Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wendell August Images

My friend the Rev. Holly Davis just saw the OT stories ornament collection at the Wendell August forge in Pa., liked them, and emailed this link: click here. Thanks, Holly!

The Creation (Wendell August)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Neat On-Line Image Map of the Rabbinic Bible ('Mikra'ot Gedolot')

Click Here to Go to the Image Map

A really fun site for getting a feel for the components of the Rabbinic Bible: click here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Free On-Line: Rashi's Commentary on the Whole Bible

Click to go to Rashi CommentaryOne of the truly great commentators of all time, Rashi, is available in English Translation on-line. It is the English translation of Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg. To access the Judaica Press Complete Tanach with Rashi, click here.

Rashi = Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki; 1040-1105; foremost commentator on the Torah and Talmud; leader of the Jewish community in Alsace-Lorraine.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Upcoming VTS Open Lecture: Randall Heskett on Messianism in Isaiah

Please mark your calendars for our open lecture, Thursday, October 16 at 4:00pm in Addison 201. The Seminary is flying in Dr. Randall Heskett from Denver, author of a new book on Isaiah and the Messiah. The topic is key for everyone interested in learning to read the Old Testament as Scripture. Don’t Miss It! Seminary Students in Bible Classes this year are especially invited to attend by the VTS professors of Bible.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

St. Francis Day, 2008

Friday, October 03, 2008

N T Wrong Still Remains Wrong!

This is really great. For the second day in a row, NT Wrong has left extended arguments in the comments on this blog's discussion of Original Sin and Evolution, and how the two must fit together if we really are to think coherently as both scientists and theologians. I want to thank NT. His probing questions are really lucid and helpful, and this sort of debate helps everyone think things through in detail and get some clarity on really crucial issues for both science and faith. Let me elevate his latest comment here to this post, and then offer responses, point by point.

NTW: What seems to make [God in] D. & W.’s suggestion more radically evil than [in] usual Christian theology, or any of the theologies found in the Hebrew Bible (hmmmm… with the possible exception of Job), is that God sets up a universe with ‘messiness’ (evil) right from the beginning. There is no moment when humans can exist in the world without evil already existing. And, in the absence of any appeal to pre-temporal angelic falls, this evil must be God’s responsibility. While the God of the Hebrew Bible destroys the poor in Judea for the sake of the sins of an elite few (or, even, for the sake of the sins of a single King), such an excess of evil is still prompted by human sin. In D. & W.’s case, it originates with God. God’s not just an evil shepherd when he responds to humanity's sin; he’s evil ab initio. This is fundamentally different. And God’s evil remains so, whether or not human freewill converts that form of divine evil into a new type of (human) evil. Two wrongs don’t make a right. ;-)

SLC: Actually, it is safe to argue that the Hebrew Bible frequently presents God as setting up a creation in which radical evil persists in existence, where the horrific Leviathan survives to strike us again and again, where the world remains inherently unsafe. I am using Jon D. Levenson’s phrases from his very helpful work, _Creation and the Persistence of Evil_. Some of the texts he cites to anchor the point include Gen 7:11; Ps 89:25; Ps 104:26; Isa 51:9, among many others. Here is a brief but helpful quote from Levenson, p. 49: “Where evil is only of human origin, suffering is to be attributed only to sin, which intrudes into the pristine divine-human relationship: blame the victim. But in the Hebrew Bible, it is possible, as we have seen and shall see again, to fault God himself for the suffering and to dare him to act as the magisterial world-orderer that the old myth celebrates.”

NTW: I don’t accept there are any “spiritual faculties that make moral evil and positive acts of virtue possible for us in a way that is not possible for animals”. I conclude such an idea is mystical and unrealistic. But we might just have to disagree on that one, in the absence of any common standard of proof.

SLC: I would push back against the claim that this idea is mystical, and refer both to Paul Tillich’s position on this (in the pdf on p. 49) and to the position of Domning, a leading evolutionary scientist (in the pdf on p. 84f.). True, from the standpoint of scientific inquiry, we do not yet know exactly what separates human beings from animals. Nevertheless, evolution allows for real boundaries between species, for differences in kind to exist within nature. There is no reason why this sort of thing could not include a boundary between beings who are morally reflective and beings who are morally nonreflective. In addition, I should also mention that there are major scientific thinkers (e.g., Francis Collins; John Polkinghorne) who argue that certain specifically human qualities, such as our innate knowledge of the moral law or our innate spiritual openness, require explanations that transcend the purely biological. I owe this latter idea to my dean and VTS president, Ian Markham (_Understanding Christian Doctrine_, p. 113).

NTW [for convenience of presentation, this paragraph has been moved up from its original final position]: I’m not quite sure I understood how our dreams assure us of our fallen state. I agree that the doctrine of Original Sin is no more than a ‘dream’, but I’m sure that’s not what you meant. ;-) If we wish for some better condition for ourselves, some transcendence of the way we are made, that is what it is – a wish. Unfortunately not all wishes or dreams come true. However, if my dream last night of driving along a desert road with Tyra Banks beside me in the passenger seat does come true at the eschaton, I’ll be sure to concede this point to you. (Yet, I'd still be wondering what we 'fell' from, given the evolutionary fact of humanity's 'rise' from primeval slime.)

SLC: What I was trying to get at here is my hermeneutic for interpreting the initial chapters of Genesis, which contemporary biblical scholars do not regard as the genre “history.” So then, how do I understand the genre and referent of these texts of Genesis 1-3? There are two things Gen 1-3 certainly is not: Eden is not an historical place or time; but neither is it a relic of ancient cultural superstition. It’s easy to slip into such assumptions, however. Note how you said in your first paragraph above: “There is no moment when humans can exist in the world without evil already existing.” Quite true, if what you mean by “moment” is a moment in historical time as this world flows through it. But, this “moment,” as Paul Tillich emphasized long ago, is simply “not once upon a time,” “not a historical state” (see the pdf, pp. 48ff.). It does exist, however, and not as what you call a “wish” or a fantasy. Our first evolutionary human ancestors experienced it, but no more so than we do today! (Again, see my dean’s book: Ian Markham, _Understanding Christian Doctrine_, pp. 114-115.) See further the next paragraph:

SLC, continued: Since I am a biblical scholar and not a theologian like Tillich or my dean and president, let me try to get at this in a biblical way, as follows: The Hebrew Bible attests to the existence of a pre-fall Eden in the reality of the Jerusalem temple, a symbol and sacrament of edenic, non-quotidian reality, where no one dies, where pure holiness reigns, where sin is left outside at the gates. Hebrew pilgrims knew instinctively that they were at home in the Temple and were instinctively anxious about their “exile” outside its walls. The symbols of the Temple are known from the dreams and myths of world cultures, because they reflect what Paul Tillich called humanity’s “dreaming innocence” (see the pdf, p. 49). This is no mystical category or wish, but a category necessary to account for the sense of anxiety and alienation that human beings existentially experience.

NTW: Is Original Sin merely ‘human’ estrangement from God? It appears that in [Saint] Paul’s discussion of what might be called ‘the cosmological effects of sin’, and which is necessarily a part of the meaning of ‘Original Sin’ (although that term means much more, as later developed), the ‘fallen’ state of humanity has affected the entire cosmos. Everything is something other than God intended it. Likewise, when humanity comes into its ‘all in all’, Paul considers that this same cosmos will be restored. I really doubt that Paul understood that death -- any death -- was even a possibility before humanity first sinned and the cosmos was fundamentally altered. Yet, if we accept the fact of evolution, then death – endless death, trillions of deaths, Wall-Street-sized death, deaths of entire species -- is the very precondition for humanity’s existence. So, while it is possible that Original Sin can be redefined rather than discarded in light of evolution, I wonder if in so doing we must necessarily contradict the Pauline roots of the later doctrine. And isn’t that a little bit on the specious side, even if it is too much to label as ‘intellectually bankrupt’?

SLC: Correct, NT, original sin does encompass a cosmological dimension. However, to say that there are “cosmological effects” of human sin will immediately be confusing, because, as I have just explained, we are talking about what is primarily a poetic and archetypal reality (not that Saint Paul was mindful of this, of course! We’ve gotten more sophisticated than Paul was). We now know that any notions of cause and effect with respect to original sin will be operative not on the plane of space-time but on the plane of the psychological and existential experience of humanity. In other words, the cosmological dimensions of original sin must revolve around the antinomies in our human experience of what nature looks like in Tillich’s “dreaming innocence” (e.g., effortless fertility) and what nature looks like in our waking, existential experience (e.g., barrenness and groaning, a la Romans 8:22). Let me put this as compactly as possible: Nowadays, for a biblical scholar to talk about “cosmological effects of sin” is a poetic (but meaningful and truthful) way of saying that our human existential and spiritual condition of alienation is thoroughly rooted and bound up in the material universe. Put another way, the universe looks otherwise when we are restored to the edenic, non-quotidian reality that we glimpse in our visits to the Jerusalem Temple, from which we stand exiled due to our very real guilt. When our fallenness from Eden-reality is overcome in God’s time, so also there will arrive a thoroughly cosmic and temporal salvation that the apostle Paul glimpsed in Romans 8:19-23. For more on this, see the PDF, around p. 64.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Response to N T Wrong

Finally, some debate on this blog! NT Wrong left the following comment on yesterday's post, which I am elevating up here in the hopes of stimulating more discussion:

So -- if we accept their proposals -- Christians can hold onto the doctrine of 'original sin', except for the fact that there was no 'sin' at the time? Now, that's not in the least bit tendentious...

I'm just amused by the attempts to fudge around the fact of divine responsibility, with the 'doublespeak' that the world is both imperfect and yet not 'fallen' (because we mustn't do anything to impugn the Creator of this 'messiness', mustn't we?). There's shades of Barth's double-mouthed 'darkness at the heart of God' nonsense here.

I suggest giving up on Original Sin and God's goodness. The attempts to defend the two doctrines are intellectually bankrupt if evolution is accepted. If only the Jews had simply adopted Zoroastrianism, instead of trying to blend it with their own legends...

Let me play the devil's advocate and defend the position of Domning and Wimmer. First, you are right to observe that D. & W. do argue that at its earliest roots, original "sin" was not "sin." Before the advent of free-will, they would see "sin" as not yet sin but merely all those selfish behaviors and drives that are homologous between animals and humans. When sin did appear on earth, however, it automatically became "original" in the sense that all humans were already fully caught up in evolutionary mechanisms that would end up involving everyone in sin's power. I suppose that, as you say, this view of things may sound like fudging with the meaning of terms like "original." However, smart theologians have generally tended to take this term "original" as signifying universality rather than a reference to one historical starting point for sin in human history. I don't see any especially new fudging here, just a new way of working with a specialized and stipulated meaning of a term.

Second, you raise the question of divine responsibility for all the messiness and suffering of life on earth. I do not think that D. & W. try to protect God and absolve God of responsibility. To the contrary, this view takes away a lot of the responsibility for our fallen world that has traditionally been assigned to the rebellion of Adam and Eve. The world was a messy place full of suffering long before human sin arrived, so God (and logical neccessity) must bear responsibility.

Third, you suggest giving up on God's goodness. Actually, this new proposal of D. & W. tends to solve the problem of theodicy, not complicate it. Teilhard de Chardin observed long ago that theodicy is much, much more of an issue in the old static universe than it is in a universe that is constantly changing and evolving. He is probably quite right. For D. & W., anyway, evolution with all its messiness was the only tool at God's disposal to make a real, living world worth having, so God had to humbly accept that in launching the world there was no way to leave out the dark, horrible bits. Hence, we have the reference I quoted in yesterday's post to "the Creator's humility." And, oh, I don't think that you want to say that the idea of "original sin" is bankrupt, do you? The horrible fact of human "fallenness" is surely clear from the genocides and horrors of the 20th century, is it not? And, as for Zoroastrianism, I argue in a forthcoming article that its influence on the Hebrew Bible was not very great, and rightly so.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Original Sin and Evolution: How Do They Fit Together?

Last evening we had our annual faculties' convocation of the Washington Theological Consortium of Seminaries. The topic was science and faith. Dr. Francis Collins, head of the human genome mapping project, was the keynote speaker. Afterward, I attended a fascinating workshop with Dr. Joseph Wimmer and Dr. Daryl Domning on "Evolution and Original Sin." A very detailed free download on the topic written by the two of them is available on line in pdf format: click here. Many will find some of this helpful, and other parts provocative and problematic. Here are a few snipets from the 99-page guide:
  • The Darwinian laws (unpleasant to us)...are the only laws we know of that can assemble the living things we see. The Darwinian "messiness" epitomized in the sufferings of all living creatures, and the Creator's humility epitomized in the sufferings of Jesus, are two sides of the same coin.
  • The overt selfish acts that, in humans, demonstrate the reality of original sin (by manifesting it in the form of actual sin*) do indeed owe their universality among humans to natural descent from a common ancestor. But this ancestor, far from being the biblical Adam, must be found in the very remote past at the very origin of life itself. It was the common ancestor not only of all humans but of all other living things on Earth as well.
  • Human acts [of selfishness] themselves share a genealogical unity (the common origin of all life), but their sinfulness arises from a development that is logically and temporally separate from their common genealogical origin...our acquisition of free will and moral responsibility...which made the selfish acts sinful.
  • What I suggest is the somewhat paradoxical notion that the universe as it came from the hand of the Creator was both good and "fallen" at the same time. The world, while imperfect or unperfected, can be perfected with the help of grace. (Here we see once again the awkwardness of using the term "fallen" to describe something that has not in any meaningful sense "moved downward," but simply has yet to move further "upward.")
  • Suffering of all even more intrinsically a part of the human condition than we ever suspected. We could dodge it only by not existing at all, and God could shield us from it only by not creating us at all.