fallible language V: speaking about creation


We’re still in a series that I’ve begun last winter, about fallibility of language (find part I, part II, part III and part IV here) in which we were looking at the way in which language fails us sometimes.

We’ve been talking about God and theology, but today we’re going to go to a more specific discussion, that is very important for certain people in my own broad tribe of evangelicalism: speaking about Creation.

I’ve always found the 2 most vocal major streams of thought within contemporary Christianity equally irritating; at one hand you have the very militant creationists, who claim to know scientifically exactly how God has made the world in a lot more details than the bible can provide. And if you don’t follow them you don’t believe in the bible and you’ll lose your faith. On the other side you have those who have an equally big faith in science and who know that science has the last word in everything, and if there’s anything in Christianity or the bible that goes against the findings of modern science we should get rid of it…

To be honest, I find both positions to be equally impotent and signs of a quite uncritical synchretism with the arrogant optimism of the enlightenment that we human beings can and will know everything. My thoughts on how Creation has happened may have shifted over the years, but one of the things I’ve always known is that the circumstances of how God made the world are not likely to be found out completely by our science, the visible does not stem from what we can see, and neither that any description of it will ever be complete and able to scientifically nail down what happened.

Vinoth Ramachandra, writing from an Evangelical but non-Western Point of View, puts it this way in his excellent but quite heavy book ‘subverting global myths’:

Creationism and evolutions are simply mirror images of each other. The former reduces the Christian doctrine of creation to the level of a scientific account of chronological origins, and the latter elevated the biological theory of revolution into a total worldview. Paradoxically,creationist and evolutionists have more in common than they each realize: Both work within a “universe-as-machine” picture of the world, so that Gods relationship with the world can only be conceived in the form of ingeneer-type interventions which have to be scientifically inexplicable.

But the whole “universe as a machine” framework is just a modern way we think we make sense of the world… And Creation is something that happened outside of the things that we know and have words for, and something that was not witnessed by us. So I’d expect science to be able to find out something, but not at all even the main thing. Only of you’re a purely materialist Christian you could believe such a thing… (We’ve actually had discussions about evolution and spiritual beings here on this blog a while ago) But neither would I believe that an God-inspired description would be ever complete, it would just be an assurance that indeed God is the Creator. (the question about the origin of angels and demons is still there btw, genesis doesn’t say a word about this!)

With all of this in mind, I found the Orthodox way of looking at the subject of Creation much more interesting. Let’s go back to ‘light from the Christian East’:

For one thing, the Orthodox emphasis on our human inability to conceive of and speak about God and creation together could help us escape the sometimes acrimonious “creation versus evolution” arguments that so often have bedeviled reflection on the creation among Western Christians over the last century or so. From the perspectives of Orthodoxy, the first chapters of Genesis do not explain creation. Creation was God’s act, and no amount of human intellectual ingenuity could ever account for it, nor any human words capture it. The terse affirmations made in Genesis 1-2 do not amount to explanations or even descriptions, from an Orthodox perspective; they confront us with the declaration that all that is came from God. In presenting the entire universe as God’s creative handiwork, Orthodoxy excludes all thought of an evolutionary process operating outside of God, to be sure. Equally, it precludes any arrogant claim to comprehend from the first chapters of Genesis how God brought everything into existence. What Scripture presents is the declaration that God made all that is, without any attempt to clarify how all came into being. The opening chapters of Genesis present what must be wondered at, not what can be fathomed. They offer stimulation for common praise by all those who believe in him, not material with which we should brow-beat fellow believers whose ideas about the way in which God may have accomplished that work differ from ours.
Further, even if God had explained it to us, could we have understood it? What language could God borrow to explain to mere creatures the act of creation so that we could comprehend it? If his ways and thoughts are beyond ours (Is 55:8-9), should we not offer humble praise for his creation and what hè has told us about it, rather than fighting among ourselves as to who best comprehends how God brought all things into existence? Is the beginning of Scripture intended to satisfy our intellectual curiosity about “how,” or is it to invite us to celebrate “what” and “who”? Western Christians could learn a bit more humility in speaking about creation and God from their brothers and sisters in Eastern Orthodoxy. (Payton)

Now that’s a bit like what I think about the subject, but much more eloquently worded…

what do you think?

Shalom

Bram

see also this post and the discussion under it, on evolutionary creationism and angels…

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7 responses to “fallible language V: speaking about creation

  1. This is a topic of special interest to me since I am both a biologist who frequently works on (and teaches) evolution and a Christian. My own feeling is that the view in which Genesis 1-2 is meant to answer our modern questions manages to miss almost everything Genesis 1-2 (and 3 and 4) have to say. It produces a certain blindness to the real messages of the texts. The best starting point (to my mind) is always to say, “What do these texts say if you weren’t first demanding that they answer this one specific question?”

    • That’s a good aproach I think… So how would you answer that question about gen 1-2 yourself?

      • Well, my short answer is that I think Genesis 1 is dealing with the following questions:
        Who created the world? For what purpose? How many gods were involved? What were their powers? Did they have to fight about it? Why were humans created? What is the role of humans within creation?
        Genesis 2-3 is answering:
        Why are there men and women? Why do they get married? Why do men rule harshly over women? Are women humans? Why is everything so messed up?
        I’ve actually written some relatively long articles on this on my own blog because I get asked about it so often. So if you’re interested in seeing the six-page version of what I just said feel free to check it out. Otherwise I’m happy to continue conversing in these shorter snippets.

  2. Great quote with a powerful message! Genesis wasn’t written as a scientific essay but as a story to teach the people of Israel, who just escaped Egypt, that their God created everything and was King over everything. A, message by the way, that we still need to learn!

  3. Pingback: Some interesting things elsewhere | Brambonius' blog in english

  4. The Orthodox view may be more interesting, but that does not mean that is correct. I am puzzled why attempting to fully understand the truth of the text is labeled “arrogant”.

    Those that you mentioned that are not creationists (Ramachandra, Orthodox theologians) would be more intellectually honest if they would admit that there is much in the Bible to support the Creationist’s views. Rather than thoughtfully engaging on those passages, they dismiss Creationists by calling them names and questioning their motives. I cannot fathom how that behavior is God honoring.

    • I don’t say that trying to understand the text of genesis is arrogant, I men that trying to fully understand as a created human how the world was created is arrogant, and in fact utterly impossible. I (and the Orthodox theologians) just mean that it’s impossible to say what happened in human words, let alone in scientific terms. We are like ants in a cereal box in an apartment somewhere in New York, trying to find out where our cornflakes and stuff comes from, even though we don’t have concepts in our head for corn plants or factories… The visible world is not created out of what is visible, so science, which is limited to what is visible, will never be able to tell everything.

      My problem with the word creationism is in the ‘ism’ part. I don’t like to make an ism out of creation. And I like the broad use of the word, using it for everyone who believes that the world was created by a creator, be it a young earth, old earth or evolutionary creation. (I also utterly detest the term ‘theistic evolutionism’, for several reasons btw) I have no problem with young earth creationism either, even though I don’t believe in it. I have a problem with people who say that YEC is the only right view. There have been disagreements about the interpretation of genesis for thousands of years, and it’s not likely that they’ll end soon.

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