Saturday, February 21, 2015

Human and Divine: Genesis in Quadragesymmetry

Yuletide, Easter, Lent...pagan words for pagan festivals...remnants, I suppose of a certain syncretism. I prefer Quadragesima for Lent; at least it tells us what's going on. So, too, with Natale, and Pasqua, which tell us about events, as opposed to seasons. The Germanic, pagan terms are all about kairos, but the Italian terms are about chronos, and the things that happen in time. But that's just me.

The time of Quadragesima puts us in Genesis. We are beginning, making a path, making inroads into creation. Like the breezy beginning of it all, we hover above the deep, the face of discernment. It is a time of penitence and a time for understanding origins. The mythos of Genesis presents religious truths in simple and picturesque language, and these truths place us in relation to the way things are for us. In earlier posts I spoke of reshith, a beginning, and of 'image and likeness,' a relationship etched in reality. I would like to continue with those meditations.

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. [Gen. 1:26-27, NIV]

 The language here is of analogy; it is a grammar of the similarity and continuity between God and the human. God and man share in 'dominion,' and by this term I mean stewardship, over living creatures and the breathing earth. History has appropriated this analogy of dominion as political power anchored into a 'great chain of being;' but such an interpretation speaks more to man creating God in the image and likeness of man, than to what the plain sense of the biblical language authorizes. Creatures do not participate in the univocality ( I apologize for this term, but I want to suspend any commitment to Scotist-Deleuzean univocity, and keep a door open for Aquinas) of God, but they do participate, as creatures, in the creative impulse that keeps the world in the process of creation. We gain analogical knowledge of God in this passage, but I cannot stress enough that I am not suggesting that humans are anatomically or even psychologically similar to God. To allow the event of revelation to take place, we must remain free from any crass notions of identity with the Godhead. We must settle for likeness as concept, without placing the materiality of the divine and human on the same plane.

When we keep image and likeness in this kind of creative tension, we are better positioned to partake of the release of the event in Genesis 2:18-23.

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.

So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh.

Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man." [NIV]

The Hebrew words for 'suitable helper' (the roots of the words ezer and neged )can also be rendered, without torturing the text too much as 'image and likeness.' The Genesis mythos tells us that God has created all creatures from the earth, but he did not rest until he had caused the appearance of his image and likeness. This is indeed a suitable place to rest, for God could see himself in the human. It is not good for God to be without a suitable creature to continue the work of creation along with him. So, too, it is not good that the human should be alone. But a suitable helper would not be found among non-human creatures. Only when the human saw himself in another creature could he rejoice: this creature is of my very self, my very image and likeness; she shares the human's name because she shares in his humanity. Ish and Ishah, a distinction in names, a difference created to bring the likeness of God all the closer: the likeness of creating, of making.

The symmetry at work in creation is one of analogy, of suitability, of appropriateness of relationship. This is the symmetry of the good, not of crass geometry. This symmetry has no shape or dimension: it is a state of relationships, in their relationships to materiality: analogical materiality. God is a maker of things; humans are makers of things. The sharing of image and likeness is in the making, and in the spiritual depths (tehom) that make each recognizable to the other. The human creature had a share and stake in the same ruach that oscillated on the horizon of reshith, beginning. 

It is easy to understand how such likeness and familiarity could be misappropriated into a notion of a great chain of being. Perhaps if its conception and execution were fluid and untainted by human greed and power, the great chain could have had some ethical value. But it is corrupt in its origins. Even its repetition in the tenets of the Age of Reason does not extricate it from its inherent intent on domination and power. Some ideas are just born bad to the bone of its bones, which is what the Great Chain of Being said to the Enlightenment. But I digress....

The status of symmetry in which God has revealed himself does not change when the man and woman ascend into history in their own process of becoming sentient creatures distinct from God. Many a homily these forty days and nights will characterize the human appropriation of knowledge of good and evil as a usurpation of the divine prerogative of being the arbiter of good and evil---as distinct for the human disposition, in its inevitable self-serving relativism, of what is good and evil. This is a fair reading of an important level in our texts. I would bracket that reading off to allow for another event to emerge from Genesis. The event of creatures realizing their own natures. Genesis has revealed something uncanny about the human creature: it is blinded by thirst for knowledge, and fallible in its pursuit.

 And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground--trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [Gen. 2:9, NIV]

There are two trees in the center of Eden: the fatal one, and the tree of life. To know is to live and die. The human chose first to know, and then to live; of course God would have none of that. Adam and Eve get the boot before they can marry knowledge with immortality.  Still, their choice is instructive. To be human is to want to know: knowledge often trumps humanity's best interests, even when given a choice ( sometimes we glow in the things we could do, as we neglect glowing on what we should do). If the humans of Eden had chosen the fruit of Life before they chose the fruit of Knowing, I imagine we'd have a very different book. Nonetheless, we are left with what has come to be known as Original Sin---the breach between the human and the divine that nonetheless maintains the status quo of the static symmetry between God and man.

Original Sin begs the question of 'originality' here, but perhaps its best to think of 'original' simply as 'first;' after all, we're immersed in a book of firsts. I'll certainly not present a theology of sin here, but I will suggest that sin is a departure from the order of creation. This kind of originality pokes at reshith itself, and that's why it's such a big deal (something like Myron Cohen stealing from Milton Berle stealing from Henny Youngman stealing from Jack Benny). Man in his mythic disobedience walks his originality back to the beginning itself, to the plane where he was not, and effectually begins again in that Joycean moment of a thunderous hundred letter word. This is man's nature: to know. to know he will fall, and like many-a-Finnegan, begin again. But God is in on this chaosmic joke, and Genesis lets the cat out of the bag: God brought all the animals to the man to see what he would name them. He already knew man was a creature who names, who knows by naming, and by extension, boxing, categorizing. He knew already than there is nothing that a human will not attempt to know and own by naming, not even the naming of God (witness the Exodus ontology, Ex. 3:14). The naming of cats is a difficult matter.

This is the human condition, and Genesis is its mythos. So why, then, redemption? While the symmetry between creator and created remains intact, the relationship itself has been injured. This much all people of the book acknowledge. This problem is not a matter of hurt feelings and anger, but it is a matter of the symmetry itself. It is inadequate to contain the relationship released through the revelation to come. That will have to wait in time, until a new symmetry can be rewritten on another horizon of love--in time--where it will breathe according to the ruach (the Spirit) to come. The historical moment of the Incarnation is the event in which God insists on a definitive symmetry in the interdigitations of the human and divine.

1 comment:

  1. “I'll certainly not present a theology of sin here, but I will suggest that sin is a departure from the order of creation.”

    This means that the necessary and sufficient conditions *for* that departure from the natural order are *in* that order, or of it, belonging to it in some sense. Is it simply impossible that God could create otherwise? I don’t know. Is it simply impossible that God could create a particular world in which the conditions for this damage remain, but only as possibilities?

    How can creation depart from itself in such a way that God is not responsible for that departure?

    I won’t attempt a theology of sin, either. But I don’t see how a theology of sin would deal with the fact and the theory of evolution. Our will to know (and to be motivated to know for many different reasons), to power, to domination—where does this come from? Those are not evolutionary novelties that just appeared out of nowhere in H sapiens. Those predispositions, and many others, have a rich evolutionary history that we are only beginning to understand. Those things which have brought us to this point in earth’s natural history suddenly become more or less what you call original sin.

    Any theology of sin must deal with a lot more than the symmetry between humans and God. It has to deal with the symmetry between humankind and its nonhuman inheritance.

    Basically, given his desire for a particular kind of relationship with us, God pretty much chose what looks like the worst method for that end.

    A better way to put this question is not to ask about God’s symmetry with creation, but God’s symmetry with evolution. Costly scientific labor is ushering us, like Job, into the foundations of the world—it is fascinating; it is terrifying. Above all, it’s tragic.