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Thursday, July 09, 2009

In the Beginning

I found some interesting quotes at James's blog on John H. Walton's The Lost World of Genesis 1. I have not read the book, but the following are a list of ideas that I thought were interesting.

The place of humanity in the cosmos:

"It has already been mentioned that whereas in the rest of the ancient world creation was set up to serve the gods, a theocentric view, in Genesis, creation is not set up for the benefit of God but for the benefit of humanity—an anthropocentric view. Thus we can say that humanity is the climax of the creation account. Another contrast between Genesis and the rest of the ancient Near East is that in the ancient Near East people are created to serve the gods by supplying their needs. That is, the role of people is to bring all of creation to deity—the focus is from insde creation out to the gods. In Genesis people represent God to the rest of creation. So the focus moves from the divine realm, through people, to the world around them."—The Lost World of Genesis One, page 69 [Taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/06/focus-of-creation-is.html]

"In the ancient Near East people were created as slaves to the gods. The world was created by the gods for the gods, and people met the needs of the gods. In the Bible God has no needs, and his cosmic temple has been created for people whom he desires to be in relationship with him. In modern materialism people are nothing but physical forms having no function other than to survive. The theology of Genesis 1 is crucial to a right understanding of our identity and our place in the world."—The Lost World of Genesis One, page 149 [Quote taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/07/humanitys-role-in-world.html]

My thoughts: I have heard preachers who preach quite passionately about how important it is to have a "theocentric view" as opposed to an "anthropocentric view." The Westminster Confession claims that man was created to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But I think I take issue with the dichotomy between "theocentric" and "anthropocentric." If one views God as an imminent part of creation, as the New Testament certainly does (God is "in all," and "through all," etc.), then the point is not to find out who is at the center. Rather, the whole cosmos is interdependent. This seems to fit the entirety of the biblical texts, which do not place humanity or God on the throne, but present a narrative of God and human beings interacting together. Each move effects the other.

On a modern, scientific approach to life:

“Our scientific worldview has gradually worked God out of the practical ways in which we think about our world. When science can offer explanation for so much of what we see and experience, it is easy for our awareness of God's role to drift to the periphery. It is not that we believe any less that he is active, it is just that we are not as conscious of his role. The result is a practical (if not philosophical) deism in which God is removed from the arena of operations.

“In contrast, when God's work is fully integrated with our scientific worldview and science is seen to give definition to what God is doing and how he is doing it, we regain a more biblical perspective of the work—a perspective that is theologically healthier.”—The Lost World of Genesis One, page 143 [Taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/07/gods-role-in-world.html]

On Genesis being an account of functional origins, not material origins:

“Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist. Consequently, the actual crative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence. Of course something must have physical properties before it can be given its function, but the critical question is, what stage is defined as 'creation.'

“In the ancient world they were not ignorant of the senses and the level at which objects could be perceived by the senses. They wold have no difficulty understanding the physical nature of objects. The question here concerns not what they perceived but what they gave significance to...our ontology focuses on what we believe to be most significant. In the ancient world, what was most crucial and significant to their understanding of existence was the way that parts of the cosmos functioned, not their material status.”John Walton in —The Lost World of Genesis One, 27-28 [Taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/06/what-constitutes-creation.html]

"Concordist approaches, day-age readings, literary or theological interpretation all struggle with the same basic problem. They are still working with the premise that Genesis 1 is an account of material origins for an audience that has a material ontology. Modern inability to think in any other way has resulted in recourse to all of this variety of attempts to make the text tolerable to our scientific naturalism and materialism."—The Lost World of Genesis One, pages 106-107 [Quote taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/07/more-thoughts-on-genesis-1.html]

"...This book has proposed, instead, that Genesis 1 was never intended to offer an account of material origins and that the original author and audience did not view it that way. In fact, the material cosmos was of little significance to them when it came to questions of origins. In this view, science cannot offer an unbiblical view of material origins, because there is no biblical view of material origins aside from the very general idea that whatever happened, whenever it happened, and however it happened, God did it."—The Lost World of Genesis One, page 113 [Quote taken from http://anebooks.blogspot.com/2009/07/more-thoughts-on-genesis-1.html]

Doyle's Meaning/Language Approach:

Our friend, John Doyle at ktismatics has been writing, researching, and blogging about a theory similar to the above "functional" creation account. John suggests that God is actually creating something in Genesis 1, but the point of the narrative is not to suggest that God is creating physical material--that's just not the intention of the text. Rather, the text is showing us that God is creating meaning, linguistically marking off what is what. It makes sense then, that as text moves along God will hand off this task to the man he created: I've shown you how to create meaning with language, now it's your turn.

That's Doyle's approach, in a very small nutshell. I'll let him flesh it out a bit more, if he has a few extra moments.

I like the "functional" creation account and I like the "meaning" creation account. I think they both get us closer to the intention of the text, which is not to convey the creation of matter (as we think of it in our Modern scientific mindset), but the creation of something eve more profound: meaning, language, function. That, like God, we have the ability to create the linguistic meaning and parameters of our world.


For more on Doyle's approach see the following links:
Maybe the Witness is Me
The Mythic Truth
Does Genesis Qualify as True Myth? (Cf. True Myth--5 interpretations)
Original Sin Reinterpreted


Matt said...

I agree with the part about science taking our focus off God. The more we discover, the more we have a tendency to think that God has little to do with anything that happens. But God set everything up to work that way! We don't have a God who is going to impress us with theatrics in this world (aside from the natural occurrences that he has set in motion), but a God we can establish a relationship with to help us navigate this world he created.

Disclaimer: I'm not saying miracles can not happen. Just that they are rare, and mostly because we ask for them with selfish motives.

tamie said...

Matt, I'm curious to know what you would call an un-selfish motive to ask for a miracle.

tamie said...

Jon...interesting, interesting. I've been considering going through Genesis 1 and reading it reeeeeeeeeaaaaaalllllly slloooooooowwwwly. It's been a while now since I subscribed to a literal rendering of the text. I've heard some wonderful interpretations of the text that have nothing to do with a scientific explanation of how all this stuff called the cosmos got here. Maybe I'll read it verse by verse, slowly, slowly, reading some texts (like the one you quoted) alongside the biblical verses. Mmhm.

Matt said...

Tamie, it would primarily be asking for something without a reference to what God wants. For example, many people ask for healing (cancer and heart disease being common). I don't think I've ever heard anyone really ask for wisdom in how to change their lifestyle in order to improve their general health. People prefer a quick miracle without any changes being required.

Melody said...

Matt, are you for real?

I rarely hear anyone pray for healing. I always hear people pray for healing or - because we don't believe God's really healing anybody.

It's super comforting too, "Please save her life, but if you don't want to save it..."

What's this if the only if should be, "if you don't want to save it please change your mind!"

Jesus says we don't have because we don't ask.

We don't get miracles because we don't ask for them, not because God's sitting in heaven saying, "No miracles for you, ya fat slob, why doncha use that gym membership sometime, huh?"

And of course healing is often times not so much a miracle as God giving the doctor's wisdom and helping them to not screw up - which they do more than is healthy to dwell on - but I think most of us are just dandy with that.

And on the selfishness front - how selfish is praying for healing? Is that hurting anyone? Is there a healing shortage I don't know about? Does God have to store up his miracles in case He runs out? Is the person asking for it so awful that their continued life will ruin the lives of the people around them??? Does God desire unhealthy people?

I mean like, the blind dude, he didn't sidle up to Jesus (well, that's hard when you're blind I guess) and whisper, "Hey, um, Jesus - about the blindness... I mean, maybe it's your will and if so - I mean, I can deal, I don't want to put you out...but if not and you could spare a little sight...I'd appreciate it."

No way! He's screaming, "Jesus of Nazareth! Have mercy on me!"

Not even a "please"! It's kinda pushy.

But Jesus heals him. And God...well He's the giver of every good gift. And the whole dying on the cross thing makes me think He's a little fond of us and...

I think it's ok to ask for things.

I think God likes it when we ask for things.

And I think that considering God's will is less of a "Maybe God has secret plans for me to be miserable so that He can somehow be sadistically glorified through this so I shouldn't ask too hard" type of thing and more a considering of what God's will is...cuz He kind of tells us.

Like, if you're praying, "God, please raze this city to the ground and let these people perish in terrible anguish." I'm just gunna take a guess that per-ob-ibly that's outside God's will.

And like, salvation, well I once had a friend who...well we're still friends, but she was super into drugs and other destructive things I was telling some friends how discouraged I was that God hadn't done anything yet, cuz I'd been praying a while and she just kept hurting herself more and racking up more warrants out for her arrest and it was sad.

And my friends - my friends - tell me that maybe it's not God's will for her to be saved. That I couldn't know.

I yelled at them. "LIKE HECK I CAN'T! God is not willing that ANY should perish - ANY."

And that's the way I prayed about it too. I got a little pushy. "God, I know this is your will and I know you love my friend more than I do and YOU say we can have anything we ask according to your will so what's the hold up?!

And God works everything in His own time and all that, but He didn't smite me with fire and He did save my friend and... it's not a miracle persay and it has nothing to do with the science part of stuff (sorry Jon, I know this rant was long and had nothing to do with what you wrote), but I think that's just dandy.

Melody said...

Sorry. That was a smidge on the verbose side.

Crystala Kiki said...

Mel, that was awesome:)

john doyle said...

You've mentioned Walton's book previously, Erdman, so it's good to see some of what's in it. I'm in sympathy with your interpretation. Responding specifically to some of the quotes from Walton's book:

"in Genesis, creation is not set up for the benefit of God but for the benefit of humanity"

I don't see the evidence for this assertion in Genesis 1. Man can rule over the earth, but the text doesn't say that the creation came into existence in order that man might rule over it. Similarly, the plants serve as food for man and beast, but the text doesn't imply that the plants exist in order that men and beasts might eat them.

"humanity is the climax of the creation account"

Agreed, but climactic of what? Having created for six days, now God creates man in his image and likeness. God is creator, and so is man: that's the meaning of the climax if the flow of the story itself is going to shape our interpretation.

"In modern materialism people are nothing but physical forms having no function other than to survive. The theology of Genesis 1 is crucial to a right understanding of our identity and our place in the world."

The idea of humanity's contingency on purpose and use -- in order to survive or to have fellowship with God or what have you -- isn't this the same sort of utilitarian instrumental rationality that dominates contemporary economic thinking. People, like things, aren't valuable in themselves; they have use value. Anyhow, even within that paradigm, why not this: God creates the functions of things; man shares the image and likeness of God; man creates function.

As an alternative position, you talk about God's immanence in the creation. How does the Gen. 1 account present an immanent creator? He seems to speak things into existence as separate from himself, in contrast to other cosmogonies where the gods give birth to the universe as something like themselves or where the universe emanates from the gods. Those are immanent views; the creator of Gen. 1 seems pretty transcendent. Plus, at the end of the creational interval, his work is complete -- one doesn't get the sense that the creation is an ongoing work in progress.

"when God's work is fully integrated with our scientific worldview and science is seen to give definition to what God is doing and how he is doing it, we regain a more biblical perspective of the work"

Of course I'd like to see how Walton works this out, but I'm guessing that he's taking a more-or-less Intelligent Design perspective here.

"the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence. Of course something must have physical properties before it can be given its function, but the critical question is, what stage is defined as 'creation.'"

Now we're talking. This is my interpretation too, or very close to it. Just leave God out of the picture when it comes to material origins of the universe, and you've got a perfectly coherent story: over a six-day interval God created a structured system for describing the purposes of things. I like "meaning" better than "function," but it's the same idea. I wonder if Walton lets it go at that?

john doyle said...

That the discussion on this thread shifted from creation to miracles illustrates one of the main "functions" of theism: the possibility of supernatural intervention for human benefit. A God who created the material universe can exercise control over its objects and forces, suspending or changing the laws of nature by sheer force of will. And if the material universe was created for the sake of humankind, then human interest can and should take priority over natural law. Hence, God makes miracles happen based on human desire.

It would be interesting to speculate on how God might make miracles happen if he didn't create the material universe.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Good point. So much of God's perceived "domination" of nature (which includes miracles, as you noted) is tied in with the fact that God created the material stuff to begin with.

Take away the material creation, and what's left???

I think that is why so many conservative Christians in modernity have held so tightly to creatio ex nihilo. That God created the physical stuff is so central to so much of conservative evangelical/fundamentalist theology.......it illustrates how closely materialism and conservatism are tied together---just two sides of the same coin.

So, now Christianity in the postmodern world seems to be shifting from an Imperialistic domineering God of creation to......what exactly???? God of mystery? God of weakness? God of love? God without being (Jean Luc Marion)??