Saturday, January 16, 2010

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.”

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