Saturday, December 12, 2009

Genesis 8-10, or, There is no free lunch

I started Leon Kass's The Beginning of Wisdom this week, so, to a degree, that will probably be informing some of the next posts. His reading of Genesis -- which, at maybe page 12, I already kind of love -- places it in a philosophical rather than mythological or historical tradition. Hopefully, then, some of my upcoming posts won't have to dwell so much on apologetics -- the downside of reading through the lens of "This email fight I'm having with my atheist ex-boyfriend."

I especially appreciate the license to get away from arguments over carbon dating and the age of the earth and acknowledge the book itself. There is an inherent order and logic in these first chapters of Genesis that is wholly rejected by non-believers and tends to be overlooked by literal readers bent on establishing the physical reality of the non-human events in Genesis. This order is less present, maybe, in the cosmology of the creation story, but it's certainly there in the human stories: If you do right, are you not accepted?

The error, I think, in thinking of God as a control freak who lets us die because we deserve it, is that it personifies Him too much, too literally. God created the universe; I don't think He is wholly distinct from it. It is not a thing He made; in addition to its creation, He continues to be the source of life and nature. And -- as all but the most utopian sci-fi geeks will tell you, if you violate nature, either you, or it, has to go.

But if you depend on nature, if you can't exist without air to breathe and food to eat, there's no real choice, correct? If it comes down between your immediate well being and the order of the universe, one can survive without the other, and not vice versa.

I read this story of the Flood, here, as God torn because He wants to violate that order, because His love is such that He would forgive us anything, if it came down to that. Being omniscient, of course, He can't: you can't look the other way when you see everything. There's no sleight of hand to get away from the fact that man must die, or the perfect order on which he depends will be violated. God, who made the system in the first place, is a God who orders the world in a rational way. He can't make a system that isn't just, one in which actions have no consequences.

But then, look at His love, here, after the Flood. Like a parent for a child, on that parent's very best day, He is ready to let it go. His first conversation with Noah when they're off the boat is not about a moral or lesson; it's a gift and a promise.

God doesn't say, here, to stop sinning. He doesn't remind us of whose fault this was, or tell humanity to never do this again. He says, "Be fruitful and increase in number, and fill the Earth." There is no reservation about welcoming back onto His earth the creation that He had to wipe out because of its ugliness. He has an idea in his mind of the earth He created. And He knows that after a great deal of pain, things will be okay again. And He looks to that, rather than the imperfection and pain that is still to come. He sees what is good. The depth of this love is the best picture of what humanity can be. That we have any of this capacity for grace within us is the justification, I think, for our existence in the first place. It makes clear why God would work so hard to save us -- because as long as that spirit is possible, we carry in ourselves the possibility for this kind of beauty.

I think, too, that the sacrifice in this chapter is important. God understands here that it is not a moral good to be free from obligation -- that, without the reminder of dependence and reverence that ritual and sacrifice instill, humanity will fall away from Him even faster. It can't be taken for granted that humanity will stay close to its Creator, that His inarguable right to our worship will ensure it. He knows we need some understanding of the alternatives to His infinite goodness, or it won't mean anything to us. He knows that, by establishing a covenant, He gives us a role that will hopefully afford us the pride to stop abandoning Him, the sense of self to tolerate and appreciate our dependence on Him.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Genesis 5, Or, the begats

Given the basic OCD underlying big chunks of my personality/life, I've read these first few chapters of Genesis a lot. I like to start things. (I may also enjoy finishing things, but have not had so many opportunities to find out.)

Mostly, I've read Genesis 5 in the most common, I-don't-get-how-this-is-sacred kind of vibe -- I suspect that I may have given up around this chapter more than once. Moreover, my life in the past week has become --at least in part -- an exercise in articulating and defending a faith that is incoherent to the people I'm talking to, and I don't need an apparently fanciful and otherwise irrelevant genealogy effing me up.

Except that I read it. And I guess maybe I wasn't paying attention before. Not that I'm all about replacing the Sermon on the Mount with Genesis 5, now. But there's more going on there than I would have anticipated.

To wit: the first verses. 5:1 opens up by announcing that this is the record of the descendants of Adam -- but then, in the same verse, shifts immediately to God and His act of creation. This agency, I think, is more important than whether the ages that follow are real or symbolic, or whether the account is meant as a record, or a weird acrostic-prophesy, or whatever. I think what a reader should be looking at is this first verse, and the fact that man has no history apart from God.

Now, I don't think it's a relevant argument in favor of God to say that believing in Him is useful and brings you happiness and peace. That has been my experience, and it's tempting to let it go at that -- but it's insubstantial. The fact that I badly, badly want there to be a God does not speak to (or against) His reality. In fact, in my case, it took a long time not to write God off precisely because I want so badly for Him to be real.

However, it is a fact that when I am not focused on God, I tend to bring a lot of uselessness and unhappiness all around me. And I would say that -- even if my belief in God were wrong -- still, the most fundamental error in my life is to think it's all about me. As increasingly sure as I am about the reality of a specific and personal God, I am even more sure that whatever there is beyond me, there is something beyond me, and beyond the world as I see it. And the reality that I am inseparable from God -- that my account of my own life would begin with a finger pointing directly towards Him -- is comforting, not (just!) because I like it, but (more importantly!) because it feels correct. True.

It's like, this genealogy, like any other story, is just a lot of words by itself. If there's no meaning beyond the facts that are laid out, there's no anything: words aren't things. They only indicate things. My life, laid out without my experience of God, of love, would be the same as this -- a crusty account of dates that seem suspicious, but that aren't important enough to care about. I was born, I did this stuff, I got sick, I died. Without that beginning, which is critical -- the intentionality of it, the fact that God made us that that that act precedes any actions we take between the day we are born and the day we die -- then everyone's life, whatever his or her actions or experiences or choices, comes down to a birth, a span of years, a death.

I think there is a meaning in the way this chapter is written, one that isn't said or thought enough, and one that is critically important. It is: we are born, we have kids, we live, and we die. Apart from the Christ story, I think, this is actually maybe the most profound and most transformative reality of the Bible. It permeates the Old Testament: you, and these details that you believe make you unique, are both less and more than you believe you are. Because in essence, the things that you value now, they do not matter. You have been born, you will live, and you will die, and none of the things or accomplishments you accumulate will really mean that much. Regardless of the genre of this chapter, or whether or not you believe that the dates and ages here are literally true, I believe that that reality is the message of this account. Just as the central delusion of the temptation story is "You will not die," the corrective, here, is that you will.

So the fact that I wasn't productive at work yesterday -- not, in and of itself, really a problem. Husband has a grammy nomination and I feel like my job is shoving the air from my lungs? He was born, he'll live, he'll die. Me too.

I do think that the role of producing children in genesis 5 is significant apart from establishing the logistics of who came from whom. I think it is important that the only thing most of these men did that is worth mentioning, here, is to have a child. I think that other accomplishments -- at least, the ones that we come up with when left to our own devices -- are irrelevant in the face of bringing life into the world. At least, I would say that this is the case in the Old Testament, and that the New Testament draws on this when it extends the focus from your family and your people to all families and all people.

And I think it is especially significant to me to recognize this now. Not just because my biological clock is hammering away like a metronome. But also because life itself is the most relevent thing on Earth, and I am often made extremely anxious and depressed because I forget that, over and over and over again. More than writing a book or running a company, life matters, and people matter; their worth is on an entirely different scale than all these other things we run around doing.

Here, in Genesis 5 they create life and people by having children, and I do believe the incredible importance of children in Biblical accounts is more authentically human than is the indifference to children typical of twentysomething New Yorkers. I also think, though, that the specific role of father or mother is not the important part of the dynamic. The important part is life and people, whether you create, sustain, or engage them. Parenting per se is not this separate and higher calling. It can become just another role, or it can be transformative -- an experience of another life, something that matters much more than any accomplishment or title.

There are these people -- again, educated young people whose experiences have maybe not caught up with their ample philosophies -- who are infuriated that "dumb" people can have children, who resent others for celebrating their families when anyone can have one. But the profound democracy in that makes me think of God -- and I say that despite the fact that I don't know for sure that I can have biological children. But babies are not important because "mother" is a better or more meaningful title than any other. They are significant because ultimately, others, and how you experience and assist them, are what matters, more than any level of education or accomplishment.

Ultimately, it comes down to: you are born, you live, you die; you have x children. These are the things that signify, after the fact of your life. While I, personally, would rather raise children than do anything else, that's not what I am reading here. What I am reading here is that it is God's actions, not yours, that will be remembered. That there is no distinction, really, between a perpetual student and a site coordinator and a homeless person and a surgeon. He was born, he lived, he died. Beyond that, the only thing worth noting is the image in which you were made -- and, while you are living, the obligation that springs from that act of creation.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Genesis 1, Or, How I stopped worrying and learned to love The Beginning

I grew up in a church that believes that Genesis 1 is a literal account of creation, and which takes this interpretation so seriously that we keep a Saturday Sabbath, despite the fact that the calendar we use now may not actually line up with these first seven days of existence, since it was not invented until thousands of years later. So Genesis 1 is A Big Freaking Deal.

See, unlike many -- though certainly not all -- now-liberal Christians, I wasn't brought up with the option of an allegorical view of Genesis. Seventh Day Adventists do not play about creation. When we say Creation, we mean: seven literal days, the world hinging on God's own words, and God help you if you can't reconcile that with science, or reason, or whatever else might be holding you back. (No, sincerely -- we are generally not hateful about you and your doubts; it's just that if you were really walking with God, this would not be irking your nerves so much.) In my Teen Sabbath School class, my somewhat histrionic expressions of anxiety over the literal interpretation of Genesis were dismissed as an amorphous glut of Satan-speak. My grandfather -- a college professor, and the most educated man I knew for the first fifteen years of my life -- firmly believed that dinosaurs were a trick by Satan to confuse humanity.

No matter how much I edit it, that first paragraph sounds like I intend to criticize -- or, okay, like I am criticizing -- Creationists, or fundamentalist Christians. I don't; I'm not. I mean, hell, I don't know either. I am twenty six years old: on a given day, I will vomit up oranges because I am entirely unable to see that oranges will not make me fat, or that my life would be worth living if they did. Clearly, there is nothing like omniscience going on in this corner of Brooklyn -- so who am I to say things couldn't have happened just like that?

Maybe God did speak the universe into existence. Or, maybe the story is an allegory for some more complicated, more scientific process of Creation that would not have made sense to Moses, existing as he did in a pre-Copernican, pre-Mendellian, pre-Einsteinian and -Darwinian and -Dawkinsian world (lucky him, on that last one!) As Chris Hedges points out in I Don't Believe in Atheists -- a book that, as far as I can see, is at least unilateral in its dismissal of everyone's truth claims, rational or spiritual -- every belief system requires a leap of faith. This is the case whether your faith is in science or in reason and materialism.

I am more comfortable with truth claims that announce themselves as deriving from faith than I am with those that attempt to pass themselves off as wholly rational. In my mind, the claim that an intricately ordered universe arose of its own accord, with no Creator, produces a more jarring cognitive dissonance than does the claim that an infinite and rational Being is responsible for a finite universe. Because you can't prove either claim rationally, right, but one claim says that the rational is all there is, and the other says that the spiritual transcends the rational. So you have one camp saying, I can logically prove X, when clearly you can't, and the other saying, I can't logically prove Y, but that is because there is a system that is outside of logic, and Y is evident in that system. One system, then, seems flat-out contradictory to me, and the other seems like a leap of faith that leaves open the possibility of coherence.

All that being tentatively established, then, I'm back at Genesis -- minus the felt animals I coveted in Sabbath School as a child.

For Genesis 1, I'm working out of the New English Bible, which is a new translation for me, and I like what it does in Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning of creation..." I am used to the more vague NIV translation, which doesn't say what, exactly, is beginning. For me, that vagueness prompts a kind of chicken-and-the-egg conundrum: can God create a stone so heavy He can't lift it? Can He direct a beginning at the beginning? The NEB makes evident a distinction that isn't articulated in other translations: here, creation is beginning, but God is already kicking it in some God-space and -time (Earth space and time not yet being in place).

For me, honestly, it takes a greater leap of faith to believe is the one where one minute there is literally nothing, and the next there is something, than to believe in an infinite Being that extends beyond the material world. Infinity is a total mind-fuck, but it's one that I started to absorb back in high school Calculus. I have less and less of a problem with acknowledging that clearly there was something here I can't wrap my head around, before all this stuff showed up.

I've struggled with this -- reading books, arguing with people, praying the Lord-I-believe-help-Thou-my-unbelief prayers -- a lot in the past year or so. And, more recently, I've read and re-read this first chapter of Genesis, have read commentaries that alternate defend it rabidly, validate it in a qualified, apologetic kind of way, dimiss it entirely, and hold it up to ridicule. Being an adult has given me the freedom to struggle with all of these readings, and with the text itself, in a more authentic, rigorous and convincing way than I could as a teenager. And the most honest and rigorous conclusion I have drawn, at this point, is this:

I do feel like the essential truth of the passage --that God existed before Creation, and that He is wholly responsible for it, and for the laws that govern it -- is convincing to me. I believe that it is true, in a different and more active way than I know that f=ma, or that hot coffee burns my mouth. My belief, in this case, comes from conviction, but also from experience, in a way that neither intellectual understanding or epistemological observation can.

But I also believe that the scientific processes governing the world now didn't just show up or start once human beings had the knowledge to make sense of them: if gravity and physics and astonomy are what direct earth today, it seems that they would have directed the Earth at its inception as well. So here, as painful as it sometimes is, I really struggle with the faith that I grew up with. Was God's act of Creation really as simple as saying "let there be..." and it was? Or is this a gloss for a more complex act of creation -- one that, maybe, I still am not smart enough to understand?

Reading the breakdown into the six days of creation, I sort-of believe -- am beginning to believe -- that the distinctions in Genesis 1 between what God created on what day are designed, in part, to highlight the physical realities that direct the universe. I believe God is responsible for these laws as much as for the material world -- but, given what I admit is a limited understanding of how the ancient world understood nature, I don't think that Moses, or J, or whoever, would have distinguished between the dancer and the dance, so to speak. The fact that the Bible distinguishes, for example, between light and the sun and the role of the sun in the seasons, suggests an understanding outside of that of your average human being, circa Ancient Israel. I think God organized and revealed the Creation story in this way, not because that was exactly, word for word, What Happened, but because by doing so He pointed to the intricate nature of the universe in the clearest way possible at that time.

Ultimately, too, I feel like God's responsibility for creation is more important than exactly how He created everything - and that the story in Genesis 1, while divinely inspired, was not experienced by its author. It was a revelation: obviously, Moses wasn't there. What is evident in the text of Genesis 1 -- what is unavoidable -- is that the world was created intentionally, that it is not the result of millions of statistical luckings-out. Because I believe that this is true, I understand my responsibility and role in the world in an entirely different way than I would if I believed that it, and its inhabitants, were the result of dumb luck. To believe in the Creation story at all -- whether as allegory, or literal fact, or any other kind of truth -- is to believe that the world matters. Respectfully, I would submit that a belief that the world came into being randomly does not necessitate this conclusion.

I absolutely do not want to negate the efforts of any well-meaning atheists who believe that life and people matter, and who live accordingly. I do believe that, for a Christian, the implication of Genesis 1 has less to do with arguing for Intelligenct Design and more to do with the obligations of those who accept it to treat the world, and other human beings, as valuable, and to strive to inhabit one's place in the world in a reverent and responsible way. I don't think you can honor the Creator without honoring His Creation; I don't think you can honor His Creation without focusing on His Will for how you engage it.