This is one of my shots of a Snowfall, which so damaged some of our high country farmers. Snow is neither good or bad, except in the eyes of those who perceive it to be so.
Your body and mine are made from atoms that are so heavy that in all the universe there is only one place where they could have been formed: the interior of a star is the only place with sufficiently high temperature and pressure to construct an atom heavier than helium. The fact that we are here at all testifies to the life and then extinction of a star (or stars) somewhere, someplace, some unimaginably vast time ago. The universe is a terrifyingly violent place. It proceeds by the operation of vast forces manifesting in the gathering of matter and explosions and collisions and births and deaths. Things, and I mean all things without exception, in our universe come into existence, have a presence for a while and die. The matter from which they are constructed is redistributed and reused by other parts of the universe time and time and time again. This eternal dance of being and non-being is beautiful and powerful, and it is neither good nor evil: it just is.

As the universe has evolved it has produced ever more complex arrangements of some of its matter, and some of those arrangements are living. Plants and animals have evolved on at least one of the universe's planets and the processes which operate over all the universe (well, as far as we can tell) also seem to operate with living things. They come into existence, they are here for a while and then they die, each and every one of them. In death, and also in life, the matter of which they are comprised is taken from them and reused by other parts of the universe, living and dead, time and time and time again. Plants eat each other and are eaten by animals who are in turn eaten by other animals and all, for as long as they are here, are a living larder for a billion microbes. And again, none of this is good or evil, it just is.

Some spiders eat their partners after mating, as do praying mantises. This is not murder, it is the animal manifesting  patterns of behaviour hardwired into its tiny brain and over which it has no control whatsoever. So, even as Mrs Mantis happily chows down on her bridegroom's head, she is an innocent; blameless; an unfallen creature. Further up the evolutionary tree, creatures with much larger brains and more complex behaviours also do things which, to us, seem unsavoury. Packs of young male dolphins will herd a single female and take turns copulating with her. Chimpanzees will turn on one of their own and beat them for reasons opaque to us, and gangs of them will wage war on neighbouring troops, systematically killing off the males and abducting the females. But intelligent as these creatures are, I don't think they can be accused of rape, or bullying or murder or genocide. Again, even as they are performing what seem to us to be atrocities they are innocents; they are acting on impulses with no knowledge of the moral impact of their actions; they are blameless, unfallen creatures. I have expanded on this a little elsewhere.

Somewhere, millennia ago, chimpanzees shared a long forgotten ancestor with us. At some unknown time between the life of that ancient tupuna and the present day a profound change happened: in our branch of the family tree, but not, as far as I can tell, that of the chimps, the sense of self attained sufficient sophistication that the animals were conscious of two things:

1. Their own mortality. Many animals grieve the deaths of loved ones. Elephants seem fascinated with corpses and bones of their own kind as do some birds. Chimpanzees have been known to pine to death after the loss of a close friend or relative. But with us there is a development which I suspect to be unique, and that is that we individually understand that we are finite and that we will personally die.
2. Knowledge of good and evil. We have an ability which I suspect is unique to us, of being able to think abstractly, and part of this ability is being able to form abstract concepts of good or evil. We are able not just to respond to the instincts which motivate our nearest animal relatives, but to compare our own behaviour to some abstract notion or other of what  that behaviour should be. Unavoidable baggage comes with this knowledge of life and of morality, namely, the crushing existential anxiety which accompanies our senses of finitude and of moral failure. And with that anxious burden we are no longer innocents. We are fallen creatures.

 The genius of the book of Genesis is that it describes this process with exquisite metaphorical precision. In chapter 3 the old poem locates our ancestors in a garden sited at the place where the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Pishon and the Gihon all originate - in other words, a place which doesn't exist in the world as we know it.  The garden is a place of innocence, and has in its centre the trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil. Desiring to know as God knows, From the Earth (אָדָם) and his consort Source of Life (חַוָּה) eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all changes. They get what they want, that is they know, but they can avoid neither the unexpected consequences of their knowing nor the responsibility which the knowledge brings with it.

To develop the level of consciousness which we are blessed (or cursed ?) with, which to my mind seems precisely what the universe was set up to produce, means we are also fated to live with the consequent and inevitable awareness of death and guilt upon the avoidance of which so much of our human endeavour and achievement is built.

Of course, the Christian Gospel tells us that this is not the end of the story, but that's a post for another day. 


Anonymous said…
"The genius of the book of Genesis is that it describes this process with exquisite metaphorical precision."

But why do you prefer this Hebrew myth (as I assume you deem it) to its Babylonian cousin? or to the creation stories of India or China?
Why reject the Epic of Gilgamesh as untrue?

Kelvin Wright said…
Brian! I am surprised that of all people, you need to ask that. Because "all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."

Kelvin Wright said…
...or is the subtext of your question the assumption that God is only capable of inspiring one genre of literature, and that if a text is deemed not to be that particular genre it couldn't possibly be regarded as inspired?
Anonymous said…
If space was flat and reality continuous then this would be a good description of the universe. However space is not flat and reality is quantum. And so this is just another shot in dark. Our minds are simply not capable of knowing the universe.
Anonymous said…
Kelvin, that's the answer *I* would give - I was wondering about *your* understanding of this in the light of your earlier posts about evolution, which seemed to deny the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Fall, as well as problematizing the historical understanding of the Atonement (if I read you correctly - apologies if I have misread you). If there was no historical Fall from a state of communion or fellowship with God (as I understand Jesus to teach in the Gospels, as well as his apostles), then the whole Adam-Christ typology in NT theology falls apart - indeed, I believe, the whole fabric of soteriology starts to unravel.
Genesis is Scripture for me because it was Scripture for my Lord Jesus Christ. That's basically how my doctrine of Scripture works, and it makes me wrestle with difficulties, rather than shortcut them. And the Bible tells me things about human beings that speculative palaeonotology and anthropology couldn't, not least because they work from materialistic assumptions about reality and human beings.
In short, evolutionary theory tries to explain morality as a (painfully slow) evolution of responses, born of 'natural selection', that purport to serve that end, i.e. the survival of the species. But I just can't accept that premise, and somewhere Alvin Plantinga has presented a wonderful rebuttal of the inadequacy of natural selection as an explanation of our minds. In short, I'm a dualist when it comes to the mind-body problem. I'll post the link if I can find it.

Anyway, I like the fact that you're happy to have people disagree (civilly!) with you.

Of course I don't put limits on Almighty God's "capabilities"!
Merv said…
On a different tack - it's puzzling to me that the pinnacle (thus far) of the mighty evolutionary machine is a guilt & angst-ridden, avoidance-driven mammal.
Surely the universe could do better than this.
Anonymous said…
This is the Plantinga link on Naturalism, Evolution and Knowledge - I'm quite a fan of Plantinga and his Reformed Epistemology.


Kelvin Wright said…
I take scripture very seriously, and have, for the last 40 years at least, always regarded it as inspired. But I also take seriously the discoveries made about our universe - its age, and probable course of development. So the question is, how do these fit together? The efforts of some to deny the discoveries of science in order that their presumptions about HOW the Bible is the word of God may be preserved strike me as diingenuous at best. There is never anything to be feared in the Truth. So there must be a way of holding these two things - the inspiration of scripture and the knowledge gained by svientific enquiry - in a creative tension. And there is. I don't deny the reality of the fall, or of the redemption but what I do deny is the particular narrative which explains those realities. I have arrived at a different narrative, but know that there is in all likelihood yet another one (or ones) lying deeper down that I may or may not get to, depending on how long I live. I can say the creed and read the 39 articles without crossing my fingers.

I think that the created order does sit in a different relationship with God than we self conscious people do. I think that the "rising" to a knowledge of good and evil and of death did remove us from a primal awareness of God. I do believe that God is drawing us back to that primal awareness but in a new and deeper way. We are moving, as William Blake described it, from an original innocense, through experience towards a new innocense. I think we are doing that as a species. I think each of us follows that path, usually incompletely, during the course of our individual lives.
Kelvin Wright said…
Merv, I think the universe IS doing better than this. We are as a species a work in progress. And as individuals we are all works in progress. And I expect that the Universe is also a work in progress.
Kelvin Wright said…
...and yes, of course, Brian, Genesis was scripture for Jesus.And so were a few other books, not canonical to us, for that matter. But I doubt you know any more than any of the rest of us how Jesus approached scripture. And of course we are on very shaky ground if we plead some sort of special knowledge for Jesus, outside of that which could be expected of a first century Jewish man who probably never left the borders of Israel. Yes, he was very God of very God. But the mystery of the incarnation is that the Word became fesh: he was also completely human. And human beings aren't omniscient. There was a time in other words when the Lord of the Universe lay in a cradle not knowing even how to talk.
Kelvin Wright said…
I am currently fairly committed until late Monday and won't respond again until then.

There are a couple of helpful comments that people have made anonymously. Would you be so kind as to post them again and put your name to them?