Thursday, February 07, 2013

Introduction to Christian Doctrine 101

My old friend, and recent re-acquaintance, Shane Pennells, purveyor of the blog The Grumpy Christian, has posted a very well composed reflection on where the best place to begin an examination of Christianity lies. The seemingly insurmountable problem of giving a particular definition to a universal concept like 'God', which is so universal that nothing particular can or ought to be said about it, he reflects upon in the context of a Christian insistence that God is personal. His conclusion is a perfect accounting of an old phrase summarizing the essence of an intelligent faith. 'Faith [or mental assent to something] seeks understanding' rather than demanding proof.

To say something more or to demand something more would be something other than faith, or faith in something else. It would be, I might add here, something like the ability of one's own rational faculty to close the distance between thought and the things we think about, such that one could say with complete, unshakable confidence, 'I KNOW ABOUT THAT' or 'I KNOW THIS ABOUT THAT'. Which is never going to happen, as we all know; or, at least, as becomes the modest human proportions of our mental ability.

I might flatter myself to think Shane was responding to something I posted a little less than a month ago on 'The Ontological Proof for the Existence of God'. Whatever the case may be, I want to respond to Shane about where the best place to begin an examination of Christianity is, and maybe flatter him in the process. If nothing else, I hope it will cheer him up.


Where does one begin? Well, begin in the beginning. If we are going to start giving an account of what Christianity is, we might open the Bible to the first chapter of the first book, which would be the well-trod and oft-maligned ways of Genesis 1. Here we encounter our first major difficulty. The Bible itself doesn't begin with the first words or the first pages in the volume we call the Bible. It can't. The text itself is quite inanimate; which is to say, lifeless. It's not going anywhere or doing anything. I would argue, in fact, the writers of Genesis 1 recognized a book could never begin with a book: not the Bible, not a history of the Judeo-Christian tradition, nor even a riveting novel by Robert Ludlum. Other examples could be offered, but I won't labour the point. Every book ever written has to begin with you, or with someone like you, the reader. And more specifically, not with you, the reader, as an object of study; but with you, the reader, reading...reading anything you want, though here we should read the beginning of the Bible.

Genesis 1 contains, in highly structured, poetic narrative, the account of how, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In short: the creation of everything that exists, including you, the reader. We can set aside the apparent archaism of the text. Genesis 1 may not easily yield up a neo-Darwinian account of biological evolution, harmonizing genetic theory with natural selection; but it is nevertheless very contemporary. In certain respects, it is more contemporary than a neo-Darwinian evolutionary account; though not that it is contemporary with the current scientific consensus, but because it is contemporary with you and I, as living breathing persons, in a world populated by many things.

Once you step over the stumbling block of a 'rigorous scientific methodology' and the need to compare and contrast everything with the latest papers being published in journal Nature, the message of Genesis 1 is fairly explicable. Except for the bit of God creating at the beginning, and the human being created in the image of God at the end, everything described in between is exceedingly mundane. Here's a link to the text so you can read for yourself: Genesis 1.

The pairings of light and darkness are held up alongside the pairings of day and night. Land is divided from sea and sky. Fish go in the sea, mammals on the land, and birds in the sky. Way up high are the sun, moon, and stars. Some of the ways these things are talked about seem counterintuitive, I grant you that. Calling the sky a 'vault', for example, and dividing waters above the sky from waters below  does sound a little strange. But from where I am standing, that's a pretty good attempt to describe the water cycle without knowing too much about evaporation and the molecular construction of clouds. Tilt your head back the next time you are in an open field and look up: the sky does look like one big vault stretching from horizon to horizon to horizon.

This is the world that you were born into, minus the agricultural, commercial, industrial, and technological development that attends a rapidly developing urban civilization. That is to say, minus both the creative ingenuity, and also the stupidity, of humans beings. It's a perfectly pristine, natural world, ready for the human being to cultivate, dig up, and build in, which, in good time, humanity does get around to doing.

The two bookends of the poetic narrative, i.e. how in the beginning God creates and when, on the sixth day, God creates a creature in his own image, require a little more mental dexterity. On the one hand, human beings are obviously created, just like everything else. On the other hand, human beings seem to be set apart from the rest of created things in some way deserving of the title 'the image of God'. More specifically, something 'godlike' sets the human race apart from everything other thing on the face of the earth.

The answer is ready to hand; I already touched upon it a couple of paragraphs earlier. Humanity is creative. Granted, humanity not calling stuff into existence out of thin air, but it is working with already existent natural materials in unexpected, sometimes wonderful, and at other times not-so-wonderful ways. And if the human races is responsible for all that artificial stuff that clutters the spaces we live in and the skylines we look at, a question might quite justly, one might even say naturally, be raised about who or what created all the natural stuff. No doubt someone is going to jump in and point out that the question can't be answered, or the question ought not be asked (because it can't be answered). For the time being, however, let's all be good citizens of the human race and walk a path other citizens have laid out for us to walk.


What about the six days? Isn't that a huge problem? No, not really. I should qualify my statement and say that it is a huge problem if and only if you expect Genesis 1 to provide a scientifically-verifiable, natural historical account of the absolute beginnings of the world we live in and share. But it's not a problem if the calendar week is seven days long. And the calendar week is seven days long, so it shouldn't be a problem. Let me explain:

The first chapter of Genesis does not provide a scientifically-verifiable account of the origins of the universe. It wasn't meant to, so it won't. I say this in spite of very vigorous protestations of 19th century, 20th, and now 21st century Christian 'geologists' to the contrary. The first chapter of Genesis does provided with an account of a moral order, however, a basic guideline of how human beings are supposed to orient themselves with respect to the rest of the natural world, and towards each other. One of the very basic things that must be coordinated in communities is the temporal order.

Genesis 1 ought to be read alongside Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, which are the two places were the kernal of the Mosaic Law is presented. The Law is also known by another name: The Ten Commandments. One of those ten commandments deals with the command to rest on the Sabbath day, once every seven days. Why bother rest at all? 'For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.' (Ex. 20:11) The order of divine creating sets the pattern for the order of human working. Note that this single sentence also refers back to another significant feature of the creation narrative in Genesis: the very mundane division between sea, land, and sky. So if you know how long a week is, and if you can see why lakes and oceans differ from forests and prairies and also from the sky, you have the essence of the Genesis 1.


Of course, there is more to it than that. These simple starts are built on do draw out a much more developed account of how people ought to live. For example, humanity is sexually di-morphic; they are to 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it'. The difference between human beings and other living animals can also be teased out. Humanity is called to 'Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.' With a little more mental effort, it's shouldn't be hard to see why, if human beings can rule over other living creatures, they ought not do the same to other human beings. Though we take from animals, we ought not steal from other human beings. Though we kill animals, we ought not murder other human beings. The way sexual division of humanity is described in the passage also suggestive of matrimonial exclusivity. No committing adultery, in other words.

Now, you or I may not like one or more of these commands; or we may not appreciate the stringency of their application. Some of the things said, or some of their possible implications, may cramp our style. Whether we like it or not, however, is entirely immaterial to this exercise. Human beings have a capacity to think about things without putting them into action, which is all that is being asked here. What is absolutely, crucially, vitally important to keep in mind here is that these texts aren't describing physical laws of motion or the skeletal structure of a dissected animal. The import of what is being discussed is moral, and not necessarily scientific beyond the mere fact of describing a very mundane existence.

Another thing we can note is that none of these moral directives sounds very 'religious'. But that's because none of them are very 'religious', at least not in terms of our contemporary definition of religion. At the other end of human history, we go about our days thinking of 'religion' as something extraneous to human life, something to be picked up and set aside at will. Used in the context of Genesis 1, Exodus 20, and Deuteronomy 5, religion will have a far broader meaning. The closest place we come in these passages to something like our term religion occurs where the God commands his children not to bow down to any graven image: 'You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God...' Note again how reference is made back to the very mundane division between sea, land, and sky, and also to the things in them.

The reference is to everything that could possibility exist within the realm of human experience; the implication of the passage seems to be that God won't be found there. Or, if you join this to the idea that the human being is created in the image of God, the closest human beings ever come to have an immediate experience of God is in their dealings with other human beings.

Now, if you don't accept the premise that God is good (because he isn't or he doesn't exist), the subtle textual implication that nothing on earth can possibly be better than relationships with other human beings (neither fame, fortune, nor pleasure, neither more stuff nor better things) may bother you. Even if you do accept the premise, the subtle implications is not likely to match up against your everyday experience of the world. Some people are nice, while others confuse, and not a few just piss you off. The reason why is that the text of Genesis 1 is meant to be read by readers whose experience of the world is imperfect. These three texts recognize that readers bring along with themselves a problem to the text; the texts, in turn, offer both a diagnosis and a prescription for our existential troubles.

Paraphrasing an rabbi early in the first century of the Christian calendar: the prescription went like this: "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’" The diagnosis had gone something like this: you aren't doing these things. And no, no one is going to force you to do these things. They only ever mean anything when they are done of your own accord.


This is where I think is the best place to begin an examination of Christianity, and I did it without explicitly mentioning Jesus Christ. Might that not be a problem? I also did my best to minimize my references to the Creator God, preferring to focus instead on things existing in the natural world and with possible answers to real moral questions. It seems to me, if you are to communicate what it is you are examining, you also have to think through what is most likely being taken away by hearers. For the last couple of centuries, religion generally has been considered something added onto, or imposed upon, human life. As best as I can tell, the authors of sacred texts predating the modern age don't think that way. And if we are to understand what is being said, the problem lies not with how they understood the world, but with how we understand what they are thinking about the world. It's not with their failure to anticipate the language of modern scientific investigation; it's our problem.

Better to start with questions like: Are the products of human ingenuity essentially different from the natural world? Yes or no. Why? (Talk about The Matrix, if you need a contemporary example.) Does the week have seven days? Yes. (Could the week have more or less than seven days?) Why? Is it wrong to murder someone? Yes. Why? Is it wrong in every situation to kill someone? Yes or no. Why? (Do people ultimately bear a personal responsibility to pay for their crimes, for example, or is there such a thing are a just war?)

What about Jesus Christ? That's another class: Intro to Christian Doctrine 102. We have to go back to the beginning, to you the reader, reading, and read the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where we read how, in the beginning was the Word, and how the Word became flesh.

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