Sunday, July 26, 2009

PALIMPSEST--DISCARDED Creature and Creator--Introduction


If we are not fully, unambiguously, and without ambivalence living in a secular age, there certainly are large, growing, and highly influential pockets of the contemporary world that--for the most part--are: academia and pop culture are the prime examples.1 With that as the growing contextual environment to which those who espouse a theological view must speak, the overriding question becomes, why bother with theology at all?

Answering that question by starting within traditional theology can hardly be to the point, if it is precisely why one should care about traditional theological answers that is being asked: Theological speech must leave its traditional turf to speak to the question. To be taken seriously, theology must demonstrate that it engages questions that people care about, and to have a chance of being taken seriously as centering human life on what matters most--the core, animating claim of the great monotheistic religions--then theology must demonstrate that it engages the core, animating questions of our humanity. It is the attempt to provide just such an answer that motivates the writing of these essays.

But what would count as the core, animating questions of our humanity? One approach to answering that question would be to point to the core questions that have animated humanity's search for answers in philosophy: What is most real (ontology)?; what is most important (axiology)?; what is knowledge (epistemology)?; and so forth. But as anyone who has read the Bible knows, it does not answer those questions in a way which would satisfy someone who does not begin by taking its point of view seriously. Traditional theological or biblical speech does not speak to those matters in ways that will interest those who do not share its point of view. And that "share" is getting smaller.

What is not getting smaller is the number of human beings who inhabit our world. A perspective that answers the question of how we as human beings should live in the world, then, is a very important and relevant perspective, and if it addresses the primary question that needs to be resolved in order to answer how humanity ought to view life in this world in order to get along, a good case can be made for saying that it answers the crucial question of our time. Perhaps of all time.

Since evolution provides the accepted means of answering how human beings came to be, let's ask a core question about what we have become: Animals capable of adapting our environment to our ends in utterly unprecidented ways and to utterly unprecidented extents. We do not simply adapt as a species over time to environmental changes. We adapt our environment to changes we wish to impose on it. In large measure we create our environment, often to a larger extent than we would like to be the case.

But as soon as that abundantly and clearly true position is stated, an equally clear and true statement about the Bible can be made. It begins attributing the world to a Creator, stating that humanity was made in the image of the Creator, and placing humanity in a garden where--naturally--it can go about the creative work of shaping its corner of the world. The obvious answer to the question of in what sense humanity is made in the image of God is that like the God of the Bible, humanity is creative. In fact the only real question here is how anyone would have ever thought otherwise. (The answer in that case, I believe, is that theologians did try to graft theology onto philosophy in the paradigm of the Greek thinkers who created philosophy as we know it. The problem is that Greek thought has no directly practical view of God as the Creator. Following the Platonic/Stoic/ Aristotelian lead, God became an intellect, and we became like God in possessing intellect. Thus, the simple, direct, obvious answer was overlooked that we are like God in that we are creative.) But what happens to a creature emerging from a stage in which it adapts as a species to the environment when it learns to shape its environment in important ways according to individual preference? The operatives are turned upside down.

Humanity was confronted at that point--and still is--with the fact that it has two very different sources of value. One source derives from its perspective as a being within a given environment. The other source derives from its perspective as a being that can shape its environment for good or bad. A series of related antonyms depict at the divided perspective: subjective/objective, individual/collective-holistic, egoistic/altruistic, and so on. But for purposes of these essays, we will focus on what I believe to be the root antithesis: We can be viewed from a theological perspective as both creatures and creators. And as we shall see, the tragedy enacted in the Genesis mythos is that humanity is tempted to see the creaturely point of view as the highest and best. It is tempted, in other words, to create false gods by using creaturely perspectives to inform its creative goals.

The upshot of this brief characterizastion of the biblical creation mythos is that it begins by dramatically framing humanity's most central and most urgent question: will we and can we get over the continual temptation that besets us to take the point of view of our lower nature as animals (creatures) seeking to get the most for ourselves in a world created for us rather than the point of view of creators who need to responsibly situate ourselves in a world ever more of our making. What science needs to understand is that religion has been asking and answering that question for milenia. And religion too needs to inform itself of that very thing.

To my knowledge it was C. S. Lewis who first explicitly framed this point of view in a way that connects how it is that evolution lands us in the midst of the very point of view enacted in the biblical mythos:

"...everyone has been told that man has evolved from lower types of life. Consequently, people often wonder 'What is the next step?'"2

The claim here is that the next step has been contemplated, though not framed in terms of evolution, for as long as intelligent people have read and thought about the Bible. Whether one is a Christian or not, or even a theist or not, a tradition that has formulated an answer to this fundamental question facing all of humanity deserves to be listened to--especially when the question, let alone an answer to it, has not even occurred to the philosophical and scientific traditions. That is not to say that one need be a theist to consider the point of view to be presented here. That is one reason I call this a theology for atheists.

[Note: I will work on CREATURE AND CREATOR: A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS periodically, as I have time. And some times I will rewrite or add to what I have written, rather than add new chapters. Infact, expect quite a lot of that, since I tend to work best from a "centered" perspective, which means that new insights tend to affect my central point as well as being additions or extrapolations from it. I am taking this approach so that i do not have to decide between working at then depth I want to write from and posting frequently enough to generate interest in the ideas.]

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