Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dueling Interpretations of Genesis 1

In my internet perambulations, I came across this article and, by fortunate happenstance, the one I reproduce below.

Many Christian fundamentalists impose a literal interpretation on Biblical myth, thus missing the larger moral messages and rejecting later scientific discoveries, a mistake most apparent in their reading of the Genesis creation story, as the Rev. Boward Hess explains.

By the Rev. Boward Hess

The important message of the Genesis 1 creation story has been lost in debates about how all things began. In some religious teachings, people have been led to believe that Genesis 1 is about God’s creation of all things out of nothing, an interpretation that transforms this marvelous myth into an inaccurate history report.

Myths address questions of values and morals – why, not when or how. They are not history and are not to be read to satisfy scientific inquiry. Myths are commentaries about life and are found in every civilization. They are simple to remember, and their roots predate written language.

The roots of the Genesis 1 creation story can be traced to Babylonian mythology. In Babylonian mythology, Tiamat is the creative force of the universe, the female spirit who gives birth to the gods and, ultimately, to all living things. Marduk, the male king of the gods, betrays Tiamat’s trust and kills her. This represents the recognition of the need for femininity in creation that gives way to male control of that which was created.

In the sixth century BCE, a small group of Israelites was forcibly taken to Babylon and enslaved. In that context, they were confronted by Marduk, Tiamat and Babylonian mythology. What we read in Genesis 1 is a thoughtful theological response to that myth.

By the time of this Babylonian captivity, Israelites had become monotheistic, meaning their God was the one and only God, a male God who reflected a patriarchal political system. However, it is obvious that a male alone lacks creative power; females are the source of life, and it is a profound limitation of a male god’s power.

The Genesis 1 creation myth recognizes the inherent limitation, so it interprets God’s work not as creative but as dominating and controlling nature and the feminine creative force. God operates by commanding the feminine source to bring forth certain things. The source is no longer personified, but God is not the source of creation. Genesis 1 confronts the problems not by having separate male and female powers with different spheres of influence (female: creation; male: control) but, rather, a male God who commands a depersonified creative force. God says, “Let there be light,” “Let there be a vault in the heavens,” “Let there be sun and moon,” “Let the waters teem,” “Let there be vegetation.” Only rarely is he described as creating or making, and this description only occurs after God commands the creation. In other words, God creates something only by demanding that the waters—adapted from Tiamat—bring it forth. God dominates and commands the creative force, but God is not himself the source of creation. God does not create order to hold chaos at bay; God commands chaos to bring forth everything that exists. This is a crucial difference since, on this view, chaos is not something to oppose but something to manipulate and control.

Further, God controls by creating separation. The formless chaos serves no useful purpose for God or his creation, and so God divides the whole into controllable units. Just as God cedes control of creation to Adam by having Adam name all the animals, God controls by separating, distinguishing, naming, and knowing creations. This division and control is represented by separation: On the first day God “separated the light from the darkness;” On the second day he “separate[d] the water [in the heavens] from the water [on the earth].” God separates the dry land from the waters, and later separates the night from the day. God's purpose is to make things useful to himself and humanity.

God’s power is command, control, and domination. God commands, and the result of each command is described as “good” or “very good”. God does not do good in order to achieve an end (say bringing order into chaos), but God commands in order to do things he considers useful. Good is utility to God and to God's human creation. This indicates that humans should control and dominate the creative forces around us, to bend them to our will for our own purposes. In particular, the life-giving power of women must be subjugated to the control of men in order to bring about the particular order and items that God views as good.

The Babylonian myth sees the feminine as the creative force and shows the male, at least temporarily, destroy that force of creation. The Israelite God takes control of the creative force, but not by its destruction or death but by harnessing its creative power in service of the masculine. In short, God enslaves the earth, turns it to his own ends, and tells humanity—males in particular—to do the same, to “rule over” the earth, the sea (metaphorically, the creative force of femininity), and all the plants and animals that survive on the land and sea. Humanity is to “fill the earth and subdue it” in the way God has done already. Mankind is made in God’s image as dominator and subjugator who should use the world for his own ends.

Thus, Genesis 1 carries an essential truth for Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that man must command and dominate the universe and that this domination is good. The universe is created for humanity's use, and it is good to use the universe solely for our own ends. Centuries later, Jesus clearly said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10: 34-37) Both the Old and New Testaments emphasize control and domination of the creative force of chaos. Chaos itself is neither good nor bad, but conflict, controlled by God, Jesus or Man, can be good when it serves Man's ends. When Jesus brings chaos, it is a good creative force; when God controls the watery chaos, that force is a force for a good creation. Man should not necessarily oppose chaos but be willing to cause conflict and chaos for his own ends.

Some Christian believers attempt somehow to find a tradition of peace and love for others in their sacred text, but they face a great dilemma: How can one ignore the command of Jesus to make war on our enemies and disrupt our own households, to divide brother against brother? Chaos is the creative force of the universe, the feminine, the loving, the giving. God’s treatment of chaos is to control it, and by controlling it and turning it to our own ends, we are doing God’s work, the greatest good. None of this places particular value on peace, and, indeed, control of the environment could easily undermine the possibility of peace.

I cannot tell that there is any reason, independently of what we want to be true, to prefer one interpretation over the other. (To paraphrase Raymond Smullyan) Doesn’t this suggest that there is something a little bit wrong with interpreting religions metaphorically?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Consternation at the Romney Estate

Inside the Romney households, the mood was not joyful.

“What the heck do these people want? I’ve said every crazy gosh-darn thing they want me to say. Corporations are people! Fertilized eggs are people! The only things that aren’t people are people, the Muslims, undocumented foreigners, and gays anyway!” Mitt’s color had turned slightly pink as he, uncharacteristically, felt emotions.

Tagg, teleconferencing in from the $10 million lakefront summer estate in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, sighed, “Dad, you have to show them that you feel that hatred. They hate imaginary liberals telling them what to do. It’s doesn’t matter that there isn’t any liberal nanny-state that’s taking away their right to own guns, shoot foreigners, or whatever, they hate the idea of such a state.”

“Are you saying they want me to hate some imaginary enemies for them? Didn’t they outgrow that whole idea of imaginary beings when they were little?”

“Look, there’s a legislator in Oklahoma who wants to ban the practice of using aborted fetuses in research or preparation of foodstuffs. Seriously. He’s afraid we’re cannibalizing fetuses. Do you think that guy, and the people who think like him, are worried about whether there really are aborted fetuses in food? No. He’s outraged by the very possibility of such a thing whether it’s real or not. Take Saul Alinsky.”

“Who’s Saul Alinsky?”

“That’s exactly my point. As it turns out, Grandpa knew him. He was just a guy who tried to help ordinary people make changes in society by working together against the entrenched interests of the bureaucracy. You know, democracy in action. In fact, he’s exactly the kind of person that the base of your party should approve of because he was working outside government to help ordinary people make changes when that government was not responding to their needs.”

“What does he have to do with this?”

Matt, from the relatively modest near-million dollar townhome in Boston, jumped in, “You see, Glenn Beck and now Newt Gingrich have inflated him into some invisible puppet-master, pulling the strings of Obama, the government, and everything they hate about the world. He’s Jewish, that never hurts, and his name sounds sort of Old-World to them. So, they equate him with communism too. The only problem with him, really, from their perspective is that he actually exists. People could deflate their bubble a little by pointing out facts about him that conflict with their narrative. That’s not really important at this point, though, since the Gingrich-faction of the party is well beyond facts and subsists entirely on bile. Facts are irrelevant.”

“So, should I just start demonizing this Alinsky fellow too? Would that make them happy?”

Josh, from the $12 million soon-to-be-expanded home in La Jolla, California, shook his head. “It’s too late. You don’t want to look like you’re following Newt. What you need to do is show them that you are part of their group. You need to create an enemy, like their enemies, and scream at it with the same fervor they have. Then they’ll see you as part of their in-group by you evincing contempt and hatred for the out-group. Try not to scream literally, though, you don’t want to end up in the asylum with Michele.”

“Why can’t I show that my membership in their group just by telling them that I’m a member? They obviously don’t care about what we do, only what we say. These are ‘values voters’ who vote for the guy who cheated on two wives when they were sick; banged his staffer who’s 20 years younger than he is before making her his third wife; got kicked out of the house leadership for multiple ethics violations –and by his own party; took huge amounts of money from the companies he demonizes on a daily basis as the cause of the country’s financial woes; worked for at least a decade as a lobbyist – I mean, historian – in Washington, and was a general failure as a leader—leading his party to massive electoral defeat. I mean, it’s not like they value honesty, integrity, or even competence.”

It was Craig’s turn to break some bad news. “It used to be enough that you just talk their language. W got elected by speaking a careful code that the fundies recognized but others did not. Then, when the power went to their heads a little, they started to demand more forthright obeisance to their crazy ideas. That’s how we got Mike Huckabee.”

“Oh, yeah, the Huckster.”

“So, now you have to go beyond coded messages and a wink-and-nod, say things outright. You may still want to be a little vague since no one really wants you to follow their ideas to their logical conclusion. Don’t advocate trying mothers who’ve miscarried on murder charges. No one wants the death penalty for people who’ve miscarried. The base isn’t really big on logic anyway. Still, fealty to a set of ideas is not enough, and has never been enough, really. The idea is to make them see you as part of their group, and the defining feature of their group now is just anger at, and hatred and fear of other groups. So, what you have to do is create some paranoid conspiracy about shadowy figures and organizations that work for their own ends at the expense of ordinary people.”

“You mean, like Bain Capital?”

Now Ben sighed. “No, and don’t let any feelings of guilt for taking away people’s jobs bother you. If you feel anything, project those inner demons onto the imaginary out-group. They’ll like that; they do a lot of projection. Here’s what I suggest. Make up some fake person. Maybe we can plant a few fake papers in an archive somewhere. Can you get access to the Library of Congress? Claim this person is behind a shadowy network of government officials and institutions that want to take their hard-earned benefits away and transfer them to unworthy, darker-skinned individuals. Then pick out something they hate, like taxes or schools or science, and tell them that it’s a plot to take their money and give it to black people.”

“And they’ll believe that? I mean, that’s crazy.”

“Dad, have you been paying attention?”

“OK. So, I say, ‘Barack Obama and Goldstein are working to undermine our great nation by subverting the faith of our fathers and mothers and creating an industry of so-called climate science which spends huge amounts of money in equatorial nations but the real purpose is the transfer of our wealth into the hands of equatorial peoples who will then use that money to do worship Allah, plan terrorist attacks, buy drugs and alcohol, and breed uncontrollably—with our women—and they won’t even let us have any of the fun.’”

“Not a bad start. Just a few things to fix. First, it’s the faith of our fathers, not our mothers. I think you know what that’s all about. Second, remember, they don’t want fun, they just want to make sure no one else has any, so skip the last bit. Make sure they fear these equatorial people. Can we say some of them are Muslim pigmies who disguise themselves as children, fake citizenship and get free education, health care and Cadillacs at taxpayer expense?”


My apologies if this reconstruction has made Mitt Romney seem vaguely human, but I’ve almost begun to feel some sympathy for him lately.