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Monday, January 2, 2012

More on Imagination

One of the critical, perhaps the most critical, tasks of Christian faith is to know and love God.  In my own thought, the lines of inquiry that interest me are those which deal with knowing and loving God.  So when I read scripture, I read it with this in mind.

This means I have little interest in ways of studying scripture that might distract me from this critical task.  Many Christians, for example, feel a great need to prove that creation happened in six days, or that a primordial flood happened just as it is described in Genesis.  But these efforts, and this way of approaching scripture, teach me little about who God is and how I might love God.  Perhaps they help some people to have faith in the supernatural who might not otherwise have faith.  But I already have faith.  And the prospect that the world was not literally created in six days sometime within the last 10,000 years, or that a primordial flood did not really happen as described in Genesis, does not disturb me.  The Bible was not written to tell us that a flood really happened or that creation happened within a specific frame of time.  The Bible came into being so that we might know and love God.

Regarding the creation story, Walter Wink demonstrates the approach I favor in his now classic Engaging the Powers and the more readable Powers that Be.  The ancient Hebrew people took the dominant creation myth of the day, found in the Babylonian epic, the Enuma Elish, and transformed it through an act of astonishing and inspired imagination into a story which proclaimed a revolutionary new vision of life's purpose and meaning, and introduced the world to a living, loving, creating, beautiful God.

The debate between modern six-day scientific creationism and evolutionary alternatives allows Christians to completely miss, and avoid if they wish, the truth of this radical story.  Conor Cunningham in Darwin's Pious Idea:  Why the ultra-Darwinists and Creationists both get it wrong, calls creationism heresy, and claims Darwin, properly read, expresses Christian truth.

My faith does not rest on the ability to prove the full historicity of scripture as modern humans might understand it.  It rests on a vision of God, and of the purpose and meaning of life, that I find coherent, compelling and true.

The Noah story is another delightful illustration of the theological imagination of the Hebrew people.  Several years ago when doing research for a sermon, I came across a version of the Gilgamesh Epic (another Babylonian classic), in the Moundridge, Kan., Middle School library.  Tellingly, this book was published by the Christian publisher Eerdmans.  Why would Eerdmans want middle school children to learn the Gilgamesh Epic?  I leave that one to you, but I have an idea.  Included in the Gilgamesh Epic is a primordial flood story involving a heroic man who builds a boat to escape the flood with his family.  The details of the story bear remarkable similarity to the Genesis account.  It is clear that the Hebrew people were aware of the Gilgamesh version, and borrowed it for their purposes.

What is stunning, though, is not the similarity, but the difference.  Yet again, the Hebrew people took freely available ancient literary material and revolutionized it to proclaim their own unique vision of God and the meaning and purpose of life.  Debates about whether or not there was a primordial flood, and efforts to find the lost ark are tragically misguided, in that they distract from the truth proclaimed in the biblical text.

The vision articulated by the Hebrew people, and their spiritual kindred, the early Christians, spoke into the world a radical new vision of God and of the meaning and purpose of life.  This vision, and this understanding of life's meaning and purpose has shaped us, each of us, to some degree or another.  We have not invented ourselves, but it is through their eyes we understand ourselves and the world around us.  At the very least, we are wise, honest, and humble, to respect this heritage, and acknowledge our debt to the biblical imagination.  I am grateful that, through the biblical imagination, I get a glimpse of God, and some early lessons on how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.


mlind said...

Actually, I think the creation was closer to 5 3/4 days, since God was pretty much done by Saturday evening. Otherwise, an inspiring post....
--Matthew Lind

Roy said...

I applaud your insistence on keeping your connection with scripture focused. I’ve been influenced in recent years by the writing of Karen Armstrong. One of her themes is that religion is not about providing information such as human origins and cosmology. That is the task of the rational brain. “Religion’s task” quoting Karen, “closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.” I think Karen’s idea is in keeping with your comments and they have been instructive for me. Initially, Phil, my response included some other issues but they can wait for a later time. Thanks.