Sunday, December 26, 2010

God of Discontinuity

In my last post I touched on how the vision of holiness in the Mosaic Law was one of demographic or ethnic segregation. The Mosaic Law through the application of arbitrary rubrics of table fellowship, genital mutilation, intermarriage restrictions, and ritual purity sought to segregate (make holy) the children of Israel thus creating a discontinuity between the covenant people and the rest of humanity. The particularistic vision of the Mosaic Law is expanded somewhat in the Hebrew Prophets such that foreigners are said to one day universally succumb to the arbitrary standards of inclusion mandated in the Pentateuch (e.g., Isaiah 2:1-4; 56:1-6) in the death of pluralism and cultural diversity.

In addition to the demographic discontinuities fostered in the Mosaic Law and the Hebrew Prophets, the Bible also promotes a profound dichotomy between humanity and the cosmos. In a famous passage, the psalmist states:

What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him? Yet Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou hast made him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet: sheep and oxen, all of them, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea; whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas (Psalm 8:5-9).

In a clear reiteration of the "image of God" and the "dominion mandate" themes of the exilic priestly pericope of Genesis chapter one and likewise of the earlier Yahwist passages Genesis two and three, the psalmist here affirms that man is crowned with dominion over creation including all the animals. The late theologian turned "geologian" Thomas Berry, in speaking of how our Western, Judeo-Christian, consumeristic culture has lost its sense of connection to the natural world, speaks of our ancestors' sense of continuity with nature:

To alter this primordial sense of continuity throughout the universe seems to have been the basic purpose of biblical revelation. Within the biblical context, the continuity of divine presence with the natural world was altered by establishing the divine as a transcendent personality creating a world entirely distinct from itself. In addition, the continuity of the divine with the human was altered by the establishment of a covenant relationship based on a juridic model. The continuity between the human community and the natural world was altered by identifying the human as a spiritual being in contrast to all other beings. Only the human really belonged to the sacred community of the redeemed. The previous sense of a multi-species community was diminished (p. 51, italics mine).

The biblical texts are not solely to blame for the great divorce between humanity and the natural world. With the agricultural revolution, humanity was already expressing a growing separation from the rest of nature, but the Bible canonizes this aspect of our cultural development—it takes what is otherwise malleable and dogmatizes it. As part of this discontinuity, the Judeo-Christian tradition envisions human nature, the natural man in Pauline rhetoric, as evil and sensual, something to be combated against. In reality, human nature is as much capable of selflessness and benevolence as it is of selfishness and violence—both polarities of our nature are rooted in our evolutionary past, both are part of our connection to nature.

With emphasis on personal, spiritual redemption, the Judeo-Christian tradition dichotomizes humanity and the natural world. This often results in knee-jerk rejection of the idea that humans are animals and have non-human animal ancestry, an ancestry shared with all of life on Earth. This sense of discontinuity hence works to enslave human minds in ignorance—teaching them to deny the important sociological and biological implications of evolution. Likewise, it results in "God-Hates-Green" ethics that teach against environmental ethics (see: God Hates Green) and concern for the long-term biological health and biodiversity of Earth's biosphere.

In contrast with ethical systems based on a God of discontinuity, humanity needs to foster a globally-responsible ethic, one that takes into consideration the long-term health of humanity as part of the biosphere. We need monistic ethical systems that disdain the dichotomies of our ancestors such as are encoded and cultivated in the biblical texts.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: 2006.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I am checking this blog using the phone and this appears to be kind of odd. Thought you'd wish to know. This is a great write-up nevertheless, did not mess that up.

- David

Peter said...

Hey David,

Thank you for the feedback. What appears odd? Sometimes, in different browsers, it might look different. My blog pulls up well on my phone and on my home computer. On my work computer it sometimes looks a little disjointed (the tabs are disconnected from the body of the blog).

Thank you!