Friday, 9 February 2018

Ultimate Purpose and reflections from Genesis 1-3

Justin Brierley's brilliant Unbelievable show resumes its traditional format of atheist versus Christian format after a more in-house discussion on the tricky genocidal aspects of Yahweh's instructions to his invading people to violently invade and dominate the Promised Land (I have blogged a little about the Old Testament violence issue already here).

What do you think about the argument of our life's purpose? Do we even ask these questions correctly? Without going into the Unbelievable debate in any detail (you can check it out Can we find God in a suffering world?), I was once again left to ponder, unsatisfied, on our definitions of such a fundamental issue as "purpose", but also strangely drawn to the apparent inevitability of the connection to suffering. But let's leave suffering for a moment.

My Christian heritage is founded on the biblical idea that originally, we could have inhabited a world without any suffering whatsoever. No death - except maybe that of vegetation. Yet, despite that eventuality of pain, there was a purpose.

Genesis 1

Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’

Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.

On this basis, Jews, Christians and Muslims share that there is a purpose that supercedes that of the animal kingdom. Vegetation exists in order to be eaten. Animals exist in order to eat and be eaten. Humans, however are to thrive and rule. Eating is clearly pretty important - it comes up quite a bit, but it is never provided as the reason or purpose. The mandate for humans is to share in a divine mandate, to share in the gods' work of order and rule, all of which ultimately comes under the presidency of Yahweh himself. The delegation is so great that humankind get to name the animals. That's huge and weird if you think about it, not naming what you created, maybe a bit like asking your kid to name their younger sibling. Maybe. 

So what this story has taught us is that there are layers of meaning. We all have "purpose". The question really is just how up the ladder do we want to climb? Do we just want to be physically fulfilled? Do we desire that deeply for our family and close friends too (layer 2)? Or do we feel empathy and a call to act to right wrongs in our society that may not even affect us directly (layer 3?)

One of the problems with the Genesis 1-2 scenario (there are quite a few actually, depending on how you read the text) is the notion of order. The jurisdiction and domination over creation without suffering often overlooks a lurking clue to the source of evil. There was still chaos. Where there is no order, there is not a vacuum, and the Old Testament language continues to revisit and enrich the Israelite understanding of order and disorder. I guess that's even why naming comes in. Give something nameless a name, you reduce its uncertainty, you provide it with blissful parameters.

So our purpose is to rule over our God-appointed spheres of influence. Before "the Fall", this was not to eat, but to weigh in on ruleless "chaos" and provide order. I think that is really where I want to leave it today, so here's a quick summary and then a quick idea about the serpent of Genesis 3:

  • "Purpose" is not about ground-level existence, it's minimum one rung up from that since this is essentially the plant and animal level.
  • An orderlessness, or a need-to-be-ordered, pre-existed any bad human choices.
  • Naming carries big responsibility.

The exchange with the serpent

So what about that crafty serpent of Genesis 3? Was it the one Jesus referred to as Satan? Who knows, but one thing that today's reflection has clarified for me is that both Adam and Even shirked their responsibility, climbed down their ladder of purpose, and allowed the creation to dictate ideas and mandates of its own. The serpent is a created beast here, albeit an admittedly developed one endowed with the faculties of speech. But there has been no mention of it having received any other special privilege such as giving orders or holding responsibility on God's behalf. The great fall merits its capitalised "The Fall" when we realise that mankind has abandoned its remit of good order and been dictated to by the very creature over which rule was supposed to be exercised. This was the greater "sin" in my view - as bad as the fruit-eating episode was. So how should Adam and Eve have responded to the crafty serpent? "No, I won't eat the fruit" - is that really all that they were being tested here? Most certainly not - the serpent was "a beast" and needed severe punishment for threatening the rule. A simple refusal could still be a recognition of upset lines of authority and order.

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