The Embrace of Evil

France_Paris_Notre-Dame-Adam_and_Eve-dsHaving explored the Old Testament view of God and of the nature of humanity in chapters 3 and 4, Iain Provan (Seriously Dangerous Religion) turns to the age old problem of evil and suffering in chapter 5. If there is a personal, benevolent God why do evil and suffering mark the world?

Genesis 3 plays an important role in Provan’s approach to this question … “it is the embrace of evil, our biblical authors claim, that explains much of the suffering that arises in the world.” (p. 106) The word “much” is quite intentional, and quite significant. Provan puts forward a view that many will find surprising. He does not think the biblical authors had any intention of attributing all pain and suffering, particularly so-called natural evil including earthquakes, windstorms, accidents or disease, to the fall of the man and woman.  The proposed absence of these in the initial good creation of Genesis 1 and 2 is an ideal that we read into the text, not one that is derived from the text. So-called “natural” evil then is not the result of God’s upheaval and curse of all creation, with fangs, stings, cancer, earthquakes, and tsunamis just punishment for the sin of a man and woman in a garden. Rather this “natural” evil is simply part of God’s good creation.  Some level of toil and suffering is intrinsic to  the world God made. The biblical authors did not see natural phenomena as troublesome, however much they might concern us. Genesis 3 is not intended to address the problem of natural suffering.

Death is an enemy to mankind, but Provan notes, in common with many other Christian scholars, that death is not foreign to the earthling in 2:17. God does not have to explain the concept, the earthling knows already.  Immortality is a potential state, a divine gift from God, not the natural state of the original humans in Genesis. The presence of the tree of life, and the need to exile the humans from the garden to keep them from the tree, makes this clear.  Genesis 3 is not intended to explain the presence of death or human mortality, although it does shed light on the absence of God-granted immortality.

What then is the question addressed in Genesis 3?

320px-Cerastes_gasperetti_(horned)The Entry and Embrace of Evil. Provan suggests that it is the increase in suffering that comes from the embrace of evil by God’s creatures. The best way to lay out Provan’s argument is to let him speak for himself. The embrace of evil starts with a nonhuman creature.

Genesis 3 opens by facing this reality directly: evil has, indeed, entered the world. It introduces us immediately and surprisingly to a creature of God who is apparently not under God’s sovereign control nor under human dominion but who has apparently already “gone bad.” (p. 109)

The serpent is associated with chaos and darkness in the ancient Near East, but Genesis makes it clear that this snake is merely one of God’s creatures. It carries no divinity or near divinity of its own.

The authors of Genesis, then, are clearly alluding to an image that has deep roots in their cultural setting in the ancient Near East. The Genesis serpent is clearly not a god—that is explicit. Nevertheless, he does seem to represent dark, personal, but nonhuman forces that Genesis 1–2 has not led us to expect can exist in cosmos that is “good.” … For the authors of Genesis, then, the existence of evil in the cosmos is to be attributed to the misuse of something that is intrinsic to the cosmos: the moral freedom of some of its creatures. (p. 110)

The humans in turn exercise their moral freedom, at the snake’s suggestion, to turn from God.  Provan sees the knowledge of good and evil as associated with the idea of adult independence from a parent.  “It is the wisdom that might enable a person to make his or her own judgments—autonomously.” (p. 113)  While it is good for human children to grow up, it is not good when humans seek after independence from God.

They want this other kind of wisdom too, and they are prepared to disobey God to get it. In doing so, they reveal that they have essentially decided no longer to be image bearers at all. They want to be gods, in the fullest sense, rather than representing and mediating God to creation. They want the autonomy that wisdom brings.

… Wisdom itself is not problematic—but grasping after wisdom out of a desire to be like God certainly is. (p. 114)

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Posted in Genesis, Humanness, The Fall | Tagged

Bacon’s Bequest

Dealing With DarwinA number of weeks ago I introduced a new book by David N. Livingstone Dealing With Darwin. In this book Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast, explores the importance of location and local context on the way Darwinian evolution was received, embraced, or rejected. His chapter on the reaction to Darwin in Canada, specifically among Presbyterians primarily in Toronto, looks in particular at the role a pragmatic Baconian view of science played. The overall reaction was mixed, with some making peace with Darwin and others reacting against his theories – but both approaches reflected this pragmatism and empiricism. Science is primarily, so the reasoning goes, an inductive process of collecting facts and using these facts, not a fanciful theory driven endeavor. Darwin’s theory of evolution departed from this path. Speculative hypothesizing isn’t real science.

John William Dawson – a geologist and a Presbyterian born in Canada, educated in Edinburgh, and settled at McGill in Montreal was explicit, and decidedly negative about Darwin. His complaints were grounded in scientific method, philosophy, and anthropology. First, he considered Darwin’s methodology to be bad – “one that sacrificed the “careful induction” of hard facts to “wild and fanciful” speculation” (p. 92)

Darwin had violated the sound principles of Baconian induction and had too whole-heartedly joined forces with that breed of scientific “adventurers” who, like mythical suicidal lemmings, rushed headlong “into an unknown and fathomless abyss.” (p. 93)

On the philosophical side he found the idea that natural selection, struggle, toil, and survival of the fittest were responsible for the diversity of life appalling. “Nature was not so cruel, so ruthless, so tyrannical; beauty and harmony, not pitiless brutality were her distinguishing hallmarks.” (p. 92) As a geologist Dawson was comfortable with the idea of an ancient earth – he read the days of Genesis 1 as ages or epochs of creation. He was also comfortable with some limited transformation – what today might be called microevolution as opposed to macroevolution. But he was adamantly opposed to the absence of purpose in Darwin’s theory, “he insisted that nature should be read teleologically” and “that evolution was unacceptable because “it removes from the study of nature the ideas of final cause and purpose.”” (p. 96)

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Posted in Evolution, Problems for Faith | Tagged

Who Are Man and Woman?

Lucas Cranach the Elder Garden of EdenThe next chapter of Iain Provan’s book Seriously Dangerous Religion looks at the nature of humanity in the Old Testament and particularly at the relationship of male and female comprising humanity. His focus is on Genesis 1-2, but expands to consider the entire OT as well. Genesis 1 and 2 are concerned with proper functions and relationships in God’s good creation, not with a scientific, historical report of the sequence of creation. The different orders of creation present in Genesis 1 and 2 provide a first clue to this purpose of the texts , but there are others as well. Central to this is the proper role and function of human kind in God’s creation.

The first important point is that the biblical view of humanity stands in stark contrast to the surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures. The Mesopotamian cultures portrayed humanity as created to work for the gods, as slave labor to provide their needs and free them from drudgery. We dug into a lot of this in the recent series on Richard Middleton’s book The Liberating Image, particularly the post Humans Created to Serve the gods?, so I won’t repeat it here.

The Necessary Gardener. In contrast to the ancient Mesopotamian view, humans represent the high point of creation in the OT view.

One of the ways in which Genesis indicates this is precisely to move them out of the role of being caretakers of the divine image in a temple and into the role of being divine images in a temple themselves. (p. 80)

Clearly this starts in Genesis 1 and 2, but Psalm 8 may summarize the biblical view the best.

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.

Provan sees the divine image as a property of humanity as a whole – all human beings together are called to rule creation. This is a democratized and community based function. This is reflected in Psalm 8 where the psalmist “recognizes the extraordinary nature of the situation, and he praises God for it, for each and every has been raised to the status of divinity and royalty from the status of only a slave.” (p. 84)

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Posted in Genesis, Humanness, Image of God | Tagged

Is Grace Vanishing?

YanceyPhilip Yancey has a new book coming out Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?. This book tackles a topic that is down to earth real in my world and makes an interesting complement to Tuesday’s post Coming Soon … “The Talk”?. In his NY Times opinion piece David Barash argues that science has undermined any rational basis for faith in God and describes a no nonsense approach that makes this clear to his students. He can get away with this because his view is no longer an uncommon sentiment in our western world. Many (most?) of his peers, while not so abrupt, will agree with his conclusion. In Western societies many go a step further and see Christian faith as a net negative in society. Frankly, Christian faith is losing traction in society. It has lost traction in Europe and Canada where far fewer than half find religion a positive influence. And it will likely continue to lose traction in the US.

This is a situation we should worry about. We don’t need hand-wringing and a persecution complex. We do need to explore the reasons for the current state of affairs and then appropriate responses. This is where Yancey’s book digs in. From the Amazon synopsis:

Yancey explores what may have contributed to hostility toward Evangelicals, especially in their mixing of faith and politics instead of embracing more grace-filled ways of presenting the gospel. He offers illuminating stories of how faith can be expressed in ways that disarm even the most cynical critics. Then he explores what is Good News and what is worth preserving in a culture that thinks it has rejected Christian faith.

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Posted in Conversation, Evangelicalism, Problems for Faith | Tagged

Coming Soon … “The Talk”?

How do we prepare our people, young and old, for “The Talk”?

ThinkerThere was an interesting opinion piece in the NY Times a week ago. David Barash, an evolutionary biologist and psychology professor at the University of Washington described how he gives “The Talk” to his undergraduate biology students: God, Darwin and My College Biology Class. “The Talk” isn’t about sex, but about religion and evolution. More importantly, about what he sees as the incompatibility of science and religion. As an evolutionary biologist and psychologist he doesn’t see any real space for religion. Even the idea of two non-overlapping magisteria (noma) put forth by Stephen Jay Gould is falling by the wayside according to Barash. I’ll highlight a few pieces of his argument here with some commentary to start a conversation. The whole piece fleshes it out a bit more.

As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.

What are the potent pillars? First, is gaps in explanation for various phenomena including the diversity of life. In Barash’s view the presence of a “natural” explanation and mechanism removes the need for God as designer filling in the gaps. “Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.” He takes a view that seems common both among scientists and, unfortunately, Christians that natural explanations, mechanistic connections, and the action of God are mutually exclusive options.

Second, humans are not special. Humans are thoroughly natural, completely normal products of the material processes of evolution.

Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. … Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

Hawk_eating_voleIn addition to these demolished pillars, he sees a third knockout punch wiping God off the map entirely – the presence of pain and unmerited suffering in the world.

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

And his conclusion:

I CONCLUDE The Talk by saying that … if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

There are no gaps, humans are natural animals, and unmerited suffering is a part of the natural world. These remove God from serious consideration. The NY Times online has published some letters taking issue with Barash’s conclusions – and I have some comments as well.

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Posted in Problems for Faith

Who Is God? – The OT View

IMG_1577dsChapter three of Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion explores the Old Testament view of God and the way this view differed from other ancient Near Eastern views and indeed other views past and present around the world. This is a foundation on which our understanding of Christian faith rests, expanded by an understanding of Jesus as God’s Messiah … but that comes later.

The ancient Near Eastern culture saw a pantheon or board of Gods, not unlike humans who used the world as something of a sporting field as they fought among themselves, subject to normal vices of greed, power, and sex. There are chaotic battling deities with mankind in the middle. Provan points out how the biblical view, the view held by the biblical authors, is very different. He makes several major points.

God is One. There are no other gods in the heavens, no other gods on earth, no other gods under the earth. The creation story in Genesis 1 does not regard creation as sharing in divinity. The world is entirely attributed to God as creator. The same view is echoed throughout the Old Testament in the Psalms and in the Prophets. Psalm 139:7-8 “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

Biblical faith leaves polytheism behind. God is One and not many … There is something of a divine assembly still apparent in some Old Testament texts … The divine assembly is not made up of gods, however, and its members are not given any real authority or jurisdiction in the cosmos. They are merely God’s advisors, referred to elsewhere in the tradition as “angels,” who can be sent from time to time on errands on God’s behalf. (p. 53)

God has no point of origin within the cosmos. God does not arise from a pre-existing thing. In most if not all of the origins stories of the ancient Near East and other areas of the world the original deity emerges out of the cosmos.

Throughout the ancient Near East, deity was thoroughly integrated into the cosmos. All the gods had origins within the cosmos, and the primeval waters were an important (sometimes the ultimate) point of divine origin. The Egyptian text Ritual of Amun illustrates this well. Here, the first god arises out of the waters, separates himself from them, and then further divides internally into the “many.” (p. 53)

This is an important point, and one I hadn’t fully appreciated before reading this chapter by Provan. It fits with the set of origin stories I have read, including the Mesopotamian epics.

God is sovereign over creation. Again when we turn to the ancient Near Eastern culture, their gods were not really sovereign over the cosmos. They operated in specific spheres, within the constraints imposed by the nature of the cosmos as the ancient audience understood it. The biblical God is not a manager, but the creator of all.

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Meant to be Experienced

John 1 rdsI’ve been especially busy the last week, and traveling today. Rather than struggle to come up with something new, this is a repeat of one of my favorite posts, lightly edited. You may or may not agree with my ranking of the post – but the topic is worth some consideration.

I’ve run through a few different titles for this post – perhaps “I’ve Found the Solution!” … or even more provocatively “We’ve Been Suckered?” … among others. I’ve settled, however, for a relatively sedate title. There is a common theme that runs through much of the discussion of the conflict between science and faith. It is a theme that extends far deeper, and leads to an assumption, within certain circles, that the Christian faith is fragile to investigation, and that the Bible is itself the root of many of these problems. We battle over the Bible, defend a doctrine of scripture at all costs, dissect the text holding it up to a microscope looking for nuggets of truth, or grasp it tightly as a foundation (proof text?) for theology we hold dear.

Two of the comments on a post from a couple of years ago Teenage Christians and the Bible can help set the table:

I was an “unshakeable” teen a few years ago. Then I read the bible too much. It was clearly more complicated than what I had been lead to believe. Now I am “unsettled”. And only 25.

And a response to this comment

#3 reminds me of one of my most memorable moments in teaching the Bible: When a Danish student said, “I don’t read the Bible because I don’t want to lose my faith.” Clearly he had faith. He experienced it in a ‘Gospeling’ community. And it was transformative. Yet he knew within the Text, there were many disturbing stories and conflicting pictures of God–at least how he read it, and he protected his faith by not reading the Bible. This has always stayed with me as I minister and teach here. I don’t think he is alone.

He isn’t alone, nor is the first commenter. We’ve been taught what the Bible “must be”, and know the “right” answer to Nappa’s survey … but haven’t let the Bible be what it is, and we haven’t learned what it says.

It isn’t just teenagers though. It is adults, both old and young, laypeople and pastors as well. Richard Dawkins with others began The Clergy Project to provide peer support for pastors who found themselves losing faith (something he would like to encourage). A common theme in many of the stories, but not all, is that the Bible itself led to loss of faith. … Not ignoring the Bible, but reading the Bible.

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Posted in Bible, Problems for Faith