocryphal literature it may be Coptic or many other languages from the distant past.
Yet the bible conveys insights and wisdom to people today. This blog is going to focus, occasionally on my own personal journey through the bible. It will be eclectic since I'll only visit the bible episodically in a sporadic and unorganized manner. When we read we are doing something quite magical. We are turning obscure markings into sensible thoughts. We rarely reflect enough on the sheer miracle of language. Writing which makes language permanent long before our more recent recording technologies is no less miraculous for being ancient. Count your blessings for they are many.