Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dust and Patriarchy in Eden? An Unconfident Reading of Genesis 2

In his recent essay “The Burden of the Gospels: An Unconfident Reader.” Wendell Berry writes:

"Anybody half awake these days will be aware that there are many Christians who are exceedingly confident in their understanding of the Gospels, and who are exceedingly self-confident in their understanding of themselves in their faith. They appear to know precisely the purposes of God, and they appear to be perfectly assured that they are now doing, and in every circumstance will continue to do, precisely God's will as it applies specifically to themselves. They are confident, moreover, that God hates people whose faith differs from their own, and they are happy to concur in that hatred."

Clearly, there’s much in these sentences to reflect on. For instance, we could talk about the political implications of Christian self-confidence and excess— the way in which knowing “precisely the purposes of God” feeds into a religious ideology that requires the State to become a Christian State before the second coming of Christ can occur. Or the way in which Christian self-confidence and excess sustains a political and cultural climate in which torture, well, really isn’t as bad as it used to be…
But this isn’t what I’m going to be typing about—I mention it simply because it weighs on me.
Instead, what I want to focus on is the first sentence from the passage from Berry:
“[T]here are many Christians who are exceedingly confident in their understanding of the Gospels and who are exceedingly self-confident in their understanding of themselves in faith.” As I read Berry, such excess is far from virtuous. Indeed, it’s debilitating, leading inexorably in the direction of hatred and sin.
For my part, I have to confess that such extreme confidence doesn’t come naturally to me—neither in my understanding of the Gospels, the Biblical narrative, nor in my understanding of my faith. There’s much I don’t get. Berry teaches me to see this uncertainty in a positive light.
Often my lack of understanding takes the form of questions. If I can be forgiven for using an allusion to the writings of a pagan philosopher in the context of quasi-theology, reading the biblical text often leaves me feeling like the young Theatetus in conversation with Socrates: My head is swimming when I think about these matters!
So let me share with you some of my perplexities— some of the things I don’t get—when I experience when read Genesis 2-3. Seemingly even before the so-called fall, things in paradise seemed far from perfect. Consider the following two points:
First, Adam is made from “dust from the ground”. Dust is associated in our story with sin, punishment, and death. What’s it doing there from the beginning? Why the reference to sin, punishment, and death before the eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, indeed, before the creation of the woman?
Second, Adam and the Woman exchange not a single word in Genesis 2.
Recall the making and creating of the woman… Noticing Adam is alone; God acknowledges that his creation isn’t “very good”, so he decides that Adam needs a helper. Now, in Hebrew the word for “helper” is ‘ezer kenegdo, which doesn’t mean servant or that the man is the head of the household. It means equality. In fact, it suggests cooperation and otherness. There’s something of the face-to-face relationship at work here.
First, God makes the animals, but they won’t do. Then he creates the “woman”. But when God brings the helper to Adam something very strange happens, and it’s not positive. Adam names her, like he named the animals. And, in doing so, he refers to her in the third person: “This one (zo’t) at last is bone of my bones / and flesh of my flesh; /this one (zo’t) shall be called Woman, / for out of Man this one (zo’t) was taken.”
Note that Adam doesn’t address the “woman”. He doesn’t speak with her and the woman is silent. What are we to make of this failure of dialogue from the beginning?
Why is there no shalom? How does this failure at the interpersonal level condition the emergence of so-called original sin? Certainly this failure of dialogue occurs before the man and the woman disobey God’s commandment.
Sometimes Christians refer to Jesus as the second Adam. It’s in Jesus’ role as the second Adam that I read the following words from the fourth Gospel (John 4:27): “Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”
Unlike Adam, Jesus does speak “with a woman”, but not only that, he speaks to her across the division of religious intolerance. I think it is significant that the woman is a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were the hated other during the Palestine of Jesus’ time.
There are two sets of questions with which I want to end these unconfident ramblings:
1) I think that most would agree that Creation prior to the Fall wasn’t perfect, there was (and is) an intended eschatological movement toward God being “all in all”. However, was there sin in Eden that precedes the disobedience of eating from tree of the knowledge of good and evil? If yes, what are the ramifications? If no, how do you deal with the “dust” and the apparent patriarchy?
2) In what way does Jesus model for us—in John 4 and other places—a way of life that mends the effects of the “sin” in Eden? In what way does dialogue across gender/sexual differences—dialogue that affirms such differences—mend the brokenness of creation? In what way does dialogue across religious differences—dialogue that affirms such differences—mend the brokenness of creation?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Paul, Homosexuality, and Exclusion: Some thoughts on the Epistle to the Romans

Note: These are just some thoughts. My intent is to question the traditional interpretation of Romans 1:26-32 in light of the book of Romans in hopes to start a dialogue. I am not stating a particular position, nor have I arrived at a final stance on the issue of homosexuality.

Romans 1:26-32 is often used as the "proof" text that is supposed to demonstrate once and for all that same-sex relations are contrary to God's will. Verse 27 does indeed refer to same-sex acts between men, but the previous verse makes no mention of homosexual activity. The parallel with the men's sin is that it was sexual behavior "against nature" - whatever that means. But to assume that lesbianism is what Paul had in mind is simply jumping to conclusions. Both the men and women in question are behaving "against nature", but only the men are said to have same-sex partners. P. Coleman in "Gay Christians: A Moral Dilemma", suggest that the women might (as he delicately puts it) be engaging in sex per anum, a method of contraception used by prostitutes at the time.
Male same-sex relations in Paul's day were predominately (perhaps exclusively) pederastic (between a man and a boy), and often embroiled in the slave trade. Lesbian practice, in this male-centered culture, was only rarely acknowledged. If Paul's list of sins was a "parade" of behavior that was well know and widely abhorred, the "contraceptive" hypothesis would make far more sense of what these women were up to than the traditional interpretation.
Moving along in the Epistle to chapter 2, it is as if Paul is demonstrating to his Christian audience how he might preach the gospel in the Roman Synagogue if he ever made it to their city. No sooner had he finished denouncing a long list of activities that would, in the eyes of any self-respecting Jew, highlight the depravity of the Gentile world than he turned to the people who were saying "Amen": "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things." This is traditionally taken as an indictment against hypocrisy, which was then added to the long list of sins. But what if the target was the whole mentality that was so keen to point out the differences between Jew and Gentile that it was erecting a barrier between God and the people he wanted to reach? This would explain why Paul goes on to say in 2:24 that "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."
If this was his point, that long list of sins - including the "unnatural" sexual acts - was primarily rhetorical. The apostle's main aim was to expose the judgemental attitude of his audience. In this light, it is very hard to work out what his own attitude toward these "unnatural" acts might have been.
The only other text in the entire New Testament where something is described as being 'against nature" comes later in Romans itself, chapter 11. In verse 24, Paul referred to the Gentiles as the wild olive branches whom God was grafting "against nature" into the cultivated olive tree of Israel. It was God himself who was the perpetrator of this "unnatural" act. And it was precisely the same people who would have objected to the unions of chapter 1 that would most likely oppose the bringing together of Jew and Gentile.
For a while the sexual unions in question were naturally infertile and devoid of commitment, but God's faithfulness was now bearing fruit. With the entry of the Gentiles into the covenant, God's promise to Abraham to give him descendents as numerous as the stars was finally being fulfilled. God was acting "against nature", but far from breaking the order of creation, he was breaking through the barriers that people were putting up.
Is it ironic that a letter written to oppose one form of exclusion is now being used to perpetrate another? Once, Gentiles were told they could join God's people only if they were circumcised according to the Jewish norm. Today, we insist that gays and lesbians conform to the heterosexual norm. Paul was out to expose a judgemental and exclusive mindset. Today we misuse his writings and demonstrate that this same mindset is still flourishing.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Struggle of Faith: Covenant as Power-Sharing

In Genesis 18:16-33, we find God and two companions meeting with Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gommorrah. God's intent is to destroy the cities. God askes his companions, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do...?" (verse 18). But God wants Abraham's wisdom. In verse 22, God's two companions leave and, according to the NRSV, "Abraham remained standing before the Lord". However, there is an ancient Hebrew scribal tradition that preserves another text at this point and there are very good grounds for believing that it reflects the original. According to the NRSV footnote this ancient tradition reads, "while the Lord remained standing before Abraham". Likewise, the New Jerusalem Bible reads: "While the men left there and went to Sodom, Yahweh remained in Abraham's presence." Scribes tended to smooth out the harder readings. The harder reading, however, tends to be the correct reading, in this case, "Yahweh remained in Abraham's presence." The passage was changed to place Abraham in the role of submission. However, according this ancient Hebrew scribal tradition, God adopts the role of waiting, of submission.
In the following verses (23-33), Abraham's interchange with God is remarkably bold. "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall no the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (23-25) To which the Lord concedes, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake" (26). This conversation continued until the Lord agreed to spare the city for the sake of ten (verse 32). Here, it seems, faith is portrayed as struggle rather than obedience. "Israel", as we may remember, means "the one who wrestles with God" ("Islam" means "the one who submits to God"). "Submission" does not seem to be a word that captures the "covenantal" character of the Biblical Story. The Covenant is a struggle between God and Humanity, a sort of power-sharing, not a submissive obedience to a heteronomous God.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Passing Thought

"I think therefore I think I am." - Wendell Berry, "A Passing Thought", Given

I have finally broken down and started a blog. I guess an introduction is in order and perhaps a few remarks about the blog.
My name is Chris Allers. I am from Grant, MI but am currently in my first year of graduate school at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, studying particularly the Philosophy of Religion.
My interests include, but are not limited to:
1. The Interconnectivity of Creation. Maintaining and enacting these connections.
2. The Importance of Place, Community, and Home. I am indebted to authors and scholars such as: Wendell Berry, Matt Bonzo, Steven Bouma-Prediger, Brian Walsh, Wes Jackson, John Inge, Edward S. Casey, etc.
3. Patriotism as "the love for one's place", not as an ideological, abstract love (?) of a vast space, a nomadic people, a present set of governmental leaders, abstract national ideals (that dissolve into the rhetoric of self-justification and self-righteousness), the market, a violent foreign policy...or whatever American Patriotism means.
4. Canonical/Narrative View of the Problem of Evil. Authors such as: Nik Ansell and Tom Wright.
5. The Covenant as power-sharing (as opposed to heteronomous).
6. The Interface between Neo-Calvinist Reformational Philosophy and the Western Philosophical Tradition.
7. Peaceableness. "If we are serious about peace, then we must work for it as ardently, seriously, continuously, carefully, and bravely as we have ever prepared for war." - Wendell Berry, "A Citizen's Response", Citizenship Papers.
8. Agrarianism.
9. Music. From Led Zepplin to Pedro the Lion, James Taylor to Nada Surf, Bob Dylan to Ozma.
10. Joking around. If you come to this site looking for serious, intellectual conversation, you may be let down at times. You are welcome to joke around with the rest of us, or you can check back at another time for conversation that may better satisfy your intellectual hunger.

I like other things too.

In summary, I will post whatever is on my mind.

One last thing, I am interested in hearing your thoughts. However, if you are not a registered user, please leave your name (or some name or whatever) so that responses can be directed to you easily and so all can identify who the responses are directed toward.
Call yourself Jim, Hog Willy Magoo, or even "Socrates is Identical". I don't care.