Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Hebrew paradox

«   Part 3 of the series, Genesis for the rest of us   »
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
Saint PaulThe rhetorically explosive opening of the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews draws a very sharp distinction between the faith "of old," communicated to the new Christians' Jewish forbears "by [their] prophets," and the new faith expressed "by [the] Son" of God. This epistle thus expresses, in very concise form, the Christian belief in the supplanting of the old Jewish covenant by a new covenant. Catholic dogma states the triumph of this novus ordo seclorum in the bluntest terms possible: Jesus and his mother Mary are the new Adam and the new Eve.

Americans overwhelmingly profess a Christian faith. Yet American Christians -- who, lest we elite academics forget, dominate politics and culture in this country -- are so ignorant of their own faith that 75 percent believe that "the Bible teaches that 'God helps those who help themselves.'" Hell no. This saying is properly attributed to Benjamin Franklin. A more anti-Christian sentiment can scarcely be imagined, in a faith whose second of two remaining commandments (Matthew 22:37-40) directs its adherents to love their neighbors, not themselves. (To its credit, the Christian website Acts 17:11 acknowledges the profound and profoundly destructive nature of this false belief: "[T]his 'verse' is unbiblical in its meaning. It is exactly the opposite of the message of scripture.")

ImmaculataIn light of such rampant ignorance, nonbelievers and more ecumenically minded Christians might forgive the astonishing inability of many American Christians, including many Catholics, to distinguish the Immaculate Conception (of Mary) from the Virgin Birth (of Jesus). Frankly, these are arcane theological details on which Christendom is sharply and irreconcilably -- and irrelevantly -- divided.

What should matter, at least in the emotionally contentious space where biology collides with belief and science not only denies but also defies revelation, are these rather inconvenient truths:
  • Virgin birth doesn't happen in humans.
  • Assuming parthogenesis in humans, the child wouldn't be a boy.
  • Dead organisms don't revive. Period.
Contrary to Justice Scalia's apparent suggestion in Lee v. Weisman, 507 U.S. 577, 641 (1992), that "the divinity of Christ" is a mere "detail[] upon which men and women who believe in a benevolent, omnipotent Creator and Ruler of the world are known to differ," the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus are absolutely central to Christianity. Elsewhere Justice Scalia has written, "Loss of an entire toenail is insignificant; loss of an entire arm tragic." To deny the possibility of the virgin birth and the Resurrection -- and biology does -- is to deny the Christian faith.

It is therefore surpassingly strange that so many Americans, professing adherence to some form of Christianity (albeit one that often bears scant resemblance to the teachings of Jesus), are obsessed with biology's mote in creationism's eye when the life sciences cast a prodigious beam into Christianity's heart. Cf. Matthew 7:3. To restate the problem in artistic terms, the political economy of American Christianity places the man and woman at left at the heart of that religion ...

... rather than these figures:
Next in this series: The theological roots of our ecological crisis.

Editor's note: Marc Roark offered an insightful commentary on the relationship between Hebrews 1:1-2 and the first chapters of Genesis. Since I could not do it justice here, I have placed his e-mail message to me, in relevant part, in the comments accompanying this post.


Blogger Jim Chen said...

As promised, this is the comment by Marc Roark:

I am intrigued by your comment at the end of the second part, why do Christians favor the Hebrew Bible more than Hebrews 1:1. Absolutely fascinating question. Several similarities between both books. First, there is no absolutely known author of either Genesis or of Hebrews. Genesis is purported to be authored by Moses by tradition, though other textual sources suggest other sources with other agendas. See Paula Gooder, The Pentateuch. This mysterious authorship, though canonized, seems to lend higher credibility amongst evangelicals to both as being authored by God. Gooder of course rejects the Moses authorship in favor of four sources.

Second similarity, both cast their narratives in terms of God Speaking -- again, an implicit acceptance that something Holy and true is happening.

Third, both books are ultimately about identity. For Genesis, its the Israelite people knowing who they are; for Hebrews, its the newly converted Jewish Christians. I would argue that the Evangelicals understand the second; they miss the first as they tend to focus on the events not the narrative.

Fourth, both introductions are poetry.

So why do conservative fundamentalists cling to Genesis 1:1. Largely its an answer of hermeneutics: the hermeneutic in question is a normative system that the Bible contains all necessary wisdom and truth -- to call Genesis a cultural narrative ultimately attacks the actions of "God Speaking" a necessity in biblical literature. That God would speak to prophets in many different ways must be read, according to their hermeneutic, as the ways represented between Genesis and Matthew and nothing else.

Ultimately, for believers like myself, who address Genesis as a combination of fable and myth (1-6 mythological and the rest of the chapter fabled history) we see genesis as telling an important normative developmental story of who are the Israelites. I emphasize here the relation between poetry as a form of telling this story in all civilizations. That is important to me as a believer because it forms a part of who I am, though I suspect its not the same reason that Falwell reads Genesis.

9/07/2006 2:45 AM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

Daniel Sokol has kindly suggested the following book:

James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era (1999).

9/07/2006 4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the most interesting (to me) situations with American Christianity is the total lack of knowledge of what are fundamentally (no pun intended) complex issues.

I think a large problem has to come from those people who believe that, if you question one part of the Bible, i.e. that Genesis might not have happened literally as said, that you can't believe in any of it. Granted, I'm a law student, so I live in the grey area, but this "throw the baby out with the bathwater" conception is incredibly common.

But additionally, I think an interesting historical point relating to the "God helps those who help themselves," is the almost backward point from Weber. The classic Protestant Work Ethic was initially moved from the religious (Calvinist) realm to the secularist world. (See the above quote, or any other of Ben Franklin's classics. "Early to bed, early to rise, etc.")

Now, the work ethic and the spirit of capitalism have been reinjected back into the right-wing Christian realm, and have become almost completely intertwined. Fundamentalist Christians now have almost as much faith in the Invisible Hand as they do in the Great Flood.

One example particularly related to the topic at hand is William Jennings Bryan, fundamentalist opponent of all things Darwinian. However, he was a firebrand populist leftist, and hugely outspoken critic of the banks and railroads. We don't see many of those these days, as Christianity as practiced in America has been interwoven with the fabric of the Free Market.

He was definitely more in line with the teaching of Jesus regarding Camels, needles, and rich men.

9/07/2006 5:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice straw man. Of course dead organisms don't revive and the the like. That's what makes those events miracles, if you believe that they happened.

As for people unclear about what their own religion ostensibly teaches and who said what, that is distressingly widespread. What some folks need is not more religion, but more understanding of their own religion. Including that biblical literature is indeed a literary genre and loaded with idioms and metaphors.

9/07/2006 5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you don't mind my bringing this up, but the meaning of the word translated as "virgin" is supposed to be "woman who has not yet born children" not "woman who has not had sex." Which essentially puts the whole virgin birth thing in a new light.

Of course, this is a subject of much discussion.

9/07/2006 7:00 PM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

Dear marg.,

I don't mind at all. Thanks for the reminder and the links. Every genuine religious tradition believes that its role is to approach the mysteries of its faith, hidden for ages, and to make them manifest to its saints. Colossians 1:26.

Best regards and again many thanks,
Jim Chen

9/07/2006 7:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Religion without science is lame; science without religion is blind."

I detect in these remarks a rather disturbing scientism displacing your usually acute rationalism. My question would be: how does a purposeful antagonism of Christians benefit your larger political ends? and if it doesn't, why engage in it?

As Sunstein's Incompletely Theorized Agreements suggests, there are very few successful coalitions consisting of members whose conceptions of the good are entirely overlapping and congruent. It seems to me that there is a struggle going on now for the political valence of Christians. And unless you think E.O. Wilson's effort to appeal to them is entirely foolhardy, it would seem wise for those who care about the environment to forego antagonizing a potential ally.

William Connolly is perhaps the deepest theorist of this type of position; one of his latest works appears here:

Finally, while attacks on religion from without are interesting, the audience is ultimately left with the Kierkegaardian question: what do *you* believe in? While you may be incredulous at "facts" central to the Christian faith, you can only "beat a theory with a theory," or a "spirituality with a spirituality." As Michael Perry suggests, a social theory ungrounded in a sense of, at the very least, humankind and his environment, leaves on the table of positive possibilities all manner of things we now recognize as domination, manipulation, and an utterly alien future. (See, e.g., the Extropians...please don't tell me you evolutionist viewpoint inclines you to Transhumanism!)

9/07/2006 11:13 PM  
Blogger Harry Niska said...

If biology itself is diametrically opposed to Christianity, as you argue, does not the mere teaching of biology in public schools have the constitionally impermissible "'effect' of ... inhibiting religion"? Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639, 649 (2002).

9/14/2006 4:46 PM  

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