Christ and the End of Meaning

schloeI’m in the middle of Paul Hessert’s Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (1993). Nearly every page offers an insight that finds in me some corresponding weakness to address. I’m so glad I found this wonderful work and I highly recommend it. It will provoke several posts I’m sure. Here’s a first:

The Order We Make
The idea of a creating Mind, a Creator, is not derived from nature but is brought to our observations of nature from our human experience of having to make order. We find order present in nature because of the analogies our reason establishes between our inner and outer experience. Unlike many creatures whose “social organization” appears to be ready-made, transmitted from generation to generation through instinct, human beings must make untold deliberations, experiments, and hard choices about such matters. In this respect, human life is self-determined, not fixed by “nature.” What we call “human nature” usually turns out to be a matter of conditioning and education. What is “natural” for humans is defined more by culture – that is, by what humans do in and with their natural environment – than by “nature.”

From our experience of continually having to make order in the midst of present or threatening social disintegration, we may imagine primeval chaos, but we do not experience such chaos in nature. We do, however, experience instability and confusion in the conflicts of human values and desires. Those who have lived through the tension and hostility between the “communist” and “free” worlds in the twentieth century know the struggle and danger of trying to establish a way of living together in peace. The earth “without from and void” (Gen. 1:2) is a metaphor derived from human affairs, arising from the experience of having to provide a fit environment for human life.

Nature experienced is always ordered in one way or another – sometimes benevolently for humans, sometimes not. The wilderness is not chaos but order untouched by or undirected to human purpose. From the movements of subatomic particles to the fundamental forms of life, nature presents itself as already ordered – intrinsically so. The notion that the order we find in nature was put there by a Mind operating similarity to our own is projected from our experience of having to order human affairs by self-conscious intention and action. This is the grand analogy that shapes our understanding. And if a different sort of “creative mechanism” is envisioned in the future (as with certain kinds of science fiction, for example), it will have been drawn from the revised or expanded experience of our human affairs. The creative edge of science and philosophy is the search for, or the stumbling onto, creative analogies. Our experience of having to order human affairs and our historical knowledge of past efforts to order human affairs underlie the notion that the natural order must have had a Creator.

Thought about the natural order is another form of our thought about the social order – and vice versa. They share a common structure. A review of the relation between scientific Darwinism and social and economic developments (for example, laissez-faire, British liberalism, right- and left-wing Hegelianism) in the nineteenth century should make this clear. In major periods of history, subjects as different from each other as monetary theory, biology, political thought, and economics have shared a common structure.

Ancient creation stories reflect this connection. Although they are cast in the imagery of nature (earth, air, fire, water, light, darkness, life, death), their origin is not much independent speculation about natural beginnings as musings on the human experience of establishing order under changing conditions. In other words, they do not belong in the same category with current scientific speculation about the origin of the universe and the beginning of life. (They belong with investigation of the creation and nature of human order.)

The violence of old myths – Marduk (god of Babylon) slaying Tiamat (the chaos monster), Yahweh (of Israel) subduing Leviathan (Ps. 74:13-14; 89:10), Zeus (of Greece) rising up against Kronos (lord of the old order) – reflects tumultuous times when agriculture city-states were displacing a more ancient hunting and gathering way of life. People living in the older ways were forced into every more remote areas (behind boundaries they might not cross, as with the sea in Psalm 104:5-9) or compelled to abide by the new ways.

At that time, strong-arm rulers seemed to be the key to imposing social order and this strong-arm force characterized the gods in creating and ruling the world as well. Later, such ruthless order itself came to be experienced as chaos. New ways of providing order were found in persuasion, rhetoric, parliamentary processes, codes of law, covenants, and constitutions. Plato’s Republic deals with this political development. In a different way, so does Genesis 1 with its emphasis on the creative word. Genesis 1 is not the chronologically first writing in the Bible, nor is it the only biblical account of creation (there are others in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Isaiah of the Hebrew Bible as well as in John, Colossians, and Revelation in the New Testament). Genesis 1 comes from the relatively late concern to establish Israel as a liturgical community after the collapse of the Davidic dynastic in the sixth century B.C.E. The order in Genesis 1 culminates in the establishment of the seven-day week and the Sabbath.

…Creation stories are calls to create a “world,” to establish an order, to give an answer to the confusion of life.

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I love the painting featured above – Christian Schloe’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It depicts what I want to try to describe. It occurred to me while reading Hessert to take an approach to the creation narratives (Gen 1-3) that doesn’t begin with assuming these texts intend to give us a description of the actual creation of the material order (or even of our particular home, the Earth), or a historical (pre-historical) description even of the functional (I’m thinking of John Walton) ordering of material cosmos. I don’t question God’s creation of the world or the ordering or its functions and dispositions. These are rationally discernible from the nature of things and the Bible’s overall descriptions of the material world. But this may be just the point – viz., that what we have in Gen 1-3 is just such a discerning of the world, the world’s ‘creation’ in the sense of the world’s emerging into human consciousness, ‘history’ in the sense of human beings apprehending the order and purpose of the world. If that is what’s in view, then Walton is right in making the point “function” and not the “coming into being” per se of things, though he too seems still to see here in the text a description of pre-historic “events.” But I’m not sure even that much is required or is the point. What if what we have here is the story of our creating the world, i.e., the coming into consciousness of the unique function of the human spirit, that drive to make-meaning? Perhaps Gen 1-3 is Israel making-meaning in her world, dealing with her own chaos, by imposing order and purpose upon it. That’s not to say the world isn’t ordered and purposeful. It’s to say that we don’t derive this from the world. It derives this from us. Just a thought.

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One comment on “Christ and the End of Meaning

  1. It derives from us because we are made to mirror our maker.
    Thinking like this is so rich compared to a closed-mind acceptance of the Bible as literal truth.
    Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

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