Saturday, January 30, 2010

In The Garden

If the first creation account can be viewed as the establishment of boundaries, the second creation account can be seen as obsessed with boundaries – establishment, violation, and establishment of new and stronger ones. Seen in this way, the setting of the second account in a garden created by God is particularly appropriate.

As Jack Miles notes in God: A Biography, the humans created by God on the sixth day in Genesis 1 are given dominion over the entire earth. In Genesis 2, the man and woman hand-fashioned by God are restricted to the garden of Eden. And whereas God’s first words to the humans in Genesis 1 are a directive to practice creation (or pro-creation) themselves – “Be fruitful and multiply” – in Genesis 2, the first words to Adam are a prohibition: “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.”

Like God in Genesis 1, God in Genesis 2 establishes boundaries, but they are on a different scale. And those boundaries are bound up in the image of the garden and its restrictiveness. The Lord God walks within the garden alongside his creations for a time, but it doesn’t take long for a rift to develop out of the very creation He so lovingly crafted.

The garden is a bound and protected space, a place where nature thrives, but with strict limitations on what is allowed to grow and where. The garden must be tended, watched, minded, pruned, lest it revert to the untamed state of nature. Like other bound structures, the garden is an image that carries associations of shelter and protection, but also of control and imprisonment.

A garden, “the garden”, was the topic of my master’s thesis in architecture. I wrote about the garden as perpetually incomplete, always in the state of becoming (I was having trouble finishing the project component of my thesis: a design for a botanical research garden at the site of the home of the architect Louis Sullivan in Ocean Springs, Mississippi).

I referred only briefly to the garden of Eden in my thesis, as an acknowledgement of the primal power of the garden as an image. I wrote instead about the garden worlds into which the young heroines of several children’s books had been transported: Wendy in Peter Pan, Alice in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and, in a more realistic vein, Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

In each of those stories, as in Genesis 2, a place that at first glance may be perceived as a utopia, strange but wonderful and wonderful in its strangeness, becomes decidedly dystopic. Paradise is invaded by despair and is exposed as, in effect, dis-Paradise.

Here’s a passage from my thesis, which was titled Something in the Nature of a Garden:
“The life of a garden depends on what goes on down below, beneath the surface, on the flow of water and nutrients to the roots of the plants, on the aeration of the soil by worms and ants, on the decay of dead matter to fertilize the living … To create a garden is to set into motion a complex of actions which must be performed rigorously if the garden is to remain a garden. Certain actions may be left to the discretion of the gardener – i.e., whether to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, whether to prune and trim or let plants grow unchecked – but in general the maintenance of a garden depends absolutely on the propagation, cultivation and placement of desired vegetation and the removal of unwanted plants (and sometimes animals). Thus the garden is as much a process as it is a place or thing.”
Each of those elements I discussed is represented in the story of the garden of Eden, in a way I find fascinating.

Let’s look first at the flow of water. Genesis 2: 5 tells us that, “On the day the Lord God made earth and heavens, no shrub on the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till the soil, and wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil (in other translations, this “wetness” is referred to as a spring or fountain), then the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.” Thus life, in this case human life, is generated from the water and the soil. (In Hebrew, there is a pun at play in the words “adam,” which means human, and “adamah,” soil, which Robert Alter approximates with his use of “human” and “humus” in his translation)
A bit later, beginning in 2:10, we read:
“Now a river runs out of Eden to water the garden and from there splits off into four streams. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is goodly, bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli. And the name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through all the land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Tigris, the one that goes to the east of Ashur. And the fourth river is Euphrates.”
Water springs from the earth and flows out of the garden. I love the image of the winding rivers because of its parallel to the serpent introduced as the figure of temptation in the next chapter. Rivers, of course, are often referred to as snaking, serpentine. The fact that here they make their way out of the garden is perfect, because it prefigures the exit from the garden catalyzed by the serpent. And to me the confluence of these images recalls the errant paths that we inscribe over the course of our lives, that snaking back and forth through the borderland between heaven and earth that I have written about previously.

We see also in these passages of Genesis 2 that new life is made from the soil, from dead and decaying matter – and here I acknowledge of course that in this original creation the soil would not have signified decaying matter, only the same “stuff” from which life is generated, perhaps a recognition by that author of the unity of the organic, chemical world.

And, inevitably, I think, a whole complex of actions is set into motion – a complex that ensures sustenance, but at the same time imposes prohibition and threatens destruction and leads to the move beyond the garden, to the outside, so that forever hence we can be assured that our task will be to try to find our way back to the space of creation. As Joni Mitchell observed in her song “Woodstock”, a poem about a journey to the famous festival:
“We are stardust, we are golden,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back
To the garden.”
In the second creation story, in contrast to the stately progression of the first, there is a sense that details are added as afterthought. We can almost hear the Lord God saying, “Oops, can’t forget that.” In the second story, he rushes straight to what is the climax of the first, the creation of humanity. Then he has to go back and plant the garden, then populate it, first with plants and then – in exactly the way he made the humans – animals fashioned from the soil. And finally, he decides to create a partner for Adam – a “helpmeet” in the King James translation, a “sustainer” in Alter’s. Even then, after the Lord God announces his plan to create a sustainer, he first fashions the animal kingdom and only then builds Eve from Adam’s rib.

That this narrative echoes what I see as the human creative process is, I think, not just an accident of the telling. The Bible is, as I have written before, a sophisticated work of literature whose words are metaphorical, allusive and evocative of our lives in countless ways. While I do my best to respect the interpretations that others give to the words they read in the Bible, I cannot help but feel that those who read the words as “literal truth” do a disservice to the authors of this wondrous text. The story of the garden is so rich with layers of meaning to be unearthed and explored that to stop at the literal is to miss the point.

If we have been created “in the image” of the creator God, we cannot help but create. Ernest Holmes, who founded the community of faith in which I reside, Religious Science, taught that the soul is the creative medium of the universe, where seeds of thought are planted and grow into the things we recognize and interact with in the universe.

When I first talked about creation in my Bible study class, talk turned to destruction, in particular the destruction so pervasive in some communities of Los Angeles. We talked about turning this destruction on its head, in trying to recognize beauty wherever it occurs – even, I said cautiously, in the design and engineering of the instruments of destruction that both frighten and kill. A gun may be a terrible thing to those who have suffered from its misuse; it is also a marvelous object of human creation, a carefully crafted tool, made with care and precision. Someone poured heart and soul into its design; someone exercised skill and art in its manufacture.

I realize this is treading on dangerous ground. What does it mean to aestheticize an instrument of destruction? Can we turn minds away from the destructive power of the object and toward an appreciation of its craft? I don’t know, honestly. Aesthetics at this level is perhaps a sort of garden-making, a seeking of refuge that becomes its own prison, a limited world. But if we got back to that garden, would we be better off?

Some trends in modern art deal explicitly with questions of that sort. Consider Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” recently voted the 20th century’s most influential work of art by a panel of 500 British art experts. Duchamp’s work, submitted to – and rejected by -- an art show in 1917, is not something he built, but instead something he purchased, a urinal manufactured by the J.L. Mott Iron Works, turned 90 degrees from its normal position and signed “R. Mutt 1917.” An industrial object becomes an aesthetic one because the artist names it so, and turns the art world on its head. Duchamp’s work is at once a joke, an affront, a challenge and a call to appreciate the object itself, with its sensual curves, smooth white surface and precisely punched holes.

Later in the 20th century, it became common for artists to create collages and sculptures from found objects, and still later, in the art of Andy Warhol and others, commercial images were reproduced and altered – sometimes only slightly – to form works of “high” art. In one of Warhol’s most famous works, a photograph of the explosion of an atomic bomb, the ultimate instrument of destruction, is reproduced repeatedly via silk screen in varying shades of red and black.

Each time I teach a Bible class, I prepare an art board, on which I place computer print-outs of famous images that relate to the Biblical texts I’m planning to talk about. This week, alongside famous Genesis 2 images by Michelangelo and Jacob de Backer, as well as a couple of icons, I am placing a photograph of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” Barnett Newman’s “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” and several Warhol prints, including both the "Atomic Bomb" mentioned above and “Marilyn” (an icon of an icon …) to try to generate discussion about the inevitability of human creation, the art all around us and how recognition of that art can move us “into the garden” both as creator and as viewer. We’ll have to see what happens.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Creation Destruction Deconstruction Delight

Before I wrote the previous essay on this blog, The Space of Creation, I typed the title of this one. I thought I was going to write about the tense relationship between Creation and Destruction, and relate that to the literary technique of Deconstruction as well as to Mark Taylor’s writings on Delight.
As usual, best-laid plans. The other essay is what came out of that effort.

So here I am again, looking at the words “Creation” and “Destruction”, and trying to figure out what I want to say. Certainly one thought I want to put down is that these two notions, like Heaven//Earth, Light//Dark and others that I have written about, form an oppositional pair whose definitions are inextricably linked to and dependent on each other. And the evidence of that in the Bible runs throughout not only the stories of Genesis – in which God repeatedly creates and destroys and creates again and threatens destruction (think of the Creation, Cain and Abel, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the plagues of Egypt) but throughout the Biblical history that culminates, for Christians, in the Crucifixion//Resurrection.
Then there is the idea that in order to create, one inevitably destroys. This can be as prosaic a notion as that through the act of writing, one destroys the purity of the blank page, consumes graphite or ink and ultimately destroys the writing instrument (in the case of the computer, on which I am writing now, I see the evidence in keys with letters worn off. I know, too, that I have already had to replace a hard drive and mother board on this particular instrument of creation). On a more spiritual level, the expression of thought is a process of selection, of making choices that first privilege one thought over another and, possibly, destroy the outcast thoughts.

When I talked about this in church, my pastor responded with the concept of transformation as an alternative to destruction. And that makes sense. Certainly that is what is expressed in scientific terms in the First Law of Thermodynamics.

And yet, although energy and matter may be preserved when a person, a place or a thing is reduced to rubble and ash, a form is destroyed. In some real sense, the “creation” is destroyed even though the substance may be transformed at an elemental and energetic level.

That’s not terribly different from the destruction of the Earth through mining that provides minerals used to produce paint used by the artist, or the destruction of trees to produce wood used by the carpenter.
I don’t know that there’s anything terribly profound in those thoughts, but it is something I keep in mind.

In raising this subject to my class, I used two examples of works of contemporary art that caused controversy through their explorations of creation and destruction. The first, “Piss Christ,” is a photograph by the American artist Andres Serrano that depicts a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine. This photograph became the subject of congressional hearings in 1987 after it was awarded a prize funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

On its own, without description, "Piss Christ" can be viewed as a beautiful image: Christ on the cross bathed in a golden light. The controversy came because the artist chose to name and describe his technique, one that combined a symbol that many consider holy with the artist’s excreted bodily fluid. There are many ways to interpret the meaning of Serrano’s work, but I choose to look at it as an example of the creative//destructive tension. As such, I think it merits discussion, not the kind of mindless outrage heaved at it by Senators Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato. I don’t ask you to like “Piss Christ,” but I insist that it is a serious work that deserves serious appreciation.

The second work of art I showed was “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a painting by the Nigerian-born British artist Chris Ofili. This work also became the target of ignorant outrage when it was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the late 1990s. Then-Mary Rudy Giuliani unleashed a tirade of abuse based on the fact that one of the materials Ofili used in the composition was elephant dung. He also surrounded the portrait of the virgin with pictures of women’s derrieres and pudenda cut from pornographic magazines.

Again, I find the work beautiful, and one that merits serious consideration. Elephants and their detritus are considered holy in parts of Africa, a fact which may or may not have informed Ofili’s use of the material; I suspect it did. And the body images seem to be intended as a comment on the depiction of nudes in fine art throughout the ages (yes, even religious art). In Ofili’s work, those images appear to flutter around the Virgin like butterflies. Only their source gives offense.

Offense is an important part of the equation here. Both Serrano and Ofili courted, and generated, outrage by the choices of materials they made in creating their works. But I would argue that in both cases, they transformed the raw materials of detritus into things of beauty (proving my pastor’s point).

On to Deconstruction, a controversial technique of literary criticism that has been adapted to the study of architecture, art and other disciplines. I think of deconstruction as akin to taking apart an object, examining its pieces carefully and reassembling them in a different way. Creating a new thing through the destruction of an other thing. Because deconstruction posits that there is no authoritative center, that meaning is slippery and possibilities of interpretation are open-ended, the technique has generated outrage from conservative thinkers who want meaning to be fixed, immutable, eternal. Add to that that the language of deconstruction is necessarily difficult -- because it seeks explicitly not to fix meaning and limit interpretation – and you have, perhaps, a tempting recipe for controversy of the academic kind.

I find that deconstruction helps me to understand and value the Bible. By closely reading it, in multiple translations (I do not read either Hebrew or Greek, the primary languages in which it was written), taking it apart chapter by chapter, verse by verse, line by line, word by word, I find I can make personal sense of it in a way that is meaningful in my life. I have no idea whether the original writers intended me to be able to interpret it in the ways I do, but that is, frankly, beside the point. The enduring power of the Bible rests in the rich potential for interpretation that it provides, and the possibility of endlessly discovering new ways to look at these ancient texts.

And that fills me with Delight, which I try to share on this blog.

The Space of Creation

“In theological terms, the space of art lies between the Garden and the Kingdom; its time is the meantime.” – Mark Taylor, Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion
If, as I have suggested, the God of Genesis 1 establishes “creative space” by setting up a system of borders and boundaries which humanity can criss-cross or operate within to “approach God,” the God of Genesis 2 can be seen as functioning within that very space He has created.

In Genesis 1, God creates by speaking; in Genesis 2, He creates by doing. The God of Genesis 2 can be viewed as an artist-craftsman. In the second Creation story, God sculpts, gardens and sews. He makes the first man from the dust of the Earth, watered by a spring; he plants a garden, into which he places the creature; finally, he fashions a woman from one of the man’s ribs. After the Fall, he makes leather clothing (“from skins”) for his exiled creatures. The God of Genesis 2 approaches Earth in the very way we humans strive to approach God. He works within the border territory.

Just as we might describe humanity as living on the boundary between Heaven and Earth – our feet on the ground, our heads in the air – the God of the second Creation story conducts his work in this same space. There is even the unparalleled vision of God “walking about in the garden in the evening breeze” (Genesis 3:8, Robert Alter’s translation in The Five Books of Moses).

This is very much a hands-on God, a God who interacts directly, face-to-face and bodily, with the universe he has created. Whereas the God described in Genesis 1 may seem distant, making pronouncements from on high and viewing them with approval, this engaged God gets down and dirty, quite literally.

So what gives with these two accounts of Creation? Biblical scholars generally say that the two accounts were written by different authors – Genesis 1 by a an anonymous writer known as P, Genesis 2 by another anonymous writer known as J – and that their separate accounts were placed side by side by yet another anonymous author, the Redactor, or R. This sets up the two Genesis accounts in a manner much like the four New Testatment Gospel accounts, set side by side with no accounting for their differences.

My hat is off to the Redactor. I think this collage of stories is brilliant. It was made even more so by a subtle maneuver made by an early modern editor to provide a bit of slippage between the stories.

The division of the Christian Bible into the chapters and verses we are familiar with today did not happen until the Middle Ages. The Tanakh and earlier Christian versions used divisions that differ from the accepted modern divisions. A 13th-century archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, has been credited with the current organizations of books and chapters, although others surely had a role.

At any rate, in the Christian Bibles we read today, the days of Creation in chapter 1 end with a day of rest for God. But that day of rest occurs not in chapter 1, but as the first three verses of chapter 2. The second account, the artist-crafstman version, begin with verse 4, which reads as a new beginning:
“This is the book of the genesis of heaven and earth when they were made, in the day the Lord God made heaven and earth, before any plant of the field was on earth and before any herb of the field sprang up.”
Whoever is responsible for the decision to move the day of rest into Chapter 2, I think it is a brilliant, and startlingly post-modern, move. It allows the two accounts to bleed together; it both announces and blurs the distinction between the two stories. The Chapter 1//Chapter 2 boundary becomes a permeable membrane, a collision//fusion of branes.

I also want to point out the introduction of a new way of referring to God in verse 4. In the translation above, we read “the Lord God” where chapter 1 has always referred to the divine being as simply God. In Hebrew, the distinction is El (or Elohim, a plural form used in the singular sense) in Chapter 1 vs. YHWH or Yahweh in Chapter 2. This is one of the clues that scholars use to detect the change in authorship. God is given other names as the Bible proceeds, including El Shaddai, often translated as God Almighty. These other names are sometimes additional clues to changes of authorship. Depending on the translation you read, you may be able to pick out the changes, or the translator may have blurred those edges.

In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, G. W. F. Hegel says that God is “the act of distinguishing or differentiating, which at the same time gives no difference and does not hold on to difference as permanent.” I hope that my earlier writing on the first Creation account -- as a process of establishing borders and boundaries, but one that allows for intermediate space in which we think and create -- helps to elucidate Hegel’s words.

I turn once again to Mark Taylor, who in Disfiguring writes that, “To apprehend truth is to see through the particular to the universal. The possibility of this vision is created by art.”

The Bible tells us that God created humanity in his image. As a corollary, I would add that when we create, we act in God’s image. Whatever creative endeavors we pursue vocationally or avocationally – painting, sculpting, making music (by composition or performance), writing, sewing, cooking, gardening, crafting – are our way of blurring the distinction between the individual and the universal, and moving closer to the concept that we call God. I know that when I play the piano, or work in my woodshop, or design and dye a pysanka, or cook, or write – hell, even when I am caught up in the analysis of a computation at work – I often lose consciousness of time and place in the intensity of my efforts. That’s what I’m talking about here: My boundaries become indistinct, I become one with my work, I become part of the universal experience. I know that others have described this as well.

Immanuel Kant refers to this as the “sublime,” a word whose etymology conveys moving “up to the threshold.” Making art can be sublime, experiencing art on the receiving end (observing, listening, touching, wearing, tasting, etc.) can move us to a similar place if we are truly caught up in it.

When I talked about this in my class last Sunday, I discussed the way in which our senses experience: Through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, tongue, fingertips, all the places where the external world somehow passes through to our inner selves. These are places of transition, where it becomes impossible to define a boundary between inner and outer. Think of your lips: Can you define a boundary between the outside of your body and the inside at that point? Depending on how you position your lips – pursed or pouting, connected or disconnected – that boundary may change or vanish.

As the Gospel of Thomas tells us:
“When you make the inner like the outer
And the outer like the inner
And the upper like the lower,
… Then you will enter the kingdom."--Willis Barnstone translation, in The Restored New Testament
The act of creation by the maker and the experience of creation by the recipient share this quality of transcendence, which Taylor calls “delight”:
“Delight is the inversion of satisfaction. Satisfaction is possessive – to seek satisfaction is to strive for the fulfillment that seems to result from the appropriation of otherness. Delight, by contrast, is nonpossessive. By granting the incurability of primordial emptiness, the dispossessed subject creates the possibility of overcoming the desperate struggle for possession and possessions. Delight can be understood as enjoyment without possession. The nonpossessive enjoyment of improper subjects calls into question the psychology of mastery and the economy of utility and consumption. In delight, one does not seek to master, does not cultivate the useful, and does not long to consume. Delight replaces self-affirmation, which attempts to negate negation by negating otherness, with an affirmation of negation that is impossible apart from acceptance of the other. Instead of struggling to reduce difference to identity, the one who delights acknowledges the identity of difference and the difference of identity.” – Erring: A Postmodern A/theology
We can delight in God’s creation. We don’t possess it, because we share it with each other and with God. We can also delight in our own and each other’s creation through shared experience.

To quote Hegel once again:
“Thinking is the meeting of the self with itself in the other. This is a deliverance that is not the flight of abstraction, but consists in what is actually having itself not as something else, but as its own bing and creation in the other actuality with which it is bound together by the force of necessity. As existing for itself, this deliverance is called I; as unfolded to its totality, it is free spirit; as feeling, it is love; as enjoyment, it is blessedness.” -- G.W.F. Hegel, The Logic of Hegel
I want to end this essay-full-of-quotes by quoting Ernest Holmes, whose writings form the foundation and primary texts of the faith in which I participate, Religious Science. This is from an essay called “I Am the Creativeness Within You,” in Living the Science of Mind:
“I the Universal am now individual. I the impersonal am now personal. And yet in My personality and individuality I still remain Universal. But I the Universal Creative Mind now become at the same time the individual and personal creative mind through your will, your desire.
“Because you are some part of Me you have the Power to think and to create. This Power is My Power; it is also your Power. And because this is so, that which you have believed has come upon you; that which you have thought has transpired. Until now you have not know that the very Power which binds you can give you freedom, that the very Power which has created physical infirmities may heal. I the Eternal within do all these things.”

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Book as (a text ...

The Bible is often referred to as The Book, suggesting that it captures -- between covers, on bound pages, within margins – all that there is or needs to be, and while I certainly acknowledge and rejoice in what I consider to be the Bible’s infinite richness, I think it is more useful as well as more interesting to view it as text than Book.

What’s the difference?

Here’s how Mark Taylor, in Erring, describes it:
“Books … possess meaning that is both determinate and determinable. As a result of the ‘presence’ of this meaning, the activity of interpretation is neither endless nor pointless … In contrast to the closure of the book, the text is radically open. It is neither self-contained nor definitively bound in a single volume. A text is more like a fabric with loose ends than a hemmed cloth.”

I know that many consider the Bible to “possess meaning that is both determinate and determinable.” But what Bible do they consider this to be? The two great faiths that use the Bible do not agree on its contents. In Judaism, the Bible is the Tanakh, which consists of three parts: The Torah (the Five Books of Moses), the Nevi’im (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (Writings). Christians re-order those contents into what they label the Old Testament, and add to them a second volume: The New Testament. In addition, while Protestant Christians, for the most part, limit the books of the Old Testament to the contents of the Tanakh, Catholics add seven books -- which are sometimes segregated and labeled Apocrypha in Protestant bibles such as the King James version – and Eastern Orthodox Christians add another three to those. The Ethiopian Orthodox church includes still more and is the most inclusive church Bible of which I am aware.

For most of Christian history – since roughly the third century – the New Testament has been considered a closed volume containing 27 parts: Four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles (sometimes viewed as a “sequel” to the Gospel of Luke), 14 letter by or attributed to Paul, seven additional letters or sermons, and Revelation. This same New Testament has been used by Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Protestants. But in recent times – especially after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945 – we have seen that many additional writings were viewed as holy scripture by some early Christians, and last year Willis Barnstone took the audacious step of incorporating three of those into the fresh and powerful new translation he calls The Restored New Testament.

This text has many authors, some of whom were aware of their predecessors and others who seem not to have been. In each of the churches that uses the Bible, the selection of texts to be included has been made by an authority figure who may or may not be acknowledged or respected within that church. I often wonder whether fundamentalist Protestants who talk of Biblical inerrancy would really be willing to accept that the selection of the four gospels included in the canonical New Testament was made by a highly political Catholic bishop in the second century.

The challenge of considering the Bible as a closed book doesn’t stop there.
Beyond what even the most inclusive would call The Bible, we have centuries of commentary, prayers, poetry, fiction, music and art based on scripture. And some of that is so well-known and studied that it is next to impossible to consider the Bible without them. Can we talk about sin, especially original sin, without St. Augustine somehow intruding on the conversation? Do thoughts about the Last Supper inevitably conjure up the image of Leonardo's painting? Is there a way to consider Moses' descent from the mountain without picturing Charlton Heston doing so in the Cecil B. DeMille film?

Given all this, what does biblical inerrancy mean? Which Bible, which individual books, which chapters, verses, lines and words are to be considered as absolute truth? I suggest that the concept begins to slip through one’s fingers the more closely one considers it.

While I do my best to respect the views of those who consider the Bible as a closed book, an absolute, I am always tempted to ask these questions to them. My view is that the Bible is best seen as a source meant to be mined for wisdom, for moral guidance, for life lessons. It reveals its richness and beauty more fully as one pokes and prods at it, questions it, compares statements in one section with statements in another.

As Taylor writes: “The joyous wandering of the graphÄ“ cannot be captured in the lines of a book; it must be inscribed in erring texts.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Big Bang

There is no way that I could talk about biblical Creation without at least a mention of scientific theories of creation. The conflict between supposedly Bible-based “Creationism” and scientific theory – especially evolution – is, sadly, one of the debates that defines our current era.

Why do I say “sadly”? Because I think those on the extremes of this argument miss the point. I have never found there to be anything irreconcilable about the Bible’s story of Creation and science. Essentially, I see the Bible’s account as a poetic description that aligns quite nicely with more detailed scientific accounts. Yes, there are differences, but on the whole there is a surprising degree of agreement.

Let’s start at the beginning of the beginning, with God’s first words: “Let there be light.” It seems to me that this is a brilliant (no pun intended) encapsulation, in literary terms, of the Big Bang that most scientists would say marks the beginning of the universe as we know it. The Big Bang as I understand it was an event of enormous energy release, something that we can easily understand as expressed through blinding light and/or heat.

And before that event? The Bible says, “The earth was invisible and unfinished; and darkness was over the deep.” That’s fine with me, because to me it again encapsulates a scientific theory: This time, the emerging “ekpyrotic” theory that suggests the Big Bang was triggered by the collision of two “branes,” multi-dimensional bodies of formless mass and “dark energy.” The concept of a brane is difficult, complex and untestable -- in part because to understand it one needs to be able to accept that there are 10 or even 11 dimensions in physics, most beyond of our ability to perceive and demonstrable only through advanced mathematics -- but is part of a set of current concepts in physics (along with string theory and m-theory) that are revising scientists’ picture of our universe. Calling it invisible, unfinished, dark and deep makes perfect sense to me as a way to bring the concept down to a level understandable to a layman.

And what of the origin of life? The Bible describes a succession of days on which first plant life, then sea creatures, flying creatures, terrestrial creatures and finally humans are created. Is there really any major discrepancy between this description and the sequence of life emerging on Earth as described by evolutionary scientists? I think not, although this has formed the kernel of contention between scientists and Biblical fundamentalists over the last century and a half or so.

A lot of that contention has to do with the fact that the Bible refers to creation as being accomplished in six days. But what is a day? The journey from darkness to light and back to darkness? How long does that take? And from whose perspective? How does God define a day?

We know that even on the planets of our small solar system, a day – defined as the time it takes for a planet to spin once on its axis – takes varying amounts of time. And the Bible tells us not once, but twice, that God measures time quite differently from the way we humans do.

Here’s what it says in Psalm 90:
“For a thousand years in Your sight
Are like yesterday, which passed,
And like a watch in the night.”
And here is a famous statement in the Second Letter of Peter:
“But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one days is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
So I would suggest that those “young Earth” advocates who attempt to measure God’s time in terms of earthly time need to take a closer look at the book they consider to be without error. Right in its very pages is all the “proof” any of them should need that human time and divine time are not equivalent.

In essence, my view is that any discrepancy between the biblical account of creation and scientific theory has much to do with the language in which they are presented. The Bible gives us creation in poetic/literary terms that allow brief, easily understood summarization of the concepts that science delves into in great detail.

I know that is a vast oversimplification, but nevertheless I hope that it can serve as a starting point for discussion of science and religion in a non-combative manner.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Working the Borders

When I decided some months back that I wanted to start the new year off by teaching about creation, it was the symmetry of the idea that appealed to me: New year, new beginning, fresh start, all that. I had assumed that I would focus on the second creation story, in Genesis 2, the one involving Adam and Eve, because that story is so rich in in allegory and offers so much in the way of material about knowledge, fall, human frailty, sexual relations, etc.

But damned if spirit didn’t stop me at Genesis 1.

In the first creation story, the one told in Genesis 1, God creates heaven and earth and everything they constitute and contain by speaking. With his first words, “Let there be light,” establish both something that did not previously exist and a distinction between that new thing and a thing that apparently did exist previously, darkness (we read before God’s first words that “darkness was over the deep.”) There is a lot to consider in those first three verses of Genesis: The paradoxical notion that the word “light” existed before the thing “light,” for example, a notion that Borges has contemplated in his writings on the Kabbalah. Similarly, as one reads these words closely, one sees that the concept of depth and the thing it describes, water, are primal, that they exist before God begins issuing the series of commands that constitute the six days of creation. Doctoral dissertations could be -- and I suspect have been – written about the paradoxes contained in these lines.

But I want to focus right now on what God does with his words in Genesis 1. Through the act of creative speech He establishes a set of divisions and distinctions: Light//darkness (1:3), day//night (1:5 and again, with more particularity, in 1:14), the water above//the water below (1:6), land//water (1:9), sun//moon (1:14). In the midst of these oppositional pairs, he establishes plant life, animal life and finally humans.

Humans are created with a built-in oppositional pairing: “Male and female He made them.” (1:27). Presumably, He also built gender distinction into most animal life as He created it, although this is not mentioned.

Thus, it is possible to view the creation story in Genesis 1 as the establishment of a set of borders and boundaries. And in this light, the subsequent history of humanity can be seen as an effort to both maintain and traverse these borders.

I want to make a brief point here, before I move on. Although these pairings are set up in opposition, there is built-in tension in that each is dependent on its opposite for its meaning. Light would have no meaning were it not contrasted with darkness. Thus the very act of setting up distinctions and borders enfolds a unity, in that the distinction cannot be maintained except by the breaking down of a unity that nevertheless remains comprehensible. Paradox is built into the system.

I can’t tell you why, but thinking about the Creation led me back to a book I had bought a while back and put aside: Mark C. Taylor’s Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. Taylor is chairman of the Department of Religion at Columbia University, and a noted deconstructionist writer. I had first heard of him, and read a few articles by him, back when I was in graduate school in Architecture and was introduced to deconstruction as a way of looking at and thinking about buildings. I wasn’t ready for Taylor at the time; the density of his arguments baffled me. But reading him now, I feel I am getting a sense of where he is coming from and what he is after in his writings.

In this book, Taylor tackles the dissolution of oppositional distinctions in a complex and fascinating way, focusing on the dissolution of the Godman boundary in Hegelian and post-Hegelian philosophy. He’s not particularly concerned with architecture in Erring – he addresses that topic directly in later works such as Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion – but nevertheless this thinking and reading about boundaries and borders led me back to concepts in my architectural training that now begin to make greater sense to me.

In writing about the oppositional distinctions in Genesis 1, I used the typographical mechanism of the “double pipes” (//), to represent the separation of concepts. The reason for double pipes rather than single is that I want to make the point that the border comprises its own territory. There is space here, between day and night, heaven and earth, land and sea. And that space is in some ways analogous to the space marked and encapsuled in the architectural edge.

Architecture can, in some ways, be thought of as the creation of boundaries, insideoutside being the most obvious, but by no means the only one. But those boundaries take on a variety of forms and qualities that gives architecture its meanings. Solid borders – stone walls, for example – form one sort of barrier, both physical and visual, while glazing, windows, doors, ledges, curbs provide a quite different edge condition. Some of these borders can be transected visually; some allow the passage of air and/or light; still others invite transit, physical crossing.

Architects often like to think of themselves as creators of space, but in fact space is a result of the erection and manipulation of boundaries. As stated, those boundaries encompass a broad spectrum of permeability. And many of those boundaries are themselves alive with activity.

In modern constructions, the walls, ceilings and floors generally encapsule the “works” of the building: The wires, pipes, ducts and other conduits and mechanisms that enable the building to operate. Other architectural boundaries trap space in distinctive and useful ways: Alcoves, closets, cabinets, benches, shelves, window seats, stairways. These are often seen as elements that give an architectural work its character, that make it more than just functional as shelter.

I look at the boundaries created by the God of Genesis 1 in a similar way. Between darkness and light, between day and night, land and sea, sun and moon is the space of the mind, the “works” of human existence. We move back and forth across these borders through thought, speech, writing, art, music, science. And in the process we both reinforce the borders and violate them.

Our repeated passage stitches the oppositional pairs together in a way that can be, I think, compared to the stitching that join two pieces of fabric, or to writing that contrasts and compares seeming opposites, finding in them both common ground and areas of irreconcilable difference.
In architectural, one of the most powerful occurrences is the corner, the place where two barriers meet. Corners are often the site of extraordinary attention, of reinforcement and emphasis in both structure and detail.

I would argue that here is a similar kind of power that exerts itself in the crossing of multiple generative borders. Consider, for example, the experience of sunrise or sunset at the beach. Many people find an ineffable spiritual energy in the space of this dual border crossing. Baptisms, weddings and other holy ceremonies are often conducted in this temporalspatial meeting place. X marks the spot of transcendence.

These crossings, of course, bring to mind the metaphor of the New Testament cross, that instrument of death that is seen by believers to give eternal life, the means of execution and fulfillment for a being acknowledged as both heavenly and earthly. Since the image of the cross has often been a problem for me – putting as it does a focus on torture and death rather than resurrection and life – the understanding of the cross as a metaphor for the human challenge in this alternate way is comforting.

There is a lot more that can be said on this topic, and I hope to say more as I continue preparations for my class next Sunday.