Learning to Pray

My wife and I were speaking with a psychologist friend, whose colleague is an atheist.

She’s never studied theology in depth and so she found herself frustrated with his argument that the archetypal underpinnings of Christianity and its similarity of aspects of previous myths show that it isn’t true. This led to a brief discussion about prayer which led me to some thoughts about the meaning and experience of prayer and how to help Christians learn to pray:

  1. We tend to talk to ourselves, so when we pray and it feels like we’re talking to ourselves, that’s not as awkward a state as we think it is.
  2. We frequently talk with imagined versions of people we know, rehearsing arguments we want to make, things we wish we said, bouncing ideas off of idealized versions of parents, fictional characters, and so-on.
  3. We also reason to ourselves about our ideals and our relationship to various rules: am I speeding? was that the right thing to do?
  4. We, if we’re really self-conscious, have conversations with ourselves about an ideal version of ourselves: “will this make me who I want to be…do I care?”
  5. This can lead us to moral and practical introspection of the sort that is very helpful.
  6. We frequently wish, in an impersonal way, for things. “I wish I had less debt.”
  7. Psychologically, when we wish for something or make a goal, our perceptions tend to filter the world in terms of that goal. If you want a motorcycle and set yourself to getting, you see more motorcycles, more open opportunities to buy one, and so-on. And so, there is a psychological explanation for why prayers seem to be coincidentally answered. For a brief look into how this happens with goal based behavior, here’s the gorilla study.
  8. So, if all prayer does is change your perceptions it’s worth it.
  9. Prayer, defined as making requests of what we perceive to be the greatest possible being (God), forces us to compare ourselves not just to the ideal people around us, but to the greatest possible ideal. And so prayer, in the way previously mentioned, reconfigures us to look for opportunities to seek the highest possible ideal we could imagine for ourselves.

And again these aren’t theological reasons to pray, per se. They’re natural experiences most of us have. And they may be conversation pieces to have with somebody who struggles with prayer. The theological realities of prayer, that God hears our weakest requests and honors them are not negated by recognizing some of the more natural elements of prayer. If you believe that we are what God made us, then all these natural results of prayer are God ordained anyway.

Another brief thought, Christian devotion times don’t have to be all prayer in the sense of “asking God for things.” Christian devotion includes soliloquy, prayer, meditation (mulling over a subject), contemplation (focusing the mind on aiming at God), letting your mind wander in silence, introspection, study, family discussion, and so-on.

Our devotion time doesn’t have to be “15 minutes of prayer…followed by listening for God to tell us something specific.”

Two Ways of Speaking About God

There are, it seems, two main ways the Bible speaks about God:

  1. Phenomenologically – with reference to how God is experienced. This category utilizes metaphor, myth, positive language, etc.
  2. Ontologically – with reference to God’s nature or being. This category typically uses negative language or positive language which implies non-describable realities.

Here is an example of each:

  1. Deuteronomy 1:30-31 ESV The LORD your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, (31) and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’
  2. Hosea 11:9 ESV I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

Neither of these is superior to the other. One is in terms of an attempt at scientific accuracy, which is helpful for guarding against idolatry. The other is psychologically true and perhaps historically true in a way that is meaningful to finite minds.

The usefulness of each way of speaking about God isn’t always obvious, but I’ll try.

Speaking of God as a mythical bird or angelic creature whose wings can keep you safe (Psalm 36:7), is more experientially true for many people than an exact explanation of how we think or hope that providence and eternal rewards will work out.

But some people might believe that God really has wings in such a way that God is a being in the universe subject to nature and therefore not God. In such cases, language like Paul’s might be best:

Acts 17:24-25 ESV The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, (25) nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Note that the positive description of God as the one “who made the world” implies that God is not the world or reducible to any feature of the world. And this God doesn’t live in temples or need things. And so the language is philosophical, ineffable, and negative. God is a mysterious other, who nevertheless exists.

But as helpful as that language is, it still misses some of what Hosea said near the passage quoted above (the one which pointed out that God isn’t a man):

Hosea 11:8 ESV How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

This passage portrays God as incapable of passing righteous judgment upon Ephraim and Israel, Admah and Zeboiim, due to deep personal love and even need.

And so, there are two ways of speaking about God, and both matter.

Pre-Evangelism

One of the ways Christians try to evangelize is to help them see how wretched they really are so that they might see their need for Jesus. Other try to help people see their philosophical need for an absolute truth. And just share Jesus without any preamble.

These are often wise.

But I’ve come across some people who are so wretched, weak, and disdainful of themselves and being in general that something like “living forever with God” sounds worse than dying and sleeping forever.

How can we help them aside from prayer?

I suspect sometimes, the pre-evangelism necessary might include helping them get their lives together generally, if at all possible. Why? If their life isn’t purely miserable, then eternal life might seem like a worth while goal or a gift worth receiving.

How do you help people do this?

I’m not certain but I have some ideas.

Journalism: A lost art?

I was looking up some of Will Gervais’ recent work on atheism (has in the past published on why even atheists dislike athiests, heh).

One of the articles that popped up was a salon article about his recent work about the apparent prevalence of atheism in the United States. In the final paragraph the author remarked that, about Trump:

As with his other attempts to turn back the clock in America, President Trump’s remark in his inaugural address about joining all Americans together with “the same almighty Creator,” threatens the intricate and varying histories, beliefs and ways of being that are present in this country.

But Trump is a guy who, if ever, only took an interest in God very recently and has made no moves toward a theocracy in any policy.

The article had an awesome title portending the rise of hidden atheists within evangelicalism, “Trump Evangelicals face a growing number of ‘hidden atheists.'” I had hoped for an article about atheists going to church or something (of course this was Solong magazine).

I am aware of several atheists who are willing to participate in Christian culture if it means not submitting to a Muslim culture. I heard one atheist put it this way, “What if the choice isn’t between atheism and Christianity, but between Jesus and Muhammad?” But the headline had nothing to do with the article. The current religious demographic is the same as it was during the election, which means that with the current atheist population, Trump won. So if “Trump evangelicals” are facing “hidden atheists” I don’t know in what sense, if any, that is significant. I’ve known several atheists at most stages in my conscious memory. When I was a kid, I temporarily thought God made no sense because a giant man-in-space couldn’t see both sides of the earth simultaneously. Atheism, particularly of the uncritical sort, is as common as hammers.

Anyway, I applaud the author for trying to apply the findings of #SCIENCE to a topic not addressed in the original piece, but the remark I quoted above is essentially a non-sequitur in relationship to the Trump quote, the numbers cited, and the headline. Why? One, a president (Trump or otherwise) using the vague language of American civil religion is hardly an attempt to threaten the beliefs of atheist Americans. Even the phrase “almighty creator” can be vague enough to be endorsed by Christians, Muslims, or atheists who think the universe generates life through random processes (incidentally, it’s atheists I know who dwell within the darkest corners of the neo-reactionary movement, not the Christians…so I’m interested to know what atheist support for Trump actually looks like despite the left leaning tendencies of atheists).

Two, Obama had several similar references to God in his two inaugural addresses. Here’s one:

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.  This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.  This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Oh no, the president threatened the stories of atheists by claiming that their confidence in American ideals is theologically rooted!

Anyway, I’ll get around to making a post about atheists being disliked, but for now, at least I found one more barely readable article written to the glee of the internet about how one last thing might spell the end of Donald Trump’s campaign.

Jordan Peterson’s Online University

Over at Captain Capitalism, Aaron Clarey made a point I don’t find fully convincing.

It’s a brief and hidden point in a post I otherwise agree with entirely. He mentions Jordan Peterson’s desire to offer a liberal arts education online and calls the degree Peterson would offer worthless. 

Now, in context, Clarey has affirmed that which I affirm: that the modern university’s liberal arts program is worthless. He describes it here:

Yes, liberal arts degrees, especially the social justice warrior slop Coursera is serving up, are worthless, pointless, even damaging to the students naive enough to take them.  Yes, these courses/degrees will ruin their lives, at minimum sending them down the career path of poverty and e-begging, at worst replacing family, love, freedom, and excellence with a fervent ideological addiction to socialism.  And yes, you can learn this slop for free, with the exact same employment prospects, as going to the library and reading ALL the liberal arts/Marxist books you want.

With this I absolutely agree and majoring in that crap not only leaves you nearly unemployable, but it also makes you resentful and teaches you to reject the past and every good thing you might learn from it or that it has given you.

But I think that the vision Peterson has for a liberal arts degree is of the sort that made those degrees worth having in the past. Clarey has a “Clarey test” for whether or not a person might have good advice. One of them is whether or not they have a worthless degree and he gives history and other humanities degrees a pass if they’re before the Marxist/Postmodern shift in the universities. If Peterson’s vision is like this, and people learn to think logically, creatively, precisely, and deeply through his program then I think it would teach people to be extremely happy in an economic and spiritual sense. 

Anyway, Clarey’s book are good. I recommend them.

Sick with sin: is the ‘sin as sickness’ model true or helpful?

It is frequent in Christian circles to speak of sin as a deadly illness or sickness from which we need God’s help, healing, and deliverance. 

The Bible is not unfamiliar with this concept. For instance, sin and righteousness are often conceived of in terms of pure and impure. And pure and impure are often connected to leprosy and other diseases of the body. 

So it’s not unreasonable to think of sin in terms of illness or disease. But, as I’ve read some of Thomas Szasz‘s work on the “illness model” of psychiatric disorders, I’ve had to rethink things a bit. He argues that viewing observable behaviors primarily as illnesses creates several philosophical, legal and practical treatment problems in his own field, psychiatry (Szasz):

  1. Mental illness is a medical metaphor for persistent disturbing behavior.
  2. But it’s not medical in itself insofar as mental illnesses cannot be found on the coroners’ table, in blood tests, microscope slides, or even in brain scans. 
  3. Doctor declarations of incompetence make people’s non-illegal behavior into ‘diseases’ that allow them to be institutionalized by government power only to be released upon their recovery. 
  4. Outside of drug use, psychiatry uses conversational methods of healing more similar to philosophy, education, or religion. 
  5. Identifying too closely with one’s illness can lead to finding excuses for negative behavior as though it were something for which one cannot take responsibility, but are viewed by the patient as endemic to their person. 

That summary of Szasz’s book is too simple, but I think it’s good enough for my purposes here. You don’t have to agree with any aspect of the argument with respect to the fields of psychiatry or psychology. But what is useful is the parallel to the way we speak of sin.

Usually the Bible speaks of sin in terms of human failure to pursue the good (accidentally and on purpose). And most of the time that failure is precisely spoken of in terms of rebellion against the good (on purpose). The exception to this might be Romans 6-8 where sin is conceived of as a sort of cosmic power which has extreme influence upon the human person by nature of the habits they have appropriated into their bodies. 

My read on things is that seeing sin as a disease is useful insofar as we’re speaking of having a problem that cannot be solved solely by the person who has it and if we perceive as a disease for which the patient is still responsible for following doctor’s orders. And Jesus’ orders are to deny yourself, sin no more, seek first the kingdom of God, cut off that which causes you to stumble, and so-on.

But I think that seeing sin as a disease has a few disadvantages, as it distances us from sorry for our misdeeds (they’re just a state I am in), it removes notion of rebellion for which we deserve punishment from the equation, and while it could help us see the need to incrementally change our habits, it tends to decrease the importance of individual sins in the psychic radar of our minds. 

So, is sin a disease? No. Disease is one metaphor among many, but it is perhaps best to define sin the way John does, ‘sin is lawlessness.’ In other words, sin is any deed which goes against God’s law or any habit of being which disregards it altogether. If we see sin as a crime I think there is a much more urgent inner need to repent.

References

Szasz, Thomas. The Myth of Mental Illness. Perential, 1974.

When you use the Bible politically

I saw this article below. So I screen capped it to make sure nobody thought I edited it:

One of the most amusing elements of the last few years has been watching the political left and theological left, both of which find themselves appalled by the actual content of the Bible, try to use the Bible politically. Now, the right does it in its own unproductive way. But this article is particularly egregious because it’s evident that the person didn’t read the New Testament. For instance Jude attributes the plagues of Egypt to Jesus…and the gospels are only about  third of the New Testament, and one of them contains almost no healing.

The question of refugees isn’t my point. That’s a really good question with a multilayered answer and hundreds of subquestions. My point is that hamfisted uses of the Bible which are meant to guilt trip Christians into political action aren’t effective and they’re disingenuous.

Exceptions to Jesus’ teaching

In a previous post I briefly mentioned exceptions to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.

Below, I’ll attempt to show that this is true and why it matters.

Thesis: In the New Testament, there are exceptions to several of Jesus’ teachings.

Corollary: The exceptions to Jesus’ teachings demonstrate that they are meant for everyday existence. 

On Exceptions to Jesus’ Teaching

Knowing that the teachings of Jesus include exceptions is important for several reasons:

  1. It helps us move beyond treating Jesus is a deliverer of banal platitudes that he never meant people to practice.
  2. It provides evidence that there is not a dichotomy between taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he said and finding realistic times when those sayings do not apply (kind of like Proverbs). In fact, the dissolution of this dichotomy might be what helps some people to start putting Jesus’ teachings into practice.
  3. It provides evidence that the teachings are terse expressions of a way of life that was actually reasoned through by Jesus and the gospel authors rather than a pastiche of contradictory ideals.
  4. It helps us avoid the trap of making the Sermon on the Mount purely religious. For instance, there are people who teach that the sole purpose of Jesus’ commands is to make God’s law so impossibly hard (nobody could ever practice the Sermon on the Mount) that people are forced to ask for God’s grace.
  5. It reminds us that Jesus himself taught that certain Old Testament regulations were being misunderstood because exceptions were not allowed in their application in his day: Sabbaths, hand washing, contact with leprous persons, etc. Thus, we might infer that Jesus’ own teachings are meant to be applied as general purpose teachings that can be suspended in light of obvious exceptions.

Examples of Exceptions

Well there are two kinds of exceptions: explicit and implicit exceptions. Perhaps the most well known exception to Jesus’ teaching is the exception regarding divorce. It’s an instance where he explicitly says when his rule does not apply. Implicit exceptions to Jesus’ teaching are made known by his own practice or by the other New Testament authors clarifying Jesus’ meaning. Some exceptions are included directly in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is a preliminary list:

  1. Teaching: “But when you pray, go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matt 6:6)
    Exception: “And Jesus declared [in front of everybody], ‘I thank you Father…” (Matthew 11:27)
  2. Teaching: “Give to the one who asks of you.” (Matthew 5:42)
    Exception: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’ (Matthew 12:38-39)
  3. Teaching: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
    Exception: ” Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  (22)  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)*
  4. Teaching:  “He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:8-9)
    Exception:
    “…except for sexual immorality…” The exception to Jesus’ harsh strictures of the dissolution of marriage is included in the teaching.
  5. Teaching: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
    Exception: Jesus told his disciples about his fast in the wilderness.

Conclusion

There are more exceptions to the commands in the Sermon on the Mount, but these suffice to demonstrate that the exceptions exist.

In the appendix below are some quotes that might do more justice to the issue than I can. But it should be said that if the gospel authors and the rest of the New Testament portray certain commands of Jesus as having exceptions, then it is precisely in the normal parts of our life that we’re to make those teachings work. Exceptions imply that a normal exists.

Hand-wringing over whether or not a general principle always applies as a way of avoiding it is unwise. The same goes with math. The Pythagorean theorem does not apply to all triangles, but that is no reason to refuse to use it for right triangles. Similarly, Christians who say, “well, you can’t love Hitler…” therefore I don’t have to love rude people is untenable. 

I would claim that the exceptions to Jesus’ teaching show that the Sermon on the Mount is meant for the day-to-day lives of his followers or anybody else who is curious about what Jesus is all about (he gave the sermon in the hearing of the crowds after all). So if we see Jesus as somebody who has really thought through what it means to walk with God, then we have to suspect that he thought through which of his commands (if any) apply in all cases and which do not.

*This particular teaching/exception works like this, “Be the first to reconcile when you give offense…unless you’re the offended party, then be the first to forgive.”

Appendix

  1. Quote from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien

    Relationships must follow the rules. Our confidence in a stable and orderly universe leads us to prioritize rules over relationships, but it does more than that. The Western commitment to rules and laws make it difficult for us to imagine a valid rule to which there may be valid exceptions. When we begin to think of the world in terms of relationships instead of rules, however, we must acknowledge that things are never so neat and orderly and that rules are not as dependable as we once imagined. When relationships are the norming factor in the cosmos, we should expect exceptions.

    In the ancient world, rules were not expected to apply 100 percent of the time. Israel did not keep the rules and God complained about it, but we often gloss over the reality that the rules had been broken for centuries. The covenant, however, was broken only when it became clear that the relationship was over (e.g., Hos 1:9). The end came when the relationship, not the rules, was broken.

    Consider this striking Pauline example. Paul asserts, “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal 5:2). He makes a similarly concrete claim elsewhere: “Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised” (1 Cor 7:18). Paul was a vocal opponent of circumcision at the Jerusalem Council, where the early church decisively determined that one need not be circumcised in order to be a Christian (Acts 15). This appears to give us a hard and fast rule you can take to the bank; there seems to be no room for exception. Yet in the verses immediately following the Jerusalem Council, Luke tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). Westerners can’t help but ask, “Didn’t Paul say someone who was uncircumcised should stay that way?” (see 1 Cor 7:18). Isn’t Paul breaking his own rule? If we understand Paul’s exhortation as a fixed and universal rule against circumcision, we are forced to make a difficult decision. Either Luke’s account of Paul and Timothy’s mission (and, by extension, the history of the early church) was inaccurate. Or Paul could do as he pleased, even if that meant contradicting his own teaching.

    There is, of course, another option. Luke tells us that Paul’s rationale for having Timothy circumcised had to do with relationships, not rules. Paul was about to evangelize in Timothy’s hometown of Lystra, and Paul decided it was important that Timothy be circumcised “because of the Jews who lived in that area.” In other words, even in a matter as sensitive as the value of circumcision for Christian faith, relationships trumped rules. (Randolph and O’Brien )

  2. Quote from The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard

    If a government official compels me to carry a burden for one mile to aid him in his work—as any Roman soldier could require of a Jew in Jesus’ day—I will, again “as appropriate,” assist him further in his need. Perhaps he has a mile yet to go, and I am free to assist him. If so, I will. I will not say, “This is all you can make me do,” and drop the burden on his foot. I also will not carry it another mile whether he wants me to or not, and say, “Because Jesus said to.”

    If I know people want to borrow something they need, I will not avoid them and their request, and I may, as appropriate, give to those who ask me for something even though they have no “claim” on me at all—no claim, that is, other than their need and their simple request. That is how God does it, and he invites us to join him.

    Of course in each case I must determine if the gift of my vulnerability, goods, time, and strength is, precisely, appropriate. That is my responsibility before God. As a child of the King, I always live in his presence. By contrast, the way of law avoids individual responsibility for decision. It pushes the responsibility and possible blame onto God. That is one reason why people who must have a law for all their actions lead such pinched and impoverished lives and develop very little in the way of genuine depth in godly character.

    If, for example, I am a heart surgeon on the way to do a transplant, I must not go a second mile with someone. I must say no and leave at the end of the first mile with best wishes and a hasty farewell. I have other things I know I must do, and I must make the decision. I cannot cite a law and thus evade my responsibility of judging.

    If I owe money to a shopkeeper whose goods I have already consumed, I am not at liberty to give that money to “someone who asks of me”—unless, once again, there are very special factors involved.

    If turning the other cheek means I will then be dead, or that others will suffer great harm, I have to consider this larger context. Much more than my personal pain or humiliation is involved. Does that mean I will “shoot first”? Not necessarily, but it means I can’t just invoke a presumed “law of required vulnerability.” I must decide before God what to do, and there may be grounds for some measure of resistance.

    Of course the grounds will never be personal retaliation. And there will never, as I live in the kingdom, be room for “getting even.” We do not “render evil for evil,” as the early Christians clearly understood and practiced (Rom. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9). That is out of the question as far as our life is kingdom living. That is the point Jesus is making here.

    If someone has taken my coat by lawsuit, I or someone else may well have a greater need of my shirt than he does. If not, I give it with generous love and blessing. Or perhaps the other’s need is so great I should give my shirt even if I suffer greatly. But what if the other doesn’t need it at all? Then I won’t impose it “because Jesus said so” and I must keep this “law.”

    In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?” (Willard)

Bibliography

Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2012.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998.

Cosmic Remarriage: A Sermon by Chris Borah with some Reflection

Below, you’ll find the audio to a sermon by one Chris Borah:

16 July Cosmic Remarriage by Chris Borah

It’s worth a listen. 

Here some brief festoonings and trains of thought brought up by his sermon (they may be of interest or help even if you don’t listen:

  1. Personal: I don’t ever have a cadence when I’m speaking, I try to change my cadence and pronunciation as I go to see what sound better to me. Chris apparently doesn’t do that. It’s a better option.
  2. Personal: I have a really high stress tolerance but also a really long term sense of threat detection. This makes me anxious more than is helpful or virtuous. This sermon as a good challenge to that. 
  3. Theological: And Chris never mentioned this explicitly, but he named two sides of an important issue. “Don’t be anxious” (Matthew 6:19-34). But also, Chris said that real life is lived around the table, and to have food at the table, you’ve got to sow, reap, and store into barns even though the birds don’t. And so there is an unrighteous and idolatrous way to worry over tomorrow, over your food, your both, and you life. But there is also a way to “fear always” (Proverbs 28:14) that is good. As an aside, the ESV translates that as “fear the LORD,” but the word for Lord isn’t there. The passage either means, “anxiously fears w/respect to not wanting to sin” or “anxiously fears w/respect to potential calamity of any sort,” but both in such a way that leads to getting things done. The hardened heart in Scripture is a disorder that always leads toward the worst possible outcome on the present course. Tension is the wrong word, as different kinds of anxiety exist and the Bible multiplies the species of various traits and habits. 
  4. Dendrological: Chris said that there is something more true about seeing trees as Ents and Dryads than there is to seeing them as inert statues of slowly growing wood or pre-furniture. Interestingly, the materialistic practice of those crazy scientists has found that trees and other plants do communicate. My high school English teacher speculated that this was true and hypothesized that they used electrical impulses in soil and pheromones. Both are accurate. Also see: The Hidden Life of Trees.
  5. Theological: I’m of the opinion that God created chaos and that it’s good and must be balanced with order (if you ask me to define these, expect a great deal of incoherence). A good article about Genesis’ teaching about this is Did God create chaos? Unresolved tension in Genesis 1:1-2 by Robin Routlege. This has led me to all sorts of fruitful reflections upon what it means to be human, even before the fall. For instance, negotiating chaos and order is necessary in a garden and even more necessary if you leave the garden to subdue the rest of the earth. 

Genesis 1-2 and Man as Artist

One of the ideas that emerges from the first two chapters of Genesis is the distinction between creation and cultivation, nature and art, or even chaos and order.

For instance, when God makes the world it is a chaotic emptiness (Genesis 1:1-2), but through the next several verses, he organizes it into a series of useful categories. Then he makes humanity, explaining that not only would they reproduce and eat, like the other creatures, but that they would be blessed, take dominion, and bear the image of God. So man is to subdue (or cultivate in context) the created world.

In Genesis 2, while the timeline is intentionally obscured (man is made before the plants, Genesis 2:4-5), the same distinction is further articulated. There is the wild world, but man is placed in a garden planted by God. And so there is nature (that which is) and art (that which is skillfully designed), creation/culture. The idea of subduing/having dominion over the created world is more fully defined in Genesis 2: name the animals, don’t eat poison fruit, eat fruit that gives life, protect the garden, tend the garden, control your body (it’s made of earth, you know), and so-on. In other words, man is to be an artist who makes culture out of creation or art out of nature.

Aristotle’s used the word techne to describe know-how. Later Latin writers translated the word ars. We now use the word art. For Aristotle, art was a virtue of the mind. And I think our tendency to reduce art to the fine arts has led us to undervalue the fact that any human skill that can be acquired through practice is art: mathematics, grammar, cooking, gardening, shepherding, the scientific method, communication, and so-on.

Aristotle’s understanding of art is helpful for seeing what Genesis is getting at, even though Genesis doesn’t use his terminology. Part of our quest for meaning in a world that sometimes seems repetitive and meaningless is acquiring the skills necessary to cultivate the world around us into something beyond what it is. Trees can become parts of a garden, rocks can become a wall, gold can become food containers, currency, or circuits.

Of course, Scripture warns against wrong ways to cultivate creation  (Gen 11:1-9). If you try to unite heaven to earth yourself, you’ll end up utterly confused (which is bad from a personal experience perspective, but good from a necessary moral lesson perspective). I suspect that you’ll find the wrong ways to cultivate insofar as they do lead to confusion which forces different modes of cooperation and thought.