Who Are We?

Human identity is one of the big questions – and the second question posed to Prof. Heidi Maibom (Philosophy, University of Cincinnati) and Prof. N. T. Wright (Theology and New Testament Studies, University of St. Andrews) in their 2017 Veritas Forum dialogue A Courageous Conversation About Life’s Biggest Questions. The opening exchange in the discussion of this question is embedded below. The clip opens with Prof. Maibom. Prof. Wright’s comments start at about 3:48.

As he did in response to the question on knowledge, N. T. Wright comes back to the importance of love. We are shaped by community and relationships. Love is a key component of Christian community – although certainly not unique to this community alone.

I want to say again, at the risk of sounding like a cracked gramophone record, … I am loved, therefore I am. And I put it that way, rather than I love therefore I am, though I would say that as well, because it seems to me that as humans we discover who we are when somebody loves us or some creature loves us, it might be a dog, it might be some other nonhuman creature, who makes us feel more truly who we are. But ideally in some kind of family or friendship or ecclesial or communal context we discover who we are because of other people’s love at whatever level. And it seems to me that has to do with the Christian idea, which in the nature of the case is not just a Christian idea, but sheds light on other things, of being made in order to be part of community, of discovering who we are in and for a community. Because, of course, if you are loved, then the most natural thing to do is to love in return and in turn to be part of that wider community of love.

Now one of the biblical phrases, which sums up a lot of what it means to be human, is a rather odd sounding technical phrase called the royal priesthood. The priests and kings in the ancient world were the crucial mediators between the divine and human, between the transcendent and the immanent, or whatever. But in the book of Genesis, the idea of this hierarchy, these very few people in a society who mediate between God and the world is democratized and all humans are to be people who stand in between or at the convergence of heaven and earth. With heaven seen here … as the thing which is the other dimension, which is mysterious, which is around us and which actually desires to make its home with us. So that as Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.” So, for me humans are discovering constantly who they are by loving, and particularly by being loved, and in that process stand at the intersection of heaven and earth, with responsibilities as it were in both directions. And the responsibility of caring for other creatures … for me it is more about actually discovering the extraordinary value of a self, but the paradoxical value because the most important thing you can do with your self is to give it away. And that is what love is all about.

In the conversation that follows it is clear that Prof. Maibom, while disagreeing with the role of God, agrees on the importance of community in making us the creatures we are. Wright goes on in response to discussion of identity reflecting on the pain caused by dementia and other mind-altering diseases.

Just a bit into this segment (44:48 in the full video) Wright comments:

There is continuity, such that if that continuity is broken by a terrible accident of another sort which results in somebody having, as we say, a different personality then there is a real shock wave goes through the community of other lives that person then touches or is touched by where they don’t know who this is any more. When somebody has had a real serious illness that is a problem. And I think one of the reasons we find dementia so difficult to deal with in families and so on is because this doesn’t seem to be the same person we have known and loved. And that’s part of the brokenness of the world, to which the only answer of course is more generous love more ability to go out and meet this person where they now are and assure them of safety and love and so on, though that’s tough. … Some of the most alive people I have ever known are people who in that sense make sure they are going out and living for others and looking out for others. And who as result, seem to grow in themselves, precisely because they’re not taking themselves in a selfish sense seriously.

As our parents age – and even on occasion as our children move out on their own – this one hits home. The only answer is more generous love – reaching out to people where they are now. Change is inevitable as we live, grow, and eventually die.

Love, of course, runs through the Bible, and especially the New Testament. As we read in 1 John 4 “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Love shapes us and forms us. The absence of love has devastating consequences in human development and human society.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

You may also comment on Who Are We? at Jesus Creed.

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Love and Knowing?

I am leading a discussion class at our church using a Veritas Forum dialogue at the University of Cincinnati between N.T. Wright and Philosophy professor Heidi Maibom. It is an interesting conversation – far deeper than it seems at first glance or listen. After giving an introduction to their respective worldviews (previous post), Wright and Maibom dive into the first big question: How do we know what we know? You can find the whole Veritas Forum conversation here. The link should start at this question. The discussion of knowing runs from 22:45-35:38. An edited excerpt with Wright’s comments on knowing is also available. and embedded below.

Wright introduces his thoughts on this question using the concept of love. It seems a strange way to think about knowledge and knowing. It certainly struck me as a challenge to understand – but it makes sense. As they go on Prof. Maibom doesn’t agree with the language of love, but does agree with the general sentiment.

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The Eighth Day

In Chapter 6 of Early Christian Readings of Genesis One Craig Allert turns to readings of the days of Genesis in the early Church Fathers. He looks at three writers, Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 120-185 exact dates uncertain), Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373), and Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329-379) – spending the longest with Basil. Although these three appear to take the days of creation literally – with Basil commenting on the length of a day as 24 hours – the focus isn’t on material creation in any concrete sense. Rather patterns and types, apologetics against prevailing errors of doctrine, and/or the theological significance of creation are at the forefront.

Theophilus is the earliest of the three. His focus is clearly on the patterns and types he discerns in the text, although he also notes that the order counters the philosophers who will put God aside. The plants come before the sun and stars and thus cannot be produced by these luminaries. God himself is the source of plants. Allert gives a sampling of the types and patterns that dominate Theophilus’s comments on the days of creation: The sun is a type of God, always full not waxing and waning. The moon is a type of man and “waxes as a pattern of the future resurrection.” (p. 231) The stars created on the fourth day also carry lessons: “The disposition of the stars has correspondence to the arrangement and rank of those who keep the law and commandments of God. The brightest stars, which remain in place and are unswerving, exist in imitation of the prophets. The stars of secondary brightness are types of righteous people. But the planets, the stars “which pass over and flee from one position to another,” are a type of the men who wander from God.” (p. 231)

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Creation is Much More!

Quite a number of years ago David Wilkerson published an excellent article in Christianity Today: Bigger Than We Think. The archived article is only available with a subscription, but we can consider the major points here. The Christian doctrine of creation goes far deeper that just explaining how the world began. It goes far deeper than explaining the origin of life or the origin of the diversity of life. David Wilkinson received a PhD in Theoretical Astrophysics from the University of Durham and a PhD in Systematic Theology from Cambridge University where he explored Christian eschatology.

From the CT article:

The Christian doctrine of Creation has often been hijacked by controversies over how old the universe is. It has been hollowed out by the theory that God simply ignites the universe and then goes off for a cup of coffee, never touching his masterwork again. It is interesting that attacks on belief in a Creator, whether from Hawking, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, or Lawrence M. Krauss’s recent A Universe from Nothing, tend to target this diminished deity. But the Bible has a much bigger understanding of God as Creator. Not only does the doctrine of Creation feature in Scripture beyond just Genesis 1, God’s creative activity permeates every moment of the history of the universe.

Scientific explanations can only go so far. To address the big questions we have to go deeper into the transcendent meaning of the facts. In this clip from Test of Faith (an excellent resource by the way) Wilkerson goes to George Lucas and Star Wars and to the scientific description of a kiss to explain what he means.

At 2:04 in the video:

What is the scientific definition of a kiss? Well a kiss is the approach of two pairs of lips, the reciprocal transmission of carbon dioxide and microbes, and the juxtaposition of two orbicular muscles in a state of contraction. That is a kiss in scientific terms. But if I go to my wife and say to her, “Allison, I’d love to get together with you for a mutual transmission of carbon dioxide and microbes” she would say “Get lost.”

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The Christian Story as Worldview

Christians, those of us who are, have a worldview that is defined by the Christian story as told in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation and through the church (the community of Christians throughout the ages). Unfortunately, articulating this story is easier said than done.

About two years ago N.T. Wright participated in a Veritas Forum dialogue at the University of Cincinnati with Philosophy professor Heidi Maibom. (You can find the whole conversation here.) Prof. Maibom presented a point of view quite common in our world today. Put briefly, she holds an immanent worldview. All that exists is the world we experience. We are human animals, part of a great chain of being. We live and die. A brief summary of the purpose in life is given in the middle of her introduction:

I agree with Aristotle that the ultimate good is happiness. … But the flip side of that, of course, is that there is one thing that is really terrible and that is suffering. … If we are going to in a very few minutes, talk about the good and bad in life: Good is happiness, bad is suffering. However, if something is good, like happiness, it is not just good for me; it is good for every creature capable of happiness. The same thing is true of suffering. And so to put things very briefly, I think that what we ought to do is that we ought to increase the happiness for all creatures, all living creatures, not just those that we like, that we hang out with, not just our fellow humans, but all creatures capable of happiness and suffering.

You can listen to Prof. Maibom’s full statement from 4:20 to 9:40 at the link above.

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Atheism is an Age Old Problem

One of the most interesting insights is the nothing new under the sun phenomenon, at least when it comes to human nature. We’ve been working through Craig Allert’s new book Early Christian Readings of Genesis One. Several years ago I read and posted on Peter Bouteneff’s book Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives. In this book Bouteneff looks at several of the early church fathers including the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil and the two Gregories, Gregory of Nazianus and Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s brother … as well as Cyril of Jerusalem and Athanasius. In this post we will look at Athanasius and at Basil and their focus when it comes to the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. What follows is a lightly edited repost from our original series on Bouteneff’s book as I enjoy the Florida sunshine visiting family.

The Nicene council of 325 AD was driven by controversy surrounding the views of Arius, the nature of Jesus, and the Trinity. Athanasius (ca. 298 – 373) was at the council as a young man (probably between 27 and 29) and the shadow of Arianism impacted his approach for five decades. Basil (ca. 330 – 379) is truly post-Nicene, but the Arian controversy still loomed large throughout his lifetime.

Athanasius used Genesis 1 to emphasize creation out of nothing. The creation of heavens and earth is contrasted with the timeless begetting of the Son. Athanasius was not entirely consistent in either his concept or presentation of Adam. God created Adam with his coeternal Son. Adam was the beginning of the universal genealogy and the lineage of Christ. Clearly Athanasius saw Adam a a unique individual the first created at the genesis of the human race. But … he did not see in Adam the cause for all human pain and suffering, the one who sidetracked God’s perfect creation. Bouteneff summarizes that for Athanasius “he was also the first sinner, although he did not determine the sin of subsequent generations.

Athanasius also saw in the pre-fall Adam and indication of the age to come. It is here, however, that Bouteneff finds him less than consistent. The pre-fall state could be one of purity and communion with God. In another place he contrasts it with the age to come. In the context of his oration against Arian brings in the condition of mankind:

Mankind then is perfected in Him and restored, as it was made at the beginning, nay, with greater grace. For, on rising from the dead, we shall no longer fear death, but shall ever reign in Christ in the heavens. And this has been done, since the own Word of God Himself, who is from the Father, has put on the flesh, and become man. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPCF) 2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters p. 385)

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Posted in Christianity, Creation

Ex Nihilo!

In Chapter 5 of Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins John Walton argued at length that in the opening chapter of Genesis God is ordering the cosmos and creating sacred space. It does not describe creation ex nihilo – out of nothing. In fact, Walton argues that it does not really describe material creation at all. Whether this is accurate or not, it is clear that both creation from nothing and an interpretation of Genesis 1 in the context of creation from nothing has a long history in the Christian church. In Chapter 5 of Early Christian Readings of Genesis One Craig Allert describes the importance of creation from nothing in the writings of the early church fathers.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

The interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2 to support the doctrine of creation from nothing was important to many of the early church fathers. The Greeks held several different views of creation with two major schools of thought. Lucretius provides an example of one school with a cosmos described as an accident with matter-in-motion explanations, infinite universe, transient cosmos, flat earth, and an evolution of process within the cosmos. He is explicit in his denial of divine agency and divine purpose. Plato and Aristotle provide examples of the other school where the cosmos has is unique, has purpose, is finite and either eternal or repeating with a spherical earth and often an immaterial soul. (summarized from p. 209) If the earth is thought to be created by a god or gods, it was produced from and constrained by preexisting matter.

This means that Plato’s creator is not really free, because he was limited to matter that possessed certain properties and dictated the way in which he could use it. The substance with which the creator worked did not have a starting point and thus the creator did not give the world its existence in the full ontological sense. Not only was Plato’s creator limited by preexistent matter, he was also limited by the space in which the matter existed. This space possessed movement and expansion and thus change. (pp. 211-212)

Neither of these options were acceptable in the early church any more than they would be today. Given this background we can see the importance of the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” expanded in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” To acknowledge God as creator of everything was and is an important element of Christian belief.

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