Archive for the ‘R.R. Reno’ Category


R.R. Reno on Francis, Our Jesuit Pope

September 30, 2013
Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics -- “audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics — “audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

This is a reblog from a First Things posting


Friday saw the release of a fairly extensive interview with Pope Francis. The media was atwitter and reported the interview as a sign of a something big, something new. Some swooned. Perhaps this is the sign of the beginning of a long hoped-for liberalizing trend in the Church. Not likely. The Pope calls himself “a son of the church,” whose teachings are “clear.” But the tone is mobile, the rhetoric fluid, and he uses terms and phrases from the standard playbook of progressive reform. Thus, the media’s reading of the interview isn’t willful.

When Pope Francis was elected a friend asked me what to expect. “Strap on your seatbelt,” I replied. The comment didn’t reflect any special knowledge of Jorge Bergoglio. But I know Jesuits. They tend to be extremists of one sort or another. They’re trained to speak plainly, directly, and from the heart rather than according to the standard script.

Many passages in this interview reflect Pope Francis’ identity as a Jesuit. He speaks about himself in frank, personal ways that have the ring of authenticity. I don’t mean his comment that “I am a sinner,” which some secular commentators imagine a novel modesty. That sort of remark is Christianity 101. Instead, I mean: “I am a bit astute . . . but it is also true I am a bit naïve.” “I am a really, really undisciplined person.”

We’re not dealing with a modern politician who surrounds himself with handlers and carefully stays “on message.” Pope Francis is relatively unfiltered. He’s also not entirely self-consistent. That’s not a criticism. Only a person who carefully regulates what he feels, thinks, and says can maintain rigorous consistency in his public persona and public statements.

By my reading, Pope Francis was being a bit naïve and undisciplined in parts of this interview, which although reviewed by him before publication has an impromptu quality I imagine he wished to retain. This encourages a distorted reading of what he has in mind for the Church. This is a problem related, perhaps, to his Jesuit identity.

A key passage involves his image — a very helpful one — of the Church as “a field hospital after battle.” He observes that in such a circumstance we need to focus on healing as best we can. Some of the protocols and procedures fitting for a hospital operating in times of peace need to be set aside.

He then digresses into fairly extensive reflections on what the Church needs in the way of pastoral leadership in this situation: “pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” We’re not to allow ourselves to fixate on “small things, in small-minded rules.” The Church needs to find “new roads,” “new paths,” and “to step outside itself,” something that requires “audacity and courage.”

These and other comments evoke assumptions that are very much favored by the Left, which is why the interview has been so warmly received, not only by the secular media, but also by Catholics who would like the Church to change her teachings on many issues.

Such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame. It’s one in which Catholics loyal to the magisterium are “juridical” and “small-minded.” They fear change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins.” I heard these and other dismissive characterizations again and again during my twenty years teaching at a Jesuit university. One of my colleagues insisted again and again that the greatest challenge we face in the classroom is “Catholic fundamentalism,” when in fact very few students today even know the Church’s teachings, much less hold them with an undue ardency.

It’s in this context that Pope Francis makes extended observations about the profound pastoral challenge of ministering to gay people today, to which he adds the personal statement that he cannot judge a homosexual person who “is of good will and is in search of God.” He also speaks of other pastoral challenges: a divorced woman who has also had an abortion. These are subtle remarks, and necessary ones.

He sums up this section with statements about the witness of the Church today. They are the ones most often quoted: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” “It is not necessary to talk about these issue all the time.”

In themselves these statements are obvious and non-controversial. Since my entry in the Catholic Church in 2004, I have heard some homilies on abortion, gay marriage, and even one on contraception. But these are infrequent. For the most part priests expound the mystery of Christ, which, as Pope Francis emphasizes, is the source and foundation of our faith. Without Christ at the center, the Church’s moral teachings can quickly become mere moralism.

But Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics — “audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church. We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept “talking less” about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement — or silence. Dialogue? Catholic higher education has been doing that for fifty years, and the result has been the secularization of the vast majority of colleges and universities. Today at Fordham or Georgetown, the only people talking about contraception, gay rights, or gay marriage are the advocates.

The Holy Father is trying to find his way — we’re all trying to find our way — in a sometimes (but not always, as he rightly emphasizes) hostile secular culture. That Francis will make mistakes is certain. He says as much himself. I think he has in this interview.

Perhaps this and other mistakes are to be expected. He warns us that we all must risk mistakes if we’re to bear witness to Christ in the world. We must sow the seed of the Gospel and see where it grows, which is how I read the spirit of his remarks in this interview. To a certain degree we must be a bit naïve to scatter seed promiscuously, hoping it will take root even as we know the soil rocky. But I don’t doubt Pope Francis is also a bit astute. He’ll see what’s fruitful and tend the fragile shoots of faith where the Gospel takes root.


Why Art? R.R. Reno

August 30, 2012

Icon of the enthroned Virgin and Child with saints and angels, and the Hand of God above, 6th century, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, perhaps the earliest iconic image of the subject to survive.

R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University.


Why art? Countless millions cry out for food to relieve their hunger. Many are caught up in wars, praying for some semblance of peace. There are diseases to cure. Environmental disasters to prevent. International institutions to build. Why, indeed, art?

From the very beginnings of human history — times of far greater hunger, violence, and injustice — men and women made drawings, formed figures, and decorated everyday life. We were not created, it seems, for mere survival. We do not simply want life; we want life adorned, life bathed in beauty. To neglect the aesthetic dimension of our humanity — even for the sake of noble endeavors to improve the lot of others and to advance the causes of justice — diminishes us.

Our desire for beauty has many dimensions. Art is, for example, a craft, a training of the eye and hand. But at a deeper level, art plays an important role in culture because it is a habit of hesitation. Art grows out of the disposition to stop and allow oneself to be arrested by what is real, not with an eye toward manipulating the world, not even toward good ends, but in submission and service to reality.

In the Christian tradition, this habit or disposition of attention goes by the name of contemplation. Aristotle associated this habit with leisure, which he thought was the culmination or pinnacle of human endeavor and the basis of a fully developed, humane society. With the notion of leisure he did not mean “downtime,” but instead the capacity to set aside the affairs of the moment in order to give uninterrupted (and unscheduled) attention to higher things. Worship, for example, or philosophical discussion, or aesthetic reflection.

We need encouragement to enter into moments of leisure and art helps us slip into this sense of wonder. If we would tarry for a moment, the lilies afloat in a shimmering pond invite contemplation, but we pass them without a backward glance. They were, however, enough to occupy Monet for nearly three decades of his life.

Both Monet, in applying oils to his canvas, and the viewer, looking at the beauty produced by his brushstrokes, invent a world. His can be found in the painting itself. The viewer’s emerges in his mind in response to what he sees. Both of these inventions, so different from the world itself, are (or at least can be) saturated with reality. It’s an odd experience. Moments of fancy and invention draw the solidity of what is real into our imagination and us into the real. And it is precisely this that sheds light, I think, on the intrinsic importance of art.

We live our lives forward, always leaping through the present, leaving behind the recent past and entering into the future. In a fundamental sense, therefore, we are stretching away from what is real — the solidity of experiences we’ve had (and are having) — toward what we can only imagine. And in this stretching we sense the danger of the future: that our hopes and dreams, our plans and projects for the future, will be unrealistic and unattainable. We also feel a backward-looking threat: that as our past experiences recede they will lose their reality and our lives will come unraveled.

This danger and threat are not only personal. Modern man often feels uprooted from the past, which rapid social change often makes seem remote and unreal. So we search for something that promises a new future, a way of living we can inhabit permanently and with confidence. Cast out of the past, we want to be at home in the future, and therefore we are tempted by collective utopian dreams that have brutalized reality in order to achieve unrealistic goals: eliminating private property, achieving ethnic purity, ensuring absolute equality.

Art can train our imaginations to be more retentive and receptive to reality, and respectful of it as well. Imagination, properly developed, stretches our sense of the real — or more accurately it allows the depth and breadth of what is real to stretch us. The effect is a more capacious, more absorptive sense of life, one capable of renewing the solidity of our memories of the past and giving reality to our dreams for the future.

In the modern era, technology, economic dynamism, and social change tend to drain reality from life. We need not simply to look again, but to look more closely and with far greater focus. In its many different forms, modern art has largely been a series of experiments in intensified seeing: pure color, pure form, pure perspective pushed to extremes.

By my reading, these modern experiments in art have involved mostly pulling apart the threads of perception rather than putting them back together again. Abstraction, for example, isolates form and color. Cubism and other techniques rearrange the planes of three dimensional reality, changing our experiences of perspective. And perhaps that’s to be expected, even desired. In our era, advertisers conjure many finished images, so we come to suspect that a straightforward presentation of reality risks being folded back into the endless aesthetic games that try to manipulate our imaginations so that we will buy or vote or think a certain way.

There are of course many artistic tricksters who play games with our aesthetic expectations. Yet, at its best, modern art rightly resists the impulse to recompose our visual experience into reliable forms. The complicated and often contradictory contemporary forms of our visual experience needs to be taken apart so that we can engage at least one dimension, trusting in its reality.

We live in an age of cultural disintegration, or at least weakening, and to a great extent the tendency of modern art toward pulling visual experiences apart reflects this truth. As a result, we face the temptation to move too quickly toward restoration, prematurely reintegrating, rushing to give beauty its shapely fullness as an expression of what is true and good. The danger here is that our synthesis will fall in line with prevailing ideologies. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of didactic (and self-congratulating) contemporary art that does exactly that. Or the temptation can be more mundane (and more common): We return to the air-brushed visual comforts of familiar commercial images.

A Christian, however, is equipped to live in our present age of fragmentation, even deconstruction, and do so with an Easter confidence. The death of the Son of God on the Cross shatters the world, pulling it apart at its very foundations. Yet, in the New Testament “the world” is not the same as reality. On the contrary, in the biblical account, “the world” refers to the shape that the power of sin and death gives to our experience. Thus, faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ does not carry us away from reality, but instead reweaves the fabric of experience according to his eternal truth, which has been present from the beginning.

We need art. It trains our imaginations to linger, to hesitate, to receive the textures and colors and shapes of the world. We need this training in receptivity so that we can see and participate in Christ more fully. For if our imaginations are saturated with reality, then with the eyes of faith we are better able to see him in all things.


Lebensunwerten Lebens: Life Unworthy Of Life – Derek Jeter

July 9, 2012

Allied counsel Thomas J. Dodd looks at the Shrunken Head of Buchenwald at the Nuremberg Trials. The image, used to illustrate the barbaric “pathological phase” in Nazi culture, belied the Holocaust’s careful scientific planning. In reality though, allied prosecutors wrestled with the apparent moral nihilism of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the profound legal problem involved with prosecuting Nazi crimes without an established code of positive law. The book shows how Nazi doctors were accused and convicted of “crimes against humanity” — a concept Allied prosecutors themselves found dubious — crimes based on the same theories of eugenics practiced in the United States for decades.

R.R. Reno writing in this month’s First Things referred to the mainstreaming of the phenomena of “after-birth abortion,” a locution authors Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva use to describe killing newborns “whose parents don’t want them.” Reno termed it “Mainstreaming” because he had come across the article by these authors in TheJournal of Medical Ethics, an altogether mainstream, peer-reviewed scholarly publication. Or, in other words, precisely the place where one would least expect such advocacy.

Heretofore this kind of thought has only been found on the fringes of the pro-choice movement where the wacky professor Peter Singer  lives. Or in the Groningen Protocol where the kind and ever-merciful Netherlands, a state which currently allows “Children with severe abnormalities whose lives can be expected to not be worth living” to be “terminated.”

The popular pro-choice movement does not want to acknowledge the logic of its advocacy when pursued to its rational ends, so it is not often we confront the haunting exposition of “after-birth abortion.”

Yet here it is:

… the authors follow the ruthless logic of the pro-abortion position to its conclusion. “If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy,” they observe, and if we can’t give a cogent explanation why a fetus suddenly becomes a person simply by passing through the birth canal, “then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.”
R.R. Reno, Life Too Inconvenient for Life

Whew! When we think like a liberal we understand the following:

The editors of the TheJournal of Medical Ethics apparently think that these sorts of arguments should be taken seriously. They will of course say that the journal is committed to “stimulating discussion” and “airing controversial views.” What’s the harm in thinking it through? Aren’t free exchanges like this good for us? Doesn’t it help us refine our moral arguments and perhaps overcome our irrational responses of disgust and moral dismay?

In 1920, two distinguished German professors published an argument in favor of euthanasia. The argument turned on the claim that there are some lives unworthy of life. Giubilini and Minerva use that haunting phrase, perhaps unaware of its origins. And they extend it. Their argument for “after-birth abortion” gives us permission to destroy newborns who aren’t unworthy but are inconvenient.
R.R. Reno, Life Too Inconvenient for Life

Hence the German for “lives unworthy of life” is the title of my piece here.

It is here that Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, comes into play, because you need to understand who these people are who use these terms and how their blindness defines who they are.

Haidt observes that our moral culture is shaped primarily by emotion. Very few people reason out moral truths, most of us live by our gut reactions. The fixed points in our moral universe are the deeds so heinous we can’t imagine performing them – or can we? As Reno introduces the Haidt book:

Haidt’s basic claim that our moral outlooks are largely intuitive rather than reasoned refutes the standard liberal presumption that conservatives are motivated by subrational emotions (“fear,” for example) while liberals are “reasonable.” One of the main thrusts of The Righteous Mind is that people tend to be liberal or conservative because they have different emotional responses to the same social realities. And not just different. He concludes that conservatives are sensitive to things that liberals have difficulty seeing.
R.R. Reno, Our One-Eyed Friends

This fact became clear to Haidt when he did research for his doctoral dissertation. He developed a set of stories designed to bring out moral responses:

  1. One involved a family who ate their dog after it had died of natural causes.
  2. A second  had a woman using an old American flag as a cleaning rag.
  3. A third described a man having sex with a chicken, which he later eats.

Reno explains:

To explain this difference, Haidt offers an analogy to our capacity for taste: “The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Our innate moral intuitions fall into six categories or “foundations”: care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity. Care, freedom, and fairness tend to focus on individuals. We see someone suffering, and our care taste bud is stimulated. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity focus on social realities. They are what Haidt calls “binding” foundations, because they unify people into social groups. No individual is harmed when someone uses the flag as a cleaning rag, but doing so involves a symbolic disregard for the moral value of patriotic loyalty.
R.R. Reno, Our One-Eyed Friends

It is these “binding foundations” that liberals have a blind spot for. Note that the last two, authority and sanctity, are fundamental to a religious mindset. The only “authority” that liberals bend their knee towards is choice – whatever preserves choice is good and anything that challenges it (loyalty to country, obedience to God, or recognizing the sanctity of His existence by killing life) is to be questioned.

Liberals have inherited this suspicion of heritage. We share the assumption that freedom must mean freedom from -- freedom from the limitations imposed on us by the old institutions: church, community, family. It seems not to matter that such freedom presupposes our alienation from one another. Existential alienation is a small price to pay for enlightenment, the fulfillment of the progressive movement, or the satisfaction of appetites.

It is hard to recall the medieval definition of freedom, which was not the political license to follow our bellies or the philosophical encouragement to send our elders packing. Freedom was understood, rather, as a growing into the habits, the virtues, that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice.
Anthony Esolen, The Freedom of Heaven & the Freedom of Hell

Hence when Haidt asked the same questions to students at the University of Pennsylvania about his set of stories designed to bring out moral responses, the results were quite different. The Penn students experienced feelings of disgust, but for the most part they stepped back from those feelings and reassessed them to be morally permissible. For example, after hearing the chicken sex story, one Penn student said, “It’s perverted, but if it’s done in private, it’s his right.” It may be ugly, but as long as nobody else is harmed and no one’s rights are violated, it’s OK.

Killing infants with severe abnormalities whose lives can be expected to not be worth living falls into the same bag. Liberals will preserve the “choice” of termination no matter how heinous the crime against the sanctity of life is. They just don’t “see” it that way.

Seeing with the social as well as with the individual eye, as it were, unites American conservatives with the vast majority of human beings who in all known cultures place a great deal of importance on the “binding” foundations. All known cultures, that is, except the subculture of people who grow up in Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic societies, WEIRD societies, as Haidt calls them.
R.R. Reno, Our One-Eyed Friends

Spot on in my book.


The Lie With The Ring Of Truth – R.R. Reno

April 27, 2012

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3.4-5

Did God say … ?
The subtle serpent creates a disorienting atmosphere of uncertain questions. Is it “this tree” or “any tree” that God has fenced with a commandment not to eat of its fruit? What did God actually command? And why? What are the real consequences of transgression? The ambiguity is crucial. As the self-defeating perversion of goodness, sin is ugly and repulsive. Transgression can only allure in a world of distortion and dreamlike fantasy, where what is real becomes malleable, capable of seeming to be what it is not. The robbery won’t require any killing, the thief imagines. The one-night stand won’t lead to any bad feelings. The lie is for the best.

Our lives are full of gauzy pictures that our imaginations conjure in order to make the ugliness of sin look more appealing. This is why deception and the lie loom so large in Christian thought about Satan. We can consistently desire what is bad when we imagine that it will add up to something good, a mental open t it wi s only possible if we are deceived about reality. As Gregory of Nyssa writes, “Good is in its nature simple and uniform, alien from all duplicity or conjunction with its opposite, while evil is many-colored and fairly adorned, being esteemed to be one thing and revealed by experience as another” (On the Making of Man 20.3).

Or as St. Paul writes, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” 2 Corinthians 11:14). In the garden, the serpent’s distortion has the effect of throwing doubt on the divine plan. “Is this not, he seems to be saying, “the garden of joy? You are surrounded by food for life, and yet you are commanded not to fully enjoy it? Is this the sort of God you obey, one who promises life and yet requires renunciations, one who claims to give blessings but always ends up placing limits and making demands?”

These questions have been repeated many times. A Jew is not to eat` pork or shrimp, and what are we to think? Does God wish to cut us off from the good things in life? St. Paul inveighs against fornication, and what are we to think? Is God so opposed to sex and the human capacity for pleasure? Is not the whole scheme of divine commandment, a diminishment of life that cuts us off from the bounty of creation, condemning us to endless sackcloth and ashes?

The woman’s response is corrective, but the serpent’s opening gambit produces an echoing exaggeration. She recounts that God forbade eating from the tree in the middle of the garden, and she then adds, “Neither shall you touch it” Unsettled by the distortions of the serpent, the woman wants to return to the reality of God’s commandment, but her grasp is unsteady. It is as if Satan’s insinuation has taken hold on her imagination. She begins to assume the role of lawgiver herself, puffing up as one giving orders and establishing rules. It is an untenable position of pride: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to it or take from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32).

Midrash is a traditional Jewish style of reading. It involves a supplemented retelling, that interprets by way of added emphasis, color, and dramatization, as I have done above. The skeleton of the biblical story is retained, but flesh is added. Midrash, however, is not unique to Judaism. These few verses depicting the original transgression provide the basis for an extensive tradition of Christian midrash. Milton’s Paradise Lost provides one of the most famous examples. But there is nothing uniquely poetic or premodern about the tendency to fill out the story of the fall.

Modern biblical critic Gerhard von Rad produces exegesis in this genre, and he does so with a panache for inventing motives and emotional responses that shed light on the psychology of sin (1972: 88-90). These examples of creative retelling are not surprising. This short portion of biblical text combines narrative realism with economy of expression, a’ combination that positively invites the reader to fill out the story with more detail. Here, then, the literary form matches the ambition of Genesis. The suggestive brevity of the verses invites us to interweave our many and diverse thoughts about the nature of sin into our reading. In the silences of the text we find a place for our own knowledge of the concrete form of human wickedness, and in so doing we vindicate the traditional view that this story tells us about the original sin.

And the woman said…
Perhaps the serpent arrives on the scene more ignorant than wise, and he opens with a clever question designed to provoke the woman to betray crucial information. “I’ve heard that all these trees are off limits. Is it true?” he asks. “No,” says the woman, “with God as my witness, I was told to refrain from eating the fruit of the one tree in the middle of the garden.” “Oh, I see;’ he responds. Now, with this missing piece of information, the lawyer can proceed, knowing just where to focus his attention. “You foolish woman;’ he says to himself, “you have given me what I wanted to know, because you could not restrict yourself to a simple `yes’ or `no” (Matthew 5:37). Eve is too eager, too chatty, too forthcoming. She allows herself to be lured into a discussion with the evil one about the substance of God’s commandment. “Do not throw your pearls before swine”warns ,Jesus (Matthew 7:6), and that seems to be exactly what Eve does. “Such is the evil of idly and casually exposing to all and sundry the divine mysteries,” John Chrysostom observes in his extraordinarily rich reading of Eve’s transgression (Homilies on Genesis 16.6 in FC 74.211).

This might seem a fanciful reading, but the larger scriptural witness suggests otherwise. A negligent, careless tongue looms large in the biblical concern about sin, much larger than most Christian readers realize. Restraint of the tongue is the object of two of the Ten Commandments: do not take the LORD’S name in vain, and do not bear false witness. James identifies the control of the mouth as the key to vice and virtue (James. 3:2-5) and warns that “the tongue is a fire” (3:6). Sin has made our tongues “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). The Pastoral Epistles place great emphasis on the properly trained tongue, one that knows when to be silent and when to command and teach according to the sound doctrine.

This larger biblical concern about the tongue and its dangers forms the background for Chrysostom’s portrayal of Eve as the original gossipy housewife, whose wandering, undisciplined tongue leads to the original human sin. It is not prideful self-assertion that is the source. For Chrysostom, the root sin is negligence, expressed most clearly in the easy familiarity of neighborhood gossip. For in gossip we treat other people’s lives as occasions for entertainment and titillation, as opportunities to express complacent superiority or to express a burning envy.

With Chrysostom’s interpretation, therefore, we see an important aspect of our sinful selves. We are not hyper-alert seekers after advantage, men and women who puff ourselves up with arrogant self-importance. More often than not we are somnolent, lazy, and complacent folks who drift along with the crowd. We don’t rush off to join the devil’s party. Instead, we wake up one day and find that, after an unthinking, offhanded career as a fellow traveler, we have signed a loyalty oath as full members.

There is no one right way to read the story of the first sin. The early monastic tradition developed a list of seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Under the influence of Augustine, Western Christianity has tended to presume that pride is the cardinal, original sin. But the early monks who lived in the Egyptian desert often thought otherwise. For some greed loomed large. They observed a deep human fear of dependence upon God that manifested itself in a perennial desire to accumulate some small margin of protective, sustaining property. For others, a languid, despairing, spiritual pessimism (sloth) was the deepest problem we face.

We should not be surprised that the Christian tradition has not settled on a single account of material form of the primal sin. The scriptures themselves equivocate. Proverbs 16:18 gives St. Augustine his favorite text: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” But Wisdom of Solomon 2:24 teaches, “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” (St. Augustine harmonizes these verses by supposing that the devil’s pride causes him to envy, God’s supremacy.) In 1 Timothy 6:10 we read that “the love of money is the root of all evils.” And 1 John 2:16 gives a threefold formulation (drawing on Ezekiel 24:21) that has been used to probe the deep sources of sin: “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.”

This diversity should not trouble, because it reflects a deeper, formal truth about sin. Transgression is, at root, a spectral romance with nothingness. It is epitomized by idolatry, devotion to an image powerless to deliver on its promises. Lacking an underlying truth or reality, our actual sins take countless forms without ever coming into focus as instances of some deeper, more stable, more fundamental form of life.

As a strange, impossible love of nothingness, sin always twists itself toward some semblance of reality. Sin is the perverted love of a finite good, and therefore has no stable, fundamental form. For this reason, there is no one way to characterize the original sin in Genesis 3.

You will not die…
The serpent’s deceiving promise is a primordial lie
. It is to the ears what an idol is to the eyes: a fantasy about the power of life. As a promise, the lie is a claim about the future, a faux covenant. In the subtle, indirect, and deceiving form of a negative claim, the serpent seems to promise life: “You will not die.” “Have no fear,” he implies. “Do as you please. You can have what you want right now — and at the same time you can have the fullness of life in the future. You can have the lovely fruit, and it will provide you with all the happiness you seek.” At root, this lie, and the covenant it implies, is like the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai. It is like Mammon, whom we so often serve. It is like the ideological totems of modern men and women. Satan’s lie always takes the same form. It creates the illusion that there is some path to fullness of life other than obedience to God’s commandments.

Evil is negation, and pure evil is complete privation or negation. Therefore, pure evil cannot exist, not even as a possibility. As a result, the lie can endure only in the mind of the woman and tempt her if it somehow participates in truth, as do all believable lies. And indeed Satan’s lie does. When they eat the fruit, neither the man nor the woman drops dead. The LORD, who has said, “In the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17), seems to be shown the purveyor of falsehood, while the serpent speaks the truth.

The seeming truth of Satan’s lie rests on the equivocal meaning of life and death. God creates the man and the woman for a purpose: to enter into his Sabbath rest. Spiritual life and death turns on our acceptance or rejection of that divine purpose established in the beginning. Moses’s exhortation to the Israelites restates the choice that Eve faces in the garden: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him” (Deuteronomy 10:19-20).

Christ presents the same choice to all the nations: “In him was life” (John 1:4), he is “the bread of life” (John 6:35), and his words “are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Christ gives his flesh over to death for the sake of “the life of the world” (John 6:5 1), and in his resurrection death is “swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). In this way, from Eve onward the original choice of life or death is recapitulated again and again: “He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life” (1 John 5:12).

The serpent’s lie was brilliant and effective, because it shifts the focus of human concern. He directs attention to what the woman already possesses: the gift of physical life that she shares with all living things. “What you have now you shall not lose;’ he promises, and in a strict sense he speaks truthfully. But the strict sense of Satan’s promise is not the implied sense. “You shall not die” conjures the promise that we will have life abundant. The deception thus breaks the bond between “life and godliness:’ and the lie turns our attention away from “him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). The serpent’s lie tempts the woman to believe that what matters most is sentient, bodily existence: “Take the fruit. It’s not going to kill you!”

The lie remains effective to this day. St. Augustine makes a distinction between two dispositions toward things: use and enjoyment. To use something means to see its finite goodness and its role in God’s larger plan or purpose and then to love it contingently, that is, not for its own sake but for the sake of God’s plan. To enjoy, by contrast, means to embrace something as our final rest and ultimate purpose, to love it for its own sake. God alone is our proper rest, and thus we are created to enjoy him alone, and others in him, while we are to use created reality to attain that end. But we are tempted to rest in countless finite goods, and the temptation is strong, because, as Satan promises, we really can love them and live in them for their own sake — at least for a while.

My professional success is genuinely rewarding. The five-star chef cooks wonderful food. Patriotism is a noble sentiment. All of these finite goods make life better in the short and medium term. “The tree was good for food” (Genesis 3:6), and its apple does not kill Adam and Eve — or us. In fact, an apple might satisfy our hunger and keep the doctor away. Thus, it’s very easy to think that apples and other finite goods are what make life worth living. The lie works because it has a ring of truth.


The Fall – R.R. Reno

April 26, 2012

The Fall by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564), commonly known as Michelangelo.

Sin is crouching at the door (Genesis 4:7)

The Serpent Was More Subtle.
On the sixth day God creates “the beasts. . . and the cattle.. . and everything that creeps upon the ground” (Genesis 1:25). Yet, now appears something “more subtle” and seemingly of a different order. Just who or what is the subtle serpent? The voice of the tradition is unequivocal: it is a worldly form of Satan, the fallen angel. The modern historical-critical tradition rejects this reading; von Rad is typical: “The serpent which now enters the narrative is marked as one of God’s created animals…. In the narrator’s mind, therefore, it is not a symbol of a `demonic’ power and certainly not Satan. What distinguishes it a little from the rest of the animals is exclusively its greater cleverness.” So which shall it be: demonic power personified or the animal trickster of folklore?

At the very minimum, Jewish and Christian readers expect this verse to cohere with other parts of the Bible. For example, Job 1 portrays an interaction between God and Satan that sets up another scene of temptation. God allows Satan to afflict Job in order to tempt him to curse God (Genesis 1:6-12). Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24 interprets the original temptation along similar lines: “God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” The New Testament only reinforces the presumption that temptation and transgression come from the devil.

In Luke’s Gospel, Satan and the demons are closely associated with serpents and scorpions (10:17-20), and in John of Patmos’s vision of end times, the power of Christ is depicted as dethroning “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelations 12:9). Even when the image of the serpent is absent, the link between Satan and temptation is clear. In the New Testament scene that recapitulates the circumstances in Genesis  3, Satan tempts Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).

Scripture interprets scripture, and the weight in favor of reading the serpent as Satan is overwhelming. But we can do more than adduce intra-canonical warrants. It is useful to think through why there is such a strong consensus that a demonic power lay behind the original transgression.

The benefits of pursuing this question are significant. We not only understand Genesis 3:1 more fully, but we also develop a deeper, more intelligent grasp of why angels and demons become so important in the later books of the Bible and why so many later theologians developed systematic accounts of non-bodily, spiritual creatures.

The way forward is not obvious. As Origen notes, “In regard to the devil and his angels and the opposing spiritual powers, the Church teaching lays it down that these beings exist, but what they are and how they exist it has not explained very clearly.” [On First Principles preface.6 in Origen: On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth ( Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973), 245.]But Origen, however tentative in his speculations about Satan, gives him a central role in the cosmological drama of fall and redemption. The role is emphasized in the many later scriptural passages that implicitly comment on Genesis 3:1. As the larger tradition affirms again and again, evil and the possibility of transgression begins with the angels.

It is very important to see that this view of the origin of evil is not the product of an ancient view of the world as bounded by a heaven above and a spiritual realm below, the so-called three-tiered universe often adduced by modern scholars as a sufficient explanation for early Christian (and Jewish) interest in angels and demons. The devil is not a mythological figure invented by a pre-scientific, credulous spiritual imagination.

On the contrary, the idea of a fallen angel helps biblical readers of Genesis 3 in two ways. First, a reference to Satan immediately conjures a cosmos-wide power, and this helps dramatize the cosmos-wide scope of the divine plan and the sinful resistance to it. Second, the concept of the devil serves as a placeholder for the most extreme possible negation of the divine plan that is consistent with the belief that God is the all-powerful and all-good creator of everything out of nothing.

Let us begin, then, with salvation history. In the broadest possible sense, if we assume that the serpent is not just a particular animal in the garden of paradise, but is instead a grand spiritual being who has already embarked on the deepest and widest possible rebellion against God, then at the very least we have succeeded in refraining a quite intimate and concrete story of temptation in Genesis 3 within a cosmic context. What the serpent says is not just a localized event.

Recourse to the devil inflates the significance of the events. The story is not merely about a serpent and a woman and a man. On the contrary, the garden scene depicts the ultimate adversary at work. The transgression, therefore, is infected with the depth and breadth of Satan’s prior rebellion. It is universally consequential, or as the terminology of traditional doctrine would have it, the sin is original.

One might object that this enlargement of the events in Genesis 3 does violence to the plain sense. But the objection ignores the context, which positively begs from a cosmic frame of reference. The seven-day account of creation that opens Genesis is part of the Priestly tradition; in contrast, the second account of creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 reflects the Yahwist tradition. The standard modern approach to reading these two accounts emphasizes their differences. The P writer provides an account of the architecture of the cosmos, while the J writer is more interested in the human-focused flow of history.

However, the two perspectives overlap. The Priestly material suggests a historical dynamism toward the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). Now we can see how an interpretation of the serpent as the devil opens up a cosmic frame of reference for reading the Yahwist. Instead of trying to give a conceptual answer to the question of how a particular event in the past can have universal consequences, the tradition gives an exegetical answer. The episode is cosmic in significance because the serpent is Satan, the primordial agent of rebellion.

Job, the biblical text most closely related to Genesis 3 in theme and situation, evokes a similar conclusion about the human condition. The main body of the book is highly particularized. Job’s flocks are stolen, his house destroyed, and his children killed. These personal tragedies trigger a long series of debates with Job’s friends about the justice of Job’s sufferings, debates that turn on whether Job is a righteous man.

The central premise is that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. The assumption is that our actions determine our destinies. Have I obeyed? Have I transgressed? As readers familiar with the book know, Job’s friends argue that Job must have transgressed. Job counter-argues that he has not. But for our purposes, the important point of the debate is more general. Throughout the back and forth of argument, all the focus falls on the human condition.

In a sense, Job and his friends live in the Yahwist strand of Genesis. The discrete details of our lives provide exactly the right frame of reference for thinking about the human condition. And yet, Job neither begins nor ends with this focus. Instead, the story opens with Satan approaching the LORD God in his heavenly court. He challenges God, suggesting that God lacks the ability attract spiritual loyalty without buying off the faithful with worldly rewards. The story ends with the famous divine appearance out of a whirlwind, an appearance in which God recounts to Job, not the details of his life and actions, but instead the divine acts of creation. In short, the cosmic perspective frames and contextualizes the human-focused concerns of Job and his friends.

The devil functions in the same way in the New Testament, Again and again St. Paul reminds his readers of the true scale of their struggle against sin. Worldly trials and temptations are not just local; they are afflictions of the devil. The faithful are to resist with confidence, for in due time the God of peace will crush Satan under their feet (Romans 16:20). This image of triumph draws on Genesis 3:15 — the divine prophecy that the children of Eve shall crush the head of the serpent.

In the same way, Hebrews uses the greater spiritual powers of angels and demons in order to frame the significance of the passion and death of Jesus. The one who was greater than angels was made lower in order to destroy what the writer calls “the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). Luke’s Gospel makes a similar move when it evokes the intruding agency of evil: “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” (Genesis 22:3). The reader is put on notice. The events in Jerusalem, like the events in the primordial garden, have the gravest and greatest of consequences.

Our goal is not to try to reconstruct a New Testament angelology or demonology and transpose it back onto Genesis. The point is much simpler. When 1 Peter 5:8 warns that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour,” the effect is not to conjure up pictures of a trident-carrying, horned creature with cloven hoofs. Instead, this and other appeals to Satan function in the same way as the apocalyptic visions of Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation, all of which portray our destiny in the context of more powerful forces.

Here a reading of the serpent as Satan begins to pay theological dividends. As we allow the image of Satan to guide our reading of Genesis 3, we learn something about the large biblical vision of human freedom. Although our actions are free and we genuinely shape the directions of our lives, we do not define the moral and spiritual atmosphere in which we live. As any mention of the devil reminds us, we are cast into a world already shaped by a creation-wide history of resistance to the divine plan. Our freedom is not pristine, unaffected, and uninfluenced by prior events. We must decide and act in circumstances beyond our control.

Of course, not every portion of scripture can be brought into harmony with every other part. The Bible is fundamentally heterogeneous and cannot be reduced to general theological principles. We should avoid the impulse to interpret scripture simply in order to draw out a theological point, even the very important point that human freedom is constrained by a larger contest between good and evil. Theological concepts are never fully adequate, and no single theological conclusion does justice to the plentitude of the scriptural text. For this reason, it is worthwhile to digress into some further, more technical reasons for calling the tempting serpent “Satan.” These reasons emerge out of the problem of theodicy, the conceptually difficult need to acknowledge the reality of evil while affirming the power and goodness of God.

We can best begin by considering the contrary interpretation. The text says the serpent was an animal — admittedly a strangely clever and talkative animal — and that is the end of it. [A talking animal is not sufficient reason to hypothesize about demonic (or angelic) agents. Balaam's ass talks, but the role of the ass is that of a sensible animal and not a spiritual being (Numbers 22:21-30).] With this approach we gain in literalism, but an immediate problem emerges. As human beings, our acts are voluntary or free insofar as they are motivated. An unmotivated act is accidental, not free. But as embodied rational beings, we are motivated by what we perceive and by conclusions we draw from our engagement with the world. As St. Augustine writes, “Nothing draws the will into action except some object that has been perceived.” [Augustine, De libero arbitrio 3.25.74. I draw this formulation from the translation provided in tt MacDonald's nuanced analysis of St. Augustine's approach to Adam and Eve's sin in "Primal ," in The Augustinian Tradition, ed. Gareth B. Matthews (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 110-39 at 118]

If this is so, then the first transgression must have been motivated by something perceived in the garden. Perhaps it was the novelty of a talking snake. Perhaps it was the loveliness of the fruit. Perhaps the slipperiness of human language, a faulty memory, or the all-too-natural tendency of the human mind to be distracted led the woman to eat. Perhaps the natural affections and loyalty of the man to the woman led him to follow suit.

The point is not to specify the motive or cause. Instead, we need to see what is entailed in allowing the serpent to be just a clever snake. Because our freedom is embodied and responsive rather than purely spiritual and originative, if the serpent is just another bodily creature in the world, then the temptation toward primal sin follows as a consequence of the way God creates.

He makes us free in certain way, but the created order contains realities and impulses that are intrinsically tempting and out of balance: a talking animal such as the serpent, a lovely fruit, the bond of companionship, or some other feature of created, embodied existence. In short, if the serpent is just an animal, then sin emerges out of the human encounter with the natural order.

This conclusion immediately runs up against the problem of evil. The notion that the original transgression occurs as a result of our embodied freedom seems to contradict the biblical assertion that God creates everything and calls it good. Not surprisingly, then, the tradition reads Satan into this verse. There are (so the traditional train of thought presumes) free spiritual beings whose created free wills are not moved by their perception of other created realities. In their independence, these spiritual beings are capable of a pure choice, a choice unmotivated and uncolored by instinct and natural desire. For this reason, spiritual beings can make choices that are originative and not responsive. A spiritual being can choose evil without being motivated by anything God has created. Angels are, as it were, self-moved.

If we suppose the existence of an angel who has fallen, then we have a way out of the problem of evil in our reading of Genesis 3, or at least a way of giving a more subtle form to the problem of evil. [Here I follow Augustine's line of reasoning in his long digression at the beginning of his treatment of the fall in The Literal Meaning of Genesis 11] By interpreting the serpent as Satan, we have created exegetical space for a prior, purely spiritual choice of disobedience, one not motivated by the desire for something in the created world that is perceived as good. The fallen angel is motivated solely by his choice of evil, the darkness of a world without the supreme goodness of God (Genesis 1:4).

Of course, the pure freedom of the devil is a finite freedom. The devil is not a primordial being who exists before creation, and in this sense the devil’s freedom is part of the divine project from the outset. However, although the finitude of a purely spiritual freedom constrains its scope and consequences, finitude does not mitigate the capacity of a disembodied freedom to do and become something out of its own pure choice. In a certain sense, God is still on the hook.

But for God’s creation of the angels, none would have fallen. Yet the important point is secure: no aspect of creation other than freedom itself is implicated as the reason for an angelic fall. The devil falls strictly because of his choice and not because of any other feature or quality of the created order. This allows us to say that the first transgression, the fall of the devil, occurs in creation, but not because of creation. “It was,” writes St. Augustine, “an evil arising not from nature but from choice” (City of God 11.19).

These suppositions about the finite spiritual freedom of fallen angels open up conceptual space for an interpretation of Genesis 3, and this allows us to pursue a reading that avoids the problem of implying that the ordinary conditions of our embodied freedom lead to sin. Interpreted as Satan in bodily form, the serpent in the garden can be understood as the vehicle for the intrusion of a more original evil choice into our world of embodied freedom. Aspects of creation (e.g., the attractive tastiness of the apple) are obviously implicated in and serve as the medium for transgression, but we need no longer presume that created goods trigger the first human sin.

Instead, Satan’s prior, purely spiritual, and self-directing choice influences Eve’s subsequent, embodied, and responsive choice. She is not thrown off balance by anything God has created. Her transgression turns on her response to a prior form of evil that is, in itself, an act of finite but pure freedom. Of course, Adam’s sin has precisely the same form. She hands him the fruit, and he responds to Eve’s prior choice. Once the infection is introduced it spreads.

The conceptual advantages of reading the serpent as Satan shows why it is terribly naive to imagine that the classical interpretation is motivated by a love of mythological figures. [The modern historical-critical tradition is hopelessly confused on this point. See, for example, Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11:.4 Commentary.. Unable to countenance "the mythological explanation of the serpent," Westermann concludes that the origin of evil must be a purely human phenomenon. Westermann is apparently unable to imagine that biblical readers (including readers whose writings would subsequently be incorporated into the canon) would develop interpretive hypotheses in order to avoid contradicting basic theological convictions about the nature of God and creation. Von Rad also falsely assumes that classical demonology is mythical and summarily rejects the traditional reading of the serpent as Satan by insisting that the narrative treats temptation as "a completely un-mythical process.” The dichotomy works only if one supposes that hypothetical or inferred beings are by definition mythical, but this is absurd, since it would make a great deal of scientific and mathematical reasoning mythological.]

To read the serpent as Satan is not to think of the snake as a wicked elf or a rebellious satyr. On the contrary, the traditional exegesis of the serpent as Satan resolves the dilemma posed by a literal reading of the story. To suppose the serpent to be Satan’s worldly guise allows us to coordinate the strong affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of creation in Genesis 1 with the narrative disobedience, resistance, and rebellion of Genesis 3.

At this point we should step back and consider an obvious objection. The reading of the serpent as Satan may help us with the difficulty of affirming the intrinsic goodness of God’s creation. The hypothesis of an angelic fall allows us to assert that freedom alone can pervert itself; it cannot go awry simply as human freedom engaged in response to created goods. Yet this approach, we might worry undermines human responsibility. If the fall is triggered by Satan’s earlier choice, then how can we be held responsible? It would seem that the original sin is the devil’s fault, not ours. And if this is the case, doesn’t the entire Pauline economy of guilt in Adam and forgiveness in Christ collapse?

The objection is helpful, because it forces us to be clear about the nature of our embodied freedom, as well as more attentive to what scripture actually says about our roles in both the empire of evil and the reign of Christ. It is certainly true that we are free participants in the divine plan — for good or for ill. However, transgression is like Caesar’s army crossing the Rubicon. Our freedom does not determine us all at once. It sets us down a particular path. More important, in crossing any number of moral and spiritual Rubicons, we are like soldiers deciding to follow, not generals leading their legions. Our freedom is real; we must decide to move our feet in one direction or the other.

But that freedom is reactive and responsive, not executive or commanding. We need a leader to trigger our movement. This is why human freedom never provides a sufficient explanation for the march toward sin — or the countermarch toward righteousness. Humans seem capable of a depravity — and righteousness — that far exceeds our ordinary capacities, which is why ordinary language stretches toward adjectives such as “demonic” and “saintly” when describing human extremes. We can follow much further than we can lead.

There are scriptural and commonsensical reasons for thinking of human freedom more on the model of an enlistee than an officer. Joshua ends with a re-statement of the choice that determines us. We cannot create endlessly new and different paths into the future. On the contrary, we must decide whom to follow: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:14-15). We are free to switch loyalties, but we cannot invent new armies and new objectives. With exactly the same underlying assumptions about the human condition, St. Paul insists that our choice, which recapitulates the original choice of Adam and Eve, is about whom to serve and not an invitation to brainstorm about the good life. “You are slaves of the one whom you obey, writes Paul, and in Adam we are conscripted into the army of sin (Romans 6:16).

The gospel stories evoke the same view of freedom when they portray the good news as a challenge to “the powers” that hold us in their thrall. We seem always beholden to a prior evil that gives us orders that we willingly obey, and Christ frees us by giving counter commands. Mammon leads us one direction; God leads us in another. When Paul says that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), he does not mean that we can opt out and wait for a third option. We are freed from sin precisely because we are taken captive in Christ. In him we serve the life-giving master.

Thus an appeal to Satan in our interpretation of Genesis 3 reinforces a general Biblical claim about our created condition. Our freedom is always a matter of whom we obey, and in sin we seek a perverse fulfillment of our natural desire for obedient service. Promethean self-direction is a fantasy, for we are not created with the capacity to serve ourselves. We can only serve that which is greater, which is why the supposition that the serpent is Satan fits nicely with the larger biblical tendency to see the fundamental form of sin as idolatry. The perverted human will follow the false gods, false leaders, and false promises, all the while imagining them to be the source of life.

The view of human freedom as a decision about whom to obey finds ample confirmation in everyday life. We cannot follow our instincts, but we can follow the idea of following our instincts. We cannot live as natural men and women, but we can follow a philosophy of natural existence. We cannot live only for ourselves but we can adopt the principle of egoism. By St. Paul’s analysis, in sin we pervert rather than undo or destroy the purposes for which human nature was created. We live a distorted facsimile of covenant. We are “slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe” (Galatians 4:3).

We were created to know and worship the living God, but in our blindness we serve dead idols (Romans 1:21-23). Thus, when we introduce the greater power of Satan into our interpretation of Genesis, we are not understanding human responsibility for sin, nor are we compromising the Pauline vision of salvation history. Instead, we are bringing our reading of the fall into conformity with the New Testament account of our slavery to sin. Sin is a perverted obedience, a false following, a deceived discipleship. To suppose the serpent to be a form of Satan helps us see the true form of our slavery to sin — and by contrast to see the obedient form of our participation in Christ.

Although there are strong reasons in support of a traditional reading of the serpent as Satan, neither scripture nor the classical theological tradition gives Satan an ongoing, central role in the unfolding of the divine plan. St. Paul observes “sin came into the world through one man” (Romans 5:12) and that the divine campaign against the entire empire of evil is conducted through “that one man Jesus Christ (Romans 5:15). While we may not be commanders in the cosmic conflict, salvation history turns on our loyalty. Although the possibility of evil should be traced back to the purely spiritual freedom of fallen angels, we need to be careful. The origin of evil should not be confused with the location of its ultimate conflict with goodness. The centers of government may have been in Richmond and Washington, but the tide of the Civil War turned at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

For Gregory of Nyssa, the human focus of the scriptural story is clear from the outset, and he explains why God fittingly chooses our embodied freedom as the place to work out his redemptive plan. Our amphibious existence as both embodied and free places us at the center of the cosmic drama. “God, taking dust of the ground, formed the man, Gregory writes, “and, by an inspiration from Himself, He planted life in the work. of His hand, that thus the earthy might be raised up to the Divine, and so one certain grace of equal value might pervade the whole creation, the lower nature being mingled with the supra-mundane” (Catechetical Orations 6 in NPNF 5.480).

The human creature has a unique role. We are what angels and demons can never be: a hybrid of body and spirit that participates in all aspects of the created order. Through us, therefore, God can reach into all the corners of his creation. Neither pure spirit nor mere body, we are at the crossroads of reality. The future of the cosmos is in the hands of whichever army controls this strategic point.

Thus, for all the biblical concern about demons and for all the theological principles that warrant the hypothesis of the devil, focus falls on the human. We live out our loyalties in the quotidian realities of everyday life. It is here and now that we do the work of Satan, and it is here and now that we encounter Christ, who has the power to free us from the thrall of our own past choices, from the primordial choice of Adam and Eve, and from the original wickedness of Satan. We do the most to defeat the devil and sanctify the world when we focus on our core competence: obedience to the call of Christ in the midst of human affairs.


CREATION (part two) by R.R. Reno

August 26, 2011

The immediate reasons in support of a traditional interpretation and translation are strong, but we should broaden the argument, not only because further reasons are important in their own right, but also because we need to be clear-minded about the expansive scope of interpretation. A theological reading needs to approach scripture in such a way as to sustain a coherent, overall view of God’s plan and purpose. What is entailed in sustaining such a view is complex and opaque. No one can set criteria ahead of time, and there are no particular methods that will guarantee good results.

Sound interpretive arguments are always varied and cumulative. In this case, three broad considerations speak in favor of the traditional translation. A substantive interpretation of “beginning” will allow us to approach the larger question of creation in a way that

(1)  helps us avoid a false conflict between creation and science,
facilitates a fruitful engagement of faith with reason, and
(3)  gives a proper spiritual focus to our interpretive concerns.

The first advantage of the traditional approach to Genesis 1:1 concerns the relation between Genesis and modern cosmology. Modern physics analyzes the movements of matter and energy, and it operates with the notion of “beginning” as temporal sequence. For this reason, an approach to Genesis 1:1 that emphasizes the temporal sense in which “God began” will run afoul of modern science and its account of the beginning of the cosmos. In contrast, a theological reading of “beginning” as source and basis need not directly and primarily concern itself with modern cosmology. We can interpret Genesis with reference to the beginning out of which and for which God creates, and we need not coordinate the seven-day sequence with the complex physical processes that modern scientists think best explain the evolution of the universe. In other words, to adopt the tradition translation, “in the beginning:’ helps us focus on the divine purpose for creation rather than on the physical processes that gave rise to the created world.

Of course, a modern scientist may assert, as does Richard Dawkins, that there is no intent or purpose undergirding the world. [Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Penguin, 1990)] But a metaphysical pronouncement of this sort reflects the judgment that what modern science can or cannot investigate is coextensive with what is or is not the case. This highly implausible view undergirds the materialist claim that physical processes cause and explain everything, a claim that is an important and influential tenet of modern metaphysical ideologies. But as a clear distinction between “beginning” as first instance in an unfolding process and “beginning” as ultimate source and purpose helps us to see, materialism is neither entailed by nor part of modern scientific cosmology.

Thus, a Christian faith that reads Genesis as outlining the substantive rather than temporal source of creation is well prepared to endorse modern science while rejecting the faux metaphysics of modern scientism. [For a clear explanation of the import of modern cosmology and its relationship to classical doctrines of creation, see Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003). A PayingAttentionToTheSky reading selection from that work here.]

The second broad issue at stake in our approach to the beginning concerns the proper focus of interpretive anxiety. If we adopt a reading of Genesis  1:1 that follows the direction of Rashi’s use of Exodus 12:2, as well as John 1:1, then our interpretive question is forthright, and it brings us directly to the spiritual centers of both Judaism and Christianity. What is the purpose or intention from which God, as it were, counts back as the beginning? The New Testament writers were well aware of the crucial importance of this question. The author of John’s Gospel was not the only one to frame creation in terms of the divine plan. St. Paul writes: “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Paul’s formulation is a direct interpretation of Genesis 1:1. In (through) the beginning (Christ), God (the Father) created heaven and earth.

With this account of creation, St. Paul and the subsequent Christian tradition give priority to the specific revelation of the divine plan in Christ, but in a way that harmonizes faith with reason. Knowing the Lord Jesus is crucial to knowing the beginning in which and out of which all things come to be. As Augustine exhorts, “Mark this fabric of the world. View what was made by the Word, and then thou wilt understand what is the nature of the world” (Tractates on John 1.9 in NPNF’ 7.10). [The theological judgment is by no means merely antique. See Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2.27: "The story told in the Gospels states the meaning of creation."]

Christ is the master plan; he is the “beloved Son” who is “the first-born of all creation.” Christ is the beginning, “for in him all things were created” (Colossians 1:13-16). His saving death was planned “before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20). The Lord Jesus is the “bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16) by which the faithful take their bearings, and “in [him] are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). In sum: the world has a beginning by and in the divine Word, and we best orient ourselves to reality when we focus on Christ.

This affirmation of the priority of Christ would seem to set up a painful conflict between faith and reason, between knowledge of revealed truth and the sort of knowledge we acquire by scientific study of reality. But a substantive sense of beginning” prevents just such a conflict. Faith brings us to an ever more intimate union with the logos of creation, and as a result, theology is rightfully queen of the sciences. Theology orients our minds toward the truth of all things.

Yet, since Christ is the beginning or source of reality, theology does not take our minds to strange places and inculcate antiscientific attitudes. Rather, because Christ is the beginning from which and for which God creates, accurate knowledge of reality (what medieval scholars called philosophy and what we usually refer to as science) can help guide us toward the originating Word. Wisdom of Solomon 9:1 teaches that God has made all things by his word, and Psalms 104:24 proclaims: “O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all.” Endowed with intellectual powers that can see the outlines of wisdom in creation, our reason can prepare us for faith.

The third warrant for privileging a substantive sense of”beginning” bears directly on a central problem in Christian theology: the relation between nature and grace. A Christ-centered reading of God’s creation explains a perplexing, double affirmation that characterizes apostolic Christianity. On the one hand, everything is good — on the other hand, everything must change under the lordship of Christ. Not only are human creatures finite and natural aspects of the created order, they are also chosen and called. As the Genesis story moves forward, Abraham must leave home. He must transcend the natural bonds of filial love and the safety of his clan. This leave-taking is focused and intensified in Christian discipleship. Consider the demands of the Sermon on the Mount. The ordinary, worldly stuff of life — our bodies, our desires, our loyalties, our identities as social creatures — all this has a divinely ordained destiny that stretches well beyond what seems natural and normal.

There is a similar double affirmation in a Torah-centered reading. It leads to the classical rabbinic project of transforming everything into legal problems to be brought under the authority of divine law. In both the Christian and Jewish views, therefore, a problem emerges. There is an apparent contradiction between the goodness of creation and the drive toward sanctification. How can God call creation very good — and then turn around and continue to act upon it for the sake of pushing the human creature forward toward an even higher goal? How can the human body be good — but nonetheless require the commandment of circumcision for the sake of covenant? How can we harmonize the divine directive to “be fruitful and multiply” with the Pauline exhortation to prefer the celibate life?

These sorts of questions capture a deep worry that religious faith encourages in inhumane form of life, an aggressive attack on the natural limitations of our created condition. If God must act upon us by way of commandment rather than simply meet us in our desire for fellowship, then isn’t our hoped-for rest in God extrinsic and compelled? Isn’t the final end sought in faith an enslaving and alienating state of obedience?

The problem has perplexed Western Christianity ever since Augustine. How in the necessity of the outer pull of divine command be affirmed without supplanting the inner push of desire for God? How can we do justice to both the “attractive” and “imperative” dimensions of the Christian life, the sense in which faith is both exactly what the human creature needs and wants and, at the same time, something new, frightening, and unexpected? How can our free decision of faith be compatible with the sovereign grace of God that is necessary for any true and saving participation in Christ crucified and risen? [For a clearly developed account of this problem, keyed to the moral life, see Gilbert Meilaender, The Way Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, .2006), 71-76.]

These difficulties are resolved if we adopt a substantive sense of “beginning.” Christ is the master plan of all creation, and his call is necessarily toward a fulfillment rather than effacement or denial of creation. As Athanasius observes, “There is no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the one Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning” (On the Incarnation 1). In following Christ toward an end that is supernatural, we will not (to echo Nietzsche) vivisect our fragile, finite, natural lives. That which is created and mortal shall not be defeated or destroyed; it will “be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). In the words of T. S. Eliot:

“And the end of all our exploring /
Will be to arrive where we started /
And know the place for the first time.”

T. S. Eliot, “Little Giddings” lines 240-42, in Four Quartets
(New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1943), 59.

To put this truth in its popular Thomistic formula: grace perfects rather than destroys nature.

There is more. But we must stop here, because it should now be clear that the traditional translation is part of a fully developed and well-considered theological outlook. A decision in favor of a substantive beginning rather than a temporal sequence sets the interpretive agenda for the Bible as a whole. Creation is for the sake of something prior and more fundamental: the divine project or plan.

In the beginning, God subjected all things to his final purpose, just as an archer strings a bow in order to pull it back and load it with a force that strains forward toward its target (Romans 8:20-21). Thus, the very first verse of the Bible encourages us to read forward, plotting the trajectory of the text in all its extraordinarily rich diversity as it aims toward the fulfillment of the Word that is eternally spoken by the Father “in the beginning;’ out of which and for the sake of which all things were created.

Unlike the worldly archer, however, we do not possess the divine, consummating target of scripture as an item of knowledge that we can use in syllogisms, which is why wild apocalyptic discourse in the Bible can never be distilled into predictions. The plan and purpose of God is love, and it is revealed in its fullness in the person of Jesus Christ. As we are baptized into his body and follow his way, we participate in his truth rather than examine it as a fact or theory. We live amid the final realization of the divine plan, and we cannot stand still and coolly line up the endpoint of human history in our theological crosshairs. For this reason, our reading of Genesis (or any other book of the Bible) is not a simple retrospective calculation. One does not approach the days of creation with a slide rule, reasoning backward from a fixed point.

Instead, to begin Genesis “in the beginning” gives our interpretation a double quality. At every moment in the unfolding of the divine plan we rightly devote ourselves to the details. But the project of exegesis is not simply to settle purely local questions of meaning. Our goal should be to move forward ever more deeply into the beginning, into the mystery of Christ.

For this reason, theological interpretation necessarily combines a global framework with local color. Our overall take on the divine plan interacts with particular moments of scriptural evidence. The best possible reading of any verse of scripture will be one that allows us to both make sense of the words in front of us and see their role in guiding us toward fulfillment in Christ.


CREATION (part one) by R.R. Reno

August 25, 2011

The Mountains Of Creation

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

This time-honored translation follows the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation widely used in early Judaism and Christianity. The verbal formula plays an explicit role in John 1:1 (“in the beginning was the Word”), which itself provides an obvious interpretation of Genesis 1:1, emphasizing a beginning that is absolute and foundational. It is precisely this sense of “beginning;’ as well as its close association with John 1:1, that is muted by recent translations, which shift the word order: “in the beginning when God created” (NRSV) or “when God began to create” (New Jewish Publication Society Bible).

It is important to realize that we do not possess a quick way to settle the question of which translation is accurate. As Jews began to speak languages further and further removed from ancient Hebrew, a tradition evolved that provided vowel markings to guide pronunciation. This tradition culminated in the Masoretic Text, the oldest manuscript of which dates back to the ninth century after the time of Christ. By and large, modern scholars treat the Masoretic Text as definitive. But consulting the Masoretic Text is not always the obvious way to get to the original sense. The most influential Greek translation, the Septuagint, was made sometime in the third or second century before the time of Christ. In this version, the translators sometimes suggest readings of keywords that differ from those in the Masoretic Text. So, when it comes to the historical question of how to translate in such a way as to be faithful to the original text, the answers are not always easy.

When considering Genesis 1: 1, the problem becomes still more difficult, because the concept “beginning” has different shades of meaning. A point of departure can refer to a discrete moment in time. We might say, for example, “The train began its trip at 7:25 p.m.;’ and following this usage, the preference of contemporary translators for a more temporal and restricted sense of “beginning” is certainly plausible.

Yet a point of departure or beginning can also refer to a basis or a rationale, a purpose, or a reason. A scientist can say, “The second law of thermodynamics is the basis — the beginning — of cosmology.” Or, “Professor Smith’s class was the basis — the beginning — of my love of science.” This sense of “beginning” as source and origin is associated with the Greek term arche, the word used to translate Genesis 1:1 in the Septuagint and repeated in John 1:1. Of course, the sense of “beginning” as an origin or source rather than first instance in time is not simply a Greek idea. When scripture teaches that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:10), the claim is substantive, not temporal. Fear of the LORD is the origin of the wise life, not in the sense of the first step that is superseded by the second and third, but in the lasting sense of providing its basis or root. [For a full development of the possible senses of "beginning," see Origen's Commentary on John 1.16-22 (ANF 9.305-8). I follow Origen in also rejecting a temporal sense of "beginning" for interpreting Genesis 1:1: see his Homilies on Genesis 1.1 (FC 71.47-48).]

With these straightforward observations about the diversity of ancient traditions and the different senses of “beginning,” we face an interesting exegetical problem. The old translation brings to mind the traditional theological picture of God as the eternal, self-sufficient deity whose creative act “in the beginning” brings all time and reality into existence. The new translations that are supported by many biblical experts imply a different view. At a certain point in time and in a particular place in a preexisting cosmos, a deity set about to form this particular world. God is a power within the cosmos rather than the power that brings the cosmos into existence. Which, then, shall it be? Are we to cleave to the traditional translation and its implied theology of an absolute beginning, or should we follow contemporary scholarly judgments?

Rashi, the great eleventh-century rabbinic commentator, can help us move toward a satisfactory answer. At the outset of his commentary on Genesis, Rashi reiterates an earlier rabbinic opinion that the Pentateuch should have begun with Exodus 12:2 and not Genesis 1:1. The claim seems fanciful, but it is meant to interpret rather than correct the sacred text. The traditional rabbinic view holds that Exodus 12:2 expresses the first commandment that God gives to Israel. Thus, to say that the Bible should have begun with Exodus 12:2 is a way of dramatizing an important theological judgment: God creates for the sake of his commandments, for the sake of the Torah.

More is at work here than a general theological idea, however. It turns out that Exodus 12:2 is not just the first commandment to Israel. The verse also echoes the key, fraught word “beginning”: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” Furthermore, the commandment about the beginning of the months is odd, and it draws attention to a richer, more foundational sense of” beginning.” Exodus 12 as a whole is concerned with preparations for the Passover, and the implied meaning of 12:2 is that the Passover festival, in a certain sense, provides the beginning of the lunar calendar.

But, of course, the verse can’t mean that Passover is the temporal beginning of lunar cycles measured by months, since there were countless months before the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. ‘Thus, the passage must mean that the Passover provides an ultimate purpose or rationale for the lunar calendar. So our attention is redirected back to Genesis 1:1 and the origin of all things. In a substantive rather than temporal way the Passover serves as the beginning point, the arche of human history. The very cycles of the moon exist for the sake of marking the time of the Passover.

We can now see, therefore, that Rashi cites the ancient rabbinic opinion that the Bible should have begun with Exodus 12:2 because he wants to reinforce that larger theological judgment about Genesis 1 as a whole: God’s plan for the people of Israel is the most elementary, most fundamental aspect of creation. As another ancient interpretation glosses Genesis 1:1, “God looked into the Torah … and created the world” (Genesis Rabbah 1.1, quoted from Kugel 1998: 45).

The deliverance and sanctification of Israel, the Passover project so to speak, is that in which and for which God creates. Still another ancient interpretation puts the priority of God’s plan in paradoxical terms and gives a full-blown account of the divine plan: “Two thousand years before [God] created the world he created the Law; he had prepared the garden of Eden for the just and Gehenna for the wicked. He had prepared the garden of Eden for the just that they might eat and delight themselves from the fruits of the trees, because they had kept [the] precepts of the Law in this world and fulfilled the commandments. For the wicked he prepared Gehenna …. [and] within it darts of fire and burning coals for the wicked, to be avenged of them in the world to come because they did not observe the precepts of the Law in this world. “[Targum Neofiti 3.24 in Martin McNamara, trans., Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis, Aramaic Bible I A (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 63-64.] God first “creates” the future consummation of creation — “the world to come” in which Torah obedience and disobedience define existence — and then God creates for the sake of bringing this future to pass in the real time of creation.

This traditional rabbinic affirmation that the revelation of Sinai precedes reality — where “precedes” is given a substantive or foundational sense rather than in .a narrow, temporal sense — lines up fairly closely with the prologue to John’s Gospel. John 1:1, like Exodus 12:2, echoes the crucial word “beginning.” It affirms the truth that God creates out of his word or purpose. It is not that Rashi or any other Jewish commentator would agree that Christ, the incarnate Word, is the basis for creation. Rather, the rabbis and the author of John’s Gospel explicitly affirm a basic theological principle. The divine plan or project, however spelled out, is the beginning out of which and for which God creates.

At this point contemporary scholars are likely to raise objections. The current formulations such as “when God began” or “in the beginning when God created” stem, at least in part, from an anxiety that traditional theological loyalties have for too long over-determined our reading of scripture. This anxiety becomes particularly acute when modern biblical scholars see the New Testament (or ancient rabbinic interpretation) functioning as the lens through which we read the Old Testament. Historians worry that later doctrinal commitments exercise an extrinsic and anachronistic control over our interpretive imaginations. The danger is that we end up simply finding what we are looking for: confirmation of our dogmatic prejudices. In the meantime, the real meaning of the biblical text is lost. After all, as biblical scholars point out, the very next verse of Genesis evokes a standard ancient Near Eastern myth of primeval combat between the power for order and the power of chaos.

No doubt it is a good thing to want to recover the integrity of the distinctive voices and historical contexts for the diverse books of the Bible. The methods of historical-critical study allow us to see the biblical text as a multilayered, internally complex document, and this is a gain. There is no reason to think that the word of God should be one-dimensional and immediately accessible. [On the contrary, the church fathers consistently observe that it is fitting that the sacred scriptures should be difficult and confusing. For an account of the patristic theology of scriptural obscurity, see John J. O'Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation ofthe Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 128-39; and R. R. Reno, "Origen and Spiritual Interpretation," Pro ecclesia 15.1 (Winter 2006): 108-26.]

Nonetheless, the modern tradition of biblical interpretation tends to be blind to the wealth of reasons in favor of traditional readings. Exegetical judgments do not emerge out of nowhere, achieve communal authority, and then impose themselves on the interpretive imaginations of traditional readers and translators of the Bible. In the main, traditional readers formulated and gave credence to patterns of interpretation and translation because they discerned any number of intellectual and spiritual advantages that are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.

We need to turn, then, to a brief survey of some exegetical reasons in support of the substantive approach to “in the beginning;’ the approach that the rabbinic tradition cited by Rashi endorses. These reasons very likely guided those who produced the Septuagint and later translations, as well as the implied reading of Genesis 1:1 found in John 1:1. Needless to say, a comprehensive account is out of reach. How we treat the beginning is so fundamental to our overall interpretation of the Bible that reasons for any particular translation are almost coextensive with the articulation of a comprehensive, biblically sensitive theology. Nonetheless, it is possible to gain some insight into why the traditional translation (“in the beginning”) best conveys the meaning of Genesis 1:1.

The larger sweep of Genesis 1 provides the first indication. The days of creation certainly move forward in a temporal sequence. One day follows another, culminating in the seventh day, the Sabbath. But in spite of this apparent focus on when things happen, the dominant rhetorical theme of the first chapters of Genesis concerns how God creates. Each day is introduced with the refrain “and God said.” This forceful rhetorical pattern is echoed elsewhere. Recalling the angels and the heavens,  Psalms. 148:5 gives all praise to God, “for he commanded and they were created.” From this picture of God’s voice as the instrument of creation, it is a very short step to something like the interpretation of Genesis 1:1 found in John 1:1: “In the beginning” — that is, in his all-powerful word — “God created the heavens and the earth “

A substantive reading of” beginning” has another, more literal form of textual support. Many ancient commentators saw an obvious difficulty standing in the way of a straightforward, temporal interpretation of the sort found in translations such as “when God began.” In Genesis 1 the sun, moon, and stars are created on the fourth day. How, then, can there be a “first day” when the sun, whose movements mark day and night, does not exist?

Furthermore, at any moment half of the earth is in darkness, while the other half is illuminated by the sun. So, we never think of the earth as a whole (to say nothing of the larger universe) as existing in the temporally distinct states of day and night. In view of these difficulties, we should not be surprised that St. Augustine worried that a strictly temporal reading of Genesis I would entangle interpreters in countless difficulties. “I fear,” he wrote, “that I will be laughed at by those who have scientific knowledge of these matters and by those who recognize the facts of the case” (Literal Commentary on Genesis 1.10 in FC 41.30; see also City of ‘God 11.7 in Bettenson 1972: 436-37). To avoid this problem Augustine subordinated the temporal sense of the day-by-day account to what he took to be the more important, substantive sense of “beginning.”

There are still further textual reasons in support of the traditional interpretation and translation of the beginning, reasons that draw on the insights of modern biblical scholarship. In the terminology of modern biblical study, Genesis 1 reflects the interests and worldview of P, the Priestly writer or writers, while Genesis 2 stems from I, the Yahwist source. ["J" comes from the scholars who first developed this theory of the composition of Genesis transliterating their vocalization of the divine name in German as Jahweh.]

This is not the place to give an account of scholarly opinions about the historical contexts for P and J or their roles in the overall composition of the canonical form of Genesis. However, it is important to know that isolating distinct traditions and assigning different sections of Genesis to one source or the other has helped modern biblical readers. It allows us to step back from a merely local reading of Genesis in order to consider how the different sections and episodes within Genesis reflect and advance particular theological concerns. In this case, to know that Genesis 1 stems from the Priestly tradition encourages us to think about how the seven-day account of creation fits with the cultic theology of ritual and sacrifice in Leviticus, as well as the emphasis on the centralized, priest-governed worship in Jerusalem found in the historical books of the Old Testament.

As a modern historian, then, the first and most important thing to say about the opening account of creation in Genesis is that it stems from a Priestly tradition that wishes to place temple and sacrifice at the center of our perceptions of the deepest logic and purpose of reality. The Priestly theology of temple and sacrifice is the arche or beginning of the P account of creation. [One need not depend on the aid of modern biblical scholarship. Canonical writers also emphasized the temple-oriented structure of creation. Thus Jeremiah 17:12: "A glorious throne set on high from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary." See also Wisdom of Solomon 9:8: "Thou hast given command to build a temple on thy holy mountain, and an altar in the city of thy habitation, a copy of the holy tent which thou didst prepare from the beginning." The same vision of a temple "in the beginning" continues in the New Testament: "We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord" (Hebrews 8:1-2).]

Thus we are pretty much where Rashi and John’s Gospel left us. To be sure, there are important differences. The traditional rabbinic opinion that God creates for the sake of the Torah and the traditional Christian view that the eternal Word was with God in the beginning make distinct claims about God and reality. In contrast, modern scholars direct our attention toward sociological rather than theological truths: certain ideologies and political loyalties shape the final form of the biblical text. Nonetheless, the logic of “beginning” is the same in each case. Genesis presents the days of creation in terms of a substantive, underlying source: God’s plan for traditional readers, Priestly ideology for modern historical scholars.

Here we encounter a persistent paradox in modern biblical study. The actual implications of its methods and analysis are often at odds with its exegetical judgments (although not always; see von Rad 1972:46). Rashi, the authors of various New Testament texts and modern biblical scholars assume that the creation account has a beginning in which or for the sake of which the seven days unfold across Genesis 1. Again, it does not matter that Rashi will say that God creates for the sake of the Torah, over and against the author of John’s Gospel, who implies that God creates for the sake of the incarnation of his Word — both of whom are contradicted by the modern biblical scholar who says that the writer or writers of the creation account formulated the seven-day sequence for the sake of reinforcing a Jerusalem-oriented temple ideology. All agree that creation emerges out of a prior plan or purpose — traditional readers putting the plan in the mind of God, and modern readers putting it in the mind of the tradition that stands behind the P source. This striking consensus militates against the contemporary preference for a thin, temporally focused reading of Genesis 1:1 and strongly supports the substantive sense of the traditional translation: “In the beginning.”



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