Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Billions of years

This past week I saw a story about the recent discovery of the world's oldest tools, dating around 3.3 million years old. Which got me thinking again about the big picture of the evolution of life. How many generations of life are simply gone forever? They may have left behind hints and traces of their existence--or not. In either case, what are we to make of our relationship to them?

When people ask about God and Darwinian evolution, they are usually given one of three answers: atheism, creationism, and compatibilism. These are all characterized by being straightforward: the first picks Darwin over God, the second picks God over Darwin, and the third asks why we can't simply have both.

If the first two responses are too absolutist, the third response strikes me as far too easy. The question that concerns me most is not so much the interpretation of Scripture--which is theologically varied enough already, without having to worry about scientific questions. Rather, what bothers me is the basic existential question: did all of those humans (to say nothing of other creatures) live and die for nothing? Or if it was for something, is it something we can appreciate?

Christianity in many ways promotes a hatred of death. God is the God of the living, not the dead. Christ's resurrection is said to defeat death, and one day his followers believe they will also be free to death. It is only in the paradoxical way that Christ taught--that those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life for his sake will find it for eternity--that Christians can be reconciled to death. Only with the promise of emerging victorious over death do Christians face it willingly.

But doesn't this promise of victory over death come a little late in the development of human beings? And what about other creatures? Is there any promise for them?

It would be one thing if we could take the Christian story of the Fall quite literally. By that I don't mean word for word out of Genesis 2 and 3. I simply mean that, at a given time in history, the earth was really a paradise, that human beings could eat of the tree of life and not die, that everything was in harmony. Then by an act of disobedience against God we humans, God's chosen guardians of the earth, destroyed that harmony and lost our chance to live eternally. Then the story of redemption playing out through Israel and then through Jesus Christ would answer that. Even if one might raise legitimate doubts about this redemption story, it would be plausible.

Yet if there was no such paradise, and if there was no such cataclysmic moment that literally occurred in history, if death was always part of the natural cycle of life, then what? Are there are truly Christian answers that can be given?

These billions of years really do loom large over the Christian consciousness. Certainly one need not be a biblical literalist to feel the pressure.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Edible words

And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. (Ezekiel 3:3)
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
I have sometimes wondered whether the Bible's prohibition against idolatry was really consistent. After all, aren't words themselves symbolic windows into God's existence, a sort of image for the ears rather than the eyes? One could argue that using words to describe God's ineffable existence is just as dangerous as trying to depict it through images.

Yet recently I was once again struck by the Bible's description of words as food. Funny thing about food: whatever you eat was once a living thing, and then it died.

And isn't that exactly how words function in reality? A single word is so short-lived. It has hardly left your mouth before it is dead, yielding totally to the words or silence which come after it. Even the written word functions this way. You cannot read by staring at a single word; you must let it die, letting your eyes advance continually in order to gain the whole idea of phrases and paragraphs.

Images do just they opposite. They impose upon you. If an image is before you, even if you want, you cannot simply let it pass away. It demands that you at least allow it a place in the background of your mind. It can change your mood without you even realizing it. It insists on immovability, a sort of immortality, if you will.

But Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." The most permanent fixtures in all of ordinary human experience will die, but these words--which die as soon as they are born--will live forever.

It is the great paradox of Christianity once again. "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." Images insist on their own immortality, but they are in fact lifeless. Words exist only to die, and thus they feed us, and so they live forever.

I don't mean this meditation to be polemical, but I will confess that it confirms my iconoclasm, which is standard for Protestants. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have good arguments in favor of icons. They argue that the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God, changes and sanctifies physical reality in such a way that to prohibit icons would be to deny that incarnation. But I think these arguments nevertheless miss the most radical part of Christ's incarnation--he came to die. It is only because he died that he can feed us with himself. And let's not forget that when he rose again, he rose with a new body that was barely recognizable to his disciples. If there is an image of Christ to be used in worship, it is of course the bread and the wine; but even these are meant to be consumed.