New Book: Genesis and Christian Theology

I was very excited to find a contributor’s copy of Genesis and Christian Theology in my mailbox yesterday. The book has, at long last, been released by Eerdmans and is available for voracious and inquisitive readers everywhere.

Among a host of other fine essays, the volume includes my piece, “Gregory of Nyssa on Language, Naming God’s Creatures, and the Desire of the Discursive Animal.” Here’s an excerpt/summary:

In this paper I take Gregory’s emphasis on Genesis 2:19-20 as a starting point for examining the way in which Gregory’s account of language [in Contra Eunomium] structures his theological anthropology, particularly insofar as language is implicated in Gregory’s articulation of the differences and similarities between humans, animals, and God. I contend that while Gregory explicitly uses language to distance/differentiate the human from the animal and to connect/ compare humanity to God, Gregory’s careful attention to the limits of language sets up a basic structural parallel between human and animal life focused on the orienting and compelling power of desire. In light of this parallel, both God’s image and God’s redemption of humanity can be seen as events that stand open to the animal rather than points of differentiation and exclusion.

Many thanks to Nathan MacDonald, Mark Elliot, and Grant Macaskill for all of their editorial work, and to Eerdman’s for publishing the volume!

Animality and the Word of God :: John 1:1-4

I have been dwelling for quite some time at the boundary between humans and animals, thinking through the way that this boundary is imagined and presented, and especially thinking through the way that this boundary is infused with theological significance or drawn in theological terms.

This afternoon I was reading through Derrida’s final seminar (now published as The Beast and the Sovereign) and in the 12th session of that seminar came a discussion of the first chapters of both Genesis and the Gospel of John. Of course, both of these texts are heavily freighted so far as the relationships among God, humans, and other animals are concerned. Derrida’s circuitous thinking inspired a (theologically loaded) translation of John 1:1-4 that I’d like to try out (significant elements italicized).

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This word was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through this word, and apart from this word not one thing came to be. That which came to be by this word was animality, and this animality was the light of humanity. The light appeared in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Now, clearly this is pushing the usual semantic range of ζωὴ, at least as we are accustomed to hearing it. Still, I think that this translation has some merit.

Etymologically, ζωὴ [life] is the animating force of the ζωόν [living being, animal]. ζωὴ is emphatically not something that is exclusive property of human beings, but is the animating force in which both humans and animals are alive. Classically, when someone comes to define just what it is that an ἀνθρωπος [human] is, being human is described as being some kind or another of ζωόν [animal] (for two famous examples, ζωόν πολιτικόν [the political animal], ζωόν λογον εχων [the animal having speech/reason/discourse]. ζωὴ, then, is a necessary element of being human, but can’t belong to humanity alone.

Furthermore, John is most certainly quoting and riffing on Genesis here. The λόγος [word] is clearly the speech of Elohim, at which all creation emerges (not just the human mode of being).

All that to say, to imagine that the life of which John speaks here is something that belongs only to human beings precisely as human beings (e.g. a “spiritual” life that has nothing to do with animals) is a stunning bit of prejudice. The life which is the light of humanity is not a life that excludes, or comes in distinction from the life which is the life of animals. In order to reinforce this point, we might remember the oft-made point that the λόγος becomes σὰρξ [flesh] in order to dwell among us, not (literally, at least) ἀνθρωπος [human].

If this line of reading is viable, then one of the first things that we need to theologically reconfigure is the significance of God’s λόγος, and of God’s being as λόγος.

Traditionally, in both Greek philosophy and much of the Christian tradition, among creatures λόγος  has been an exclusive property of humanity, and a direct connection with God which excludes all other creatures. The human is rational, articulate, speaking, discursive [all valid translations] whereas other creatures are not. This is so much the case, that one can name the class of living beings which are not humans (every non-human living being that falls under the label “animal”) simply by saying “ὁι ἀλογοι” [those who lack λόγος].

Now, if the divine λόγος can be thought as animating creatures other that humans as Genesis and John perhaps suggest, then using λόγος as the boundary that divides humanity from all other creatures is a stunning bit of hubristic appropriation. To claim λόγος as something that belongs to us and to us alone is to cut ourselves off from the rest of creation, and perhaps, from God’s presence to the rest of creation.

I can’t and won’t argue it out here in full (beyond what I’ve already tried to indicate in John’s text), but I’m laboring to work out a theological thesis. Namely, that it is the concern to foster and defend an exclusively human λόγος (our own rationality, our own speech, our own mode of thought) which actually cuts us off from the divine λόγος which is present in animals (and everything that has come to be). The “rationality” which we imagine as the dividing line between “us” humans and “them” animals is also the pathology that cuts us off from God’s activity in and for creation. Our autonomous λόγος is not the opposite of, but is precisely the expression of our παθος. In (my [per]version of) John’s terms, the darkness that cannot and will not overcome the light is the autonomous human λόγος that cannot and will not eradicate the ζωὴ [life, both animal and human] which is God’s work.

Salvation, then, would be imagined not as a process whereby one’s animality (desire, lust, embodiment, etc.) is overcome and abandoned in an approach to God (who is perceived the opposite of all of these things), but rather as a forsaking of the autonomous human λόγος (which can only end in death) for the life-giving λόγος of God. Perhaps the λόγος of God saves human beings by integrating them more deeply into the life [ζωὴ] which is the life of all creation. Perhaps becoming a child of God (John 1.12) entails becoming more animal rather than less.

Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)

The Paradise narrative of Genesis 2-4 haunts its readers with a host of lacunae that call for return after return to the text in order to venture out on various explanatory bridges. The story of Adam and Eve proceeds at a breathless pace, offering bare details of dialogue and action without developing a full and complete background. The movements of the text are sudden and superficial in a way that hints at an oceanic depth of backstory. These abyssal lacunae are all the more hauntingly urgent for readers because this narrative purports to account for humanity’s origins and provide a “place” for human beings in the web of cosmic relations. Perhaps for that reason, the spare and enigmatic compositional lines of this text have been a womb bearing an astounding variety of interpretations and explanations, the richness of which are an unparalleled gift. Gary Anderson’s Genesis of Perfection [1] attempts to takes stock of a number of these structural lacunae in the text of Genesis 2-3 and introduce a few of the myriad interpretive efforts that have inscribed fuller understandings of the universe into the lines of the Genesis narrative. In order delimit his sources to a manageable horde, Anderson focuses on readings of Genesis from within the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism and the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy.

The contemporary genesis of Anderson’s text is his sense that the divorce in the last few centuries between the history of composition (undertaken in historical-critical precision) and the history of reception (for which the origin of the text is often of little interest) belies an impoverishing narrowness (xvi-xvii). Continue reading “Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)”

image and likeness in Saint Basil and the ecology of the soul

It is commonplace among early Christian writers to distinguish between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity (rooted in Genesis 1:27), though the distinction made theologically significant in various ways. While his younger brother Gregory rejects the distinction, Basil of Caesarea employs it with some regularity. This passage caught my eye today:

“Now, he has made us with the power to become like God, he let us be artisans of the likeness to God, so that the reward for the work would be ours. Thus we would not be like images made by a painter, lying inertly, lest our likeness should bring praise to another. For when you see an image exactly shaped like the prototype, you do not praise the image, but you marvel at the painter. Accordingly, so that the marvel may become mine and not another’s, he has left it to be to become according to the likeness of God. For I have that which is according to the image in being a rational being, but I become according to the likeness in becoming Christian.” [1]

In what precedes this excerpt, Basil has been quite clear that human beings exist according to the image of God as a function of their rationality—primarily expressed in ruling over the animals. As Basil continues, it becomes evident that to craft one’s life according to the likeness of God is to adopt the Pauline clothing metaphor and “put on” Christ as a garment.

At this point I wonder if there is some tension between the image and likeness, wherein the likeness of God (paradigmatically visible in the life of Jesus) actually begins to shape and determine the image (practical reason in its ruling function) in such a way as to introduce a kenotic humility and attitude of service into its exercise. This reading is at odds with Basil, but perhaps not so much as to contradict his broader intentions.

Reading this way recognizes a certain tension between the archetypical Image of God in Christ (who in the course of Basil’s homily primarily appears as the almighty Pantocrator) and the likeness of God which human beings are to “put on” perfecting their own kindness, charity, and virtue in emulation of Jesus. Secretly, and against the grain, I see the life of Jesus breaking into Basil’s text at this point, opening up fissures in his thoroughly confident notion of the power of reason (Logos in the Greek, of course) through which trickles of living water pour.

This kind of “crafting” would also temper the spirituality which Basil enjoins upon his hearers. Basil moves very quickly from the rule that human beings exercise over the animals to the analogous rule that human beings are to exercise over their own irrational passions and vices. Both animals and passions are subdued by reason. Most of Basil’s examples of reason exercising dominion over animals, however, are instances where human beings kill, cage, or domesticate by force. As a model for spiritual discipline (not to mention as a model for relating to animals generally), this is perhaps somewhat lacking. Attempting to eradicate one’s passions and vices by clubbing, spearing, and caging them is often an exercise in repression—one that ends in futility and frustration. The Pantocrator model of spirituality presumes unrealistic control on the part of a the subject by presuming that passions can actually be bludgeoned into submission.

Better, perhaps, is the spirituality whereby the passions are tamed by giving them a distance, recognizing their power but neither capitulating to them nor seeking to slaughter them on the spot. The sort of charity that Jesus showed to sinners in caring for their immediate needs without condoning their sin or joining in it provides a better model for confronting the disreputable elements within my own character.

[1] Basil of Caesarea, On the Human Condition, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 44.

moltmann :: imago dei

“The human being’s likeness to God is a theological term before it becomes an anthropological one. It first of all says something about the God who creates his image for himself, and who enters into a particular relationship with that image, before it says anything about the human being who is created in this form. Likeness to God means God’s relationship to human beings first of all, and only then, and as a consequence of that, the human being’s relationship to God.”

Which means, of course, that it is something revealed rather than something possessed. It is not something found by introspection, but likeness discovered in the context of a relationship. This also means that it is foremost a responsibility rather than an entitlement.

“Likeness to God is both gift and charge, indicative and imperative. It is charge and hope, imperative and promise.”

Moltmann, God in Creation trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 220, 227.

creation is bigger than nature

Reading Jurgen Moltmann’s, God in Creation I came across another way (probably a better way) of saying what I was trying to get at the other day. Once we have a sense of our independence from the world around us, we have a proclivity to wield that independence over our surroundings in relationships of control and domination.

Creation is bigger than nature.

By “nature” we can signify all that is subject to scientific study and, on some level, to human control. The concept of nature is strongly tied to “natural law” so that nature is everything that follows predictable patterns of behavior. Over the last few century’s “nature” has expanded to include not only physical laws like gravity, but (viaDarwin and friends) biological development and behavior. The development of psychology aims to incorporate the human mind into nature as well–the “experimental” and “philosophical” branches attempting to account for the neurological (objective) and existential (subjective) aspects of the mind, respectively. Continue reading “creation is bigger than nature”

nature and civilization :: of dirt and dangerous divisions

Scraped together out of dirt, humanity is creation rearranged. Our atoms are interchangable with those of birds, bees, monkeys and mollusks. Theologically, no less than biologically or chemically, humanity is continuous with creation. Whatever is going on in the show here, humanity is a part of the scenery.

Some complexity is introduced when God leans down to breathe into the muddled mud-ling he’s put together. Dirt that shows something about God, “images” Him. Humanity has a unique role on the planet we are a part of.

Somewhere along the line, we became civilized. This is mostly measured by the fact that we are no longer dependent on nature in our day to day lives. Signs of civilization include the light bulbs that enable us to read late into the night (a much more convenient form of light than fire…), and the fact that we can live in rediculously uninhabitable places like Antarctica or Alberta. If you are a human being reading this, give your self a pat on the back–you are civilized!

As wealthy Westerners, it is tempting to interpret this functional impervious-ness from “nature” as independence, as a mark of real distinction between us and the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. I will be the last one to deride technology and all the benefits of human creativity. That said, independence from nature is a destructive myth, dangerous both ecologically and theologically. Our “civilization” fuels this myth and enables a noxious self-misunderstanding. Continue reading “nature and civilization :: of dirt and dangerous divisions”