Monday, March 28, 2016

Christianity as Distinctly Religious: A New Species?


The human mind naturally tends to make (and remake) religion into familiar terms, while resisting the wholly other as such. As David Hume explains, the human mind is naturally drawn to what is familiar to itself; considerably more effort is required to hold onto the notion of pure divine simplicity without adding ornaments. Sociological phenomena such as father-son relationships and the role of a son are more familiar than the Son as Logos and agape.[1] The resurrection is typically thought of in supernatural physiological and historical terms, rather than as whose meaning is distinctly religious and, furthermore, is part of a religious narrative. The Trinity as existing in reality metaphysically is easier to understand than the Trinity as transcending reality, as it’s source rather than its substance. God as the first cause of the Big Bang is easier to grasp than God as the source or condition of Creation. These all-too-easy category mistakes are particularly problematic in that they obscure religion as distinctly religious.
Who thinks of the Son of God as the Logos, or Word—that aspect of God that plays an active role in the creation story as well as the Incarnation? It is much easier to conceptualize the Son from father-son relationships even though Augustine warns against doing so. Who thinks of resurrection as whose historicity is within a faith narrative rather than from a historical account, and is thus conditioned on a distinctly religious meaning and basis of validity? If I'm right, none of us has thought much about what remains after the precipitates of other domains have been extracted such that the remaining liquid is distinctly religious.
That the resurrected Jesus walks through a door and yet is hungry and eats a fish suggests that the concept of resurrection is not at bottom physiological. At the very least, the linguistic device seems to be oriented to obstructing such easy likenesses from other domains. A body transformed spiritually is a distinctly religious phenomenon; it is no accident that it is ensconced in a faith narrative, rather than in a historical account, a book on human biology, or even a text whose body is on supernatural, hocus pocus magic.
That the Passion story is ritually and festively acted out each year means that in “mythic time” Jesus is risen each Easter. Hence Christians rejoice, as if announcing breaking news, "He is risen!" The experience of religious presence that can take place in mythic rather than chronological/historical time has great value and meaning. Yet such distinctly religious meaning and its own sort of validators are overlooked simply in asking whether Jesus was really resurrected from the dead.  "Was" connotes time to a historian, and “really” is taken to mean empirically (i.e., as an observable fact), as if such time and factuality trump mythic time and distinctly religious validation stemming from religious meaning.
Religion itself, moreover, is undercut even if Jesus rose from the dead historically. Whether persons or events in a faith narrative happen to be historical outright or mythic-historical, accepting empirical historical claims as the litmus test undercuts religion itself because it is made subject to the criteria of another domain, namely history. In his book, Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative, Hans Frei points out that just asking whether some event in the story really took place gets in the way of the story’s meaning coming through unimpeded.
On a morning after Easter when I was at a grocery store looking at half-priced, tempting chocolate eggs, I conversed with an evangelical Christian woman about the holiday. She told me she had read the Bible thirteen times. "You have to read it all the way through to get its full meaning," she explained, "because the meaning of one chapter is connected to the meanings of other chapters." Thinking of Frei, who had retired from Yale unfortunately before my studies there, I replied that interrupting the reading to ask whether something "really" happened would get in the way of the coherence of the meaning of the Bible as a whole; it would be like stepping out to get popcorn in the middle of a movie. The suspension of disbelief, and hence "getting into" the story-world itself, is eclipsed by the interruption. The woman agreed, though she was visibly uncomfortable with the mere possibility that I might have been suggesting that Jesus did not really (i.e., as a historical occurrence) rise from the dead. Frei would say: Don't even ask the question! Get out of the way, "for Christ's sake," and let the story tell its story. Instead of spoiling for a brawl, this policy not to eclipse the story's own meaning treats religion as sui generis, as worthy in itself instead of needing to defer to the criteria of another domain for some sense of validity.
We are so used to thinking of religion using concepts borrowed from other domains that we would scarcely even recognize something that is distinctly religious if it came up and slapped us in the face and said, "Here I AM!" Elijah found the Lord on the mountain not in the high winds, the ensuing earthquake, or the fire, but in a gentle breeze.[2]
What is the Logos, for instance, and how can “Son” be thought of as such rather than in terms of the characteristics of human sons? Augustine warns that “no carnal thought creep up” in interpreting Jesus’s expression, “As the Father has taught me” in terms of a human father teaching his son. To liken the Trinitarian relationship to a (merely) human one would be, Augustine writes, to “fashion idols” in one’s heart.[3] We are so conditioned to think of the Son of God in terms of being a son of a father that we, Christian or not, have scarcely any idea what "Son" means in a distinctively religious sense; and yet, it is precisely such a sense that can minimize the risk of self-idolatry that comes with anthropomorphism (i.e., applying human characteristics to non-human entities).
We are so used to assuming that overgrown vines from other gardens are native to religion that we have no clue, I suspect, as to what religion’s own garden would look like if regularly weeded.  In fact, I would not be surprised to find that we have been pulling the native plants as weeds! For religion to regain or perhaps achieve its native health for the first time, without the convenient and alluring stain of anthropomorphism, the category-mistakes that come with blurring boundaries must first be recognized and corrected and then attention must be directed to the question of just what is distinctly religious.[4] Perhaps the defining question is whether religion need necessarily be human, all too human; can the domain as distinctively drawn transcend the limits of human cognition, sentience, and perception to have as its referent point the Wholly Other? Can we get out of the way?
 




1. For more on this point and that of David Hume, see ch. 12 of God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth.
2. 1 Kings 19:11-12.
3. Augustine, "Tractate 40" in Tractates on John: Books 28-54, trans. John W. Rettig, Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 88 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 126.
4. See ch. 12 of God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth.











Saturday, March 26, 2016

From Being “Real” to Mythic: Do Religions have Lifespans?

Thousands of years ago, Greeks acted out narratives from what we now refer to as myths. The word myth connotes a religious narrative that has long-ago expired from being believed to be actual. Of course, no Christian in modern times would refer to the Passion as a myth; to refer to the crucifixion and resurrection as mythic would be insulting. Yet as a society increasingly secularizes, the events in the religious story gradually give up their all-embracing signature. As Good Friday or Easter becomes “just another day” for more and more people in the increasingly secular West in particular, the respective events lose their hegemony in defining for people in their daily lives what the Friday and Sunday are about. That is, the events "deflate" from being perceived as all-embracing in the sense of defining the significance of the days. If sufficiently relegated, the story itself can more easily be viewed as myth, rather than real. Notice religion’s appeal here to history or at least empiricism as a validator. Without such a basis intact, religious events are somehow less real in a religious sense of meaning.[1] In fact, a religion’s situs in a society can go from default-status to ultimately being replaced. Nietzsche’s “God is dead” in the late nineteenth-century prefigured the rise of secularization—the discrediting of the reigning concept of the deity by ascribing the vice of vengeance to it inexorably deflating the Abrahamic religions. Particularly astonishing is not the fact that religions have lifespans, but, rather, that any given religion in decline can endure an incredible amount of time at that stage. This phenomenon can prompt a person to wonder whether the religions are not human, all too human.
The process by which a religious narrative goes from losing its totality “in the real world” to being replaced, and thus deemed a myth, is not linear or steady, if Thomas Kuhn’s ideas on scientific revolutions applies. Yet nor is such a life-cycle short, ending in a sudden collapse similar to how the U.S.S.R. ended. In this regard, I depart from Kuhn's theory in so far it is applicable to religion.  
According to Kuhn, “intellectual progress is not steady and gradual. It’s marked by sudden paradigm shifts. There’s a period of normal science when everybody embraces a paradigm that seems to be working. Then there’s a period of model drift: As years go by, anomalies accumulate and the model begins to seem creaky and flawed. Then there’s a model crisis, when the whole thing collapses. Attempts to patch up the model fail. Everybody is in anguish, but nobody knows what to do.” Then there’s the revolution phase, during which “you get a proliferation of competing approaches, a willingness to try anything. People ask different questions, speak a different language, congregate around a new paradigm that is incommensurate with the last.”[2]
In terms of Christianity, the “period of normal science” is easy enough to picture. The Inquisition, for instance, points to that period existing historically in Europe, and to the enforcement powers that a “normal science” can enjoy. The loss of such powers goes a long way, I submit, in accounting for the incredible slippage that takes place once a religion is no longer the normal science. In the last quarter of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, a Christian church in Europe had much less leverage with which to “police” members deemed as heretics; a Christian unhappy with one’s church could simply pick a different sect or melt into the secular society. Such “model drift” is gradual, whereas a model crisis is not.
I’m not convinced that a religion collapses practically overnight in a crisis. Rather, I suspect that the drift gradually opens an increasingly wide area wherein other models can originate and take root. As a religion moves off the stage of normal science and is thus rendered increasingly transparent, questions naturally arise as the dogmatism of the normal science has been removed. Christians might begin to ask themselves: Did Jesus really exist? No evidence exists? Does religion really depend on history for validity anyway? Was God behind the Big Bang? Is religion overreaching when it tackles cosmology and the natural sciences more generally? Did we really share a common ancestor with the chimp?[3] Did a pope really write a letter as an archbishop stating it would be better to move a pedophile priest to another parish (to become its youth minister) in Germany than to risk harm to the universal church from a scandal? Does his ascendency anyway to the papacy implicate the religious organization (i.e., the Church) itself?
The scandal of pedophile priests in the Roman Catholic Church is an interesting case, for, by all rights, the cascading news should have triggered at some point a collapse of the religious organization; and yet, the status quo that includes that mammoth Christian sect (i.e., denomination) continued even as a scathing film, Spotlight, won the Oscar for best picture in 2016. A religion having enjoyed the status of “normal science” apparently has reserves of staying-power even in the face of abject hypocrisy occurring on a systemic basis (i.e., not just a few individuals).
The life cycle of an established religion is, I submit, quite long, and longer than expected or anticipated. Besides the power of the vested interests, human beings are too much like herd animals, especially in organizations, to get up and move to another pasture unless really prodded hard with a hot iron. Plus, cognitive dissidence—such as in “the Church can’t be that bad, or I would not be a member”—can reinforce denial. Lastly, to be an institution recognized by society is to get loads of legitimacy simply in existing. Such legitimacy has a way of silently drowning out even true charges of lewd or sordid behavior—not to mention hypocrisy. None of this even gets to the broader trajectory of a religion’s lifecycle. It can take a long, long time for a religion to run its course—and then it may stick around even longer in a hybrid capacity.
The longevity is in spite of the fact that the longer a religion endures, the further the stretch from the context of its origin to the present-day. A religion gets harder and harder to translate as the world changes from the world in which the religion first found expression. Texts of a religion coming out of an ancient agrarian world are not easily translated into a modern, urban world. Moreover, to the extent that religions tend to be rather fixed, even rigid, the “inability” (actually choice) not to adapt to changes in not only the world but also the development of mankind’s understanding of religion itself implies a limited lifespan. Yet very ancient religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, endure in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, any of these religions could survive in a limited and perhaps even barely recognized form in a newly developed hybrid form.
I’m not convinced that the notion of one paradigm cleanly replacing another applies to religion. Perhaps over a large enough span of time, very different paradigms can be identified. Hence we can distinguish the older polytheistic nature religions from the ancient Middle Eastern monotheist faiths. More narrowly, closer to a religion’s lifespan and what comes after, however, I suspect that hybrid paradigms emerge, pick up, and carry on some remnants of the religion. In Judaism and Christianity, the notion of a remnant (i.e., of a people, and outcasts, respectively) has a special place.
In the theory of organizational life-cycles, an organization toward the end of its decline can spawn a re-energized, or emergent, organization that retains some of the characteristics without all the bureaucratic baggage. A large corporation might spin off a division, for instance, that itself becomes a large company retaining some of the original company’s culture. Similarly, Christianity in the year 2200 might have left the Passion narrative and complicated theology behind. Yet Jesus’s teachings themselves, such as in the Sermon on the Mount, which are relatively compatible with secularity, might survive in altered forms or even new religions—or even in secular culture itself! Many Christians in 2016 would remonstrate that such a religion would not really be Christian at all, given the historical litmus test enjoyed by Christology (i.e., true belief being the Incarnation). Nevertheless, the retention of Jesus’s teaching would make the new paradigm quasi-Christian, or at least “Christ-like.” Indeed, to the extent that the new focus results in less hypocrisy, the hybrid might actually be more Christ-like. Beyond the lifespan of such a hybrid it is difficult from the standpoint of 2016 to speculate on what paradigms might come next. My point is simply that some of the bath-water will probably be used even after the focus on the baby has waned. Perhaps a religion is like a slug in that both move slowly and are not apt to change quickly, and yet both can exist for a very long time.


[1] Here I’m relying on ch. 12 of my book, “God’s Gold.” In that chapter, I contend that religion overreaches in claiming history for itself. For a religion to use history as a sort of anchor is to make a category mistake.
[2] David Brooks, “The Post-Trump Era,” The New York Times, March 25, 2016. Brooks is drawing from Kuhn’s text, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
[3] See ch. 12 of my book, “God’s Gold.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pope Francis Addresses the U.N.: A Religious Rationale for Reducing Carbon Emissions

Pope Francis declared to more than 100 world leaders and diplomats at the United Nations in late September 2015 that a "right of the environment" exists and that our species has no authority to abuse it or render it unfit for human habitation.[1]  In stressing that urgent action is needed to halt the destruction of God's creation, he made explicit reference to a religious basis for his moral claim. He said the universe is the result of a "loving decision by the creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the creator: He is not authorized to abuse it, much less destroy it."[2] This statement may overplay both the religious nature of the basis and the destruction. I turn now to parsing the statement in three parts, after which I will supply the basis of the pope’s religious rationale, which is narrower than he suggested in his speech.

Pope Francis admonishing the U.N. delegates not to injure themselves slipping on a banana outside after his address. "Gases from the exposed puss can warm the sidewalk," he explained as many delegates checked their earphones. (Bryan Thomas/Getty)

First, the claim that the universe itself is the result of the creator—a divine decree creating the material realm out of nothing (i.e., ex nihilo)—goes beyond the Hebrew word, bara’, which is translated as “to create” in the Bible. The Hebrew word’s definition is “to shape, fashion, create (always with God as subject),  . . . heaven and earth, individual man, new conditions and circumstances, and transformations.[3] Crucially, bara’ is not used in the Hebrew Bible “with a preposition governing the material out of which God created.”[4] God’s creating does not include bringing the stuff of the universe into being, at least in what the Book of Genesis covers. “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, ‘Let there be light.’”[5] When God began to create heaven and earth, the water already existed! So too, presumably, did the materials of land. “God said, ‘Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering of waters He called Seas.”[6] The uncovering of land presupposes that the stuff of land (or land itself) already exists. At least as genesis is described in the Bible, the material making up the universe is not a result of God’s decision (or God’s creating, more generally).

To be sure, the Hebrew expression that translates into English as “before creation” is Tohu wa bohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ). This typically translates as "waste and void," "formless and empty," or "chaos and desolation.” [7] Waste can be interpreted as a feature of a void, and formlessness of emptiness. In this sense, the material of the universe is entailed in God’s decision to create the cosmos. Alternatively, waste and chaos may refer to the formless  stuff and the empty void is that which lies outside of the soupy blob. Hence the expression can be translated to mean “a formless waste or chaos.”[8] Of these two interpretations, only the second is congruent with “the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.” Were there only an empty void, no water, or even surface, would exist. Also, the Septuagint uses the Greek, ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατα-σκεύαστος, which translates as "shapeless and formless” rather than void and empty.[9] To assert that a property of nothingness is a lack of shape or form strikes me as a bizarre thing to say. Something is formless—until God decides to create order for forming that something by separating it into parts.

Therefore, we can conclude that God does not create “chaos or formless pre-existent matter. . . . ‘God created’ means God created order. . . . The problem of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, is not a problem here.”[10] I submit that we misunderstand the creating in God’s decision as meaning more than one to order the stuff of Earth by forming (via separating) different kinds of stuff. We assume the very existence of the stuff came about as part of God’s creating; hence, Creation.“’The heavens and the earth’ are the equivalent of the cosmos, for which Hebrew has no single word.”[11] But “cosmos” in a religious sense or in the empirical sense as that which astrophysicists study?

Treating the two senses as identical or even just in assuming that one impacts the other involves  a category mistake in treating myth as if it were also natural science rather than recognizing that they refer to two qualitatively different phenomena or categories. Merely in writing “God created” rather than “God creates,” I imply that empirical history and the story in the Book of Genesis match up or at least refer to the same thing. Mythic time, in other words, is not in the past even if the past tense is used in the story-time. Such time may tend to get reduced to empirical or historical time (rather than understood as time within a story) when the past tense is used to describe both God’s act (i.e., decision) to create and the history of the Israelites.[12] In his assertion that the universe, including all its material stuff, is the result of a divine decree, the pope may have been “gilding the lily” (i.e., adorning it with gold edges) with respect to the religious basis of his moral claim (i.e., that we are not authorized to extract more fossil fuels from the ground). Put another way, the stuff that we use in our dominion, as well as any responsibility we might have in our dominant usage from the religious standpoint, does not hinge on HWYH’s role as Creator.

Responsibility is curiously absent in the Biblical basis of our dominion over stuff (including animals) on the planet. “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.’ And God created man in His image, in the image of God. He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.’”[13] God formed, or separated us into two genders—and presumably hermaphrodites too (i.e., having both male and female genitalia), and ordered or formed (i.e., created) us moreover in His own image. As a species, we are to be fruitful and multiply, “fill the earth and master it,” even though over population can be said to be the root cause of the increase in carbon-emissions that are trapping heat in the atmosphere. In short, we have a responsibility to reproduce and have dominion on Earth—two actions that have played a large role in the human contribution to global warming.

Nevertheless, one scholar asserts, “Dominion is not a license to caprice and tyranny but, in the best sense, a challenge to responsibility and the duty to make right prevail.”[14] The Anchor Dictionary assumes this view, providing as support: “Ha’adam stands over God’s ordered creation (Psalm 8), but with God, the creator of all, as humankind’s point of reference.”[15] Yet that Psalm has nothing in it about a challenge to responsibility. In fact, human tyranny over other animals and even nature itself may be implied. “(W)hat is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that you have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty; You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet.”[16] We are “little less than divine,” invested with great power with the world at our feet. This makes the species sound more like Hobbes’ Leviathan than God’s dutiful steward.

Another scholar points to Psalm 8 as stating that God gave mankind dominion because the earth, and thus everything on it, because God is the Creator.[17] However, a close reading of the Psalm does not support this inference.

“O LORD, our Lord, how glorious is Thy name in all the earth!
whose majesty is rehearsed above the heavens.
When I behold Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which Thou hast established; . . .
When I behold Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast established;
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 honour.
Thou hast made him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet:”[18]

In fact, the Psalmist is surprised that God gives the species dominion, as well as honor and glory, given God’s far greater majesty in forming the celestial orbs. Why should a god who formed the cosmos pay so much attention to mankind? What is the big deal about mankind? Why make the species just below angels, and give it dominion on the planet? Next to God’s majesty in forming the materials of the universe, our species pales in comparison. Therefore, we cannot infer that God gave our species dominion over the planet because God formed it. Rather than appointing us to administer for God the Earth that God formed, the dominion is one of several things, which also include honor and glory, that God gives mankind because God thinks so highly (and so much) of us. Gratitude, rather than the recognition of a sense of duty, a right of nature, and of not being authorized to extract more fossil fuels, seems the most fitting reaction. Put another way, what God gives our species is not characterized in the Psalm as conditional.

Why does God think so much of our squabbling species? Going back to the Book of Genesis, the religious basis of mankind’s dominion on Earth has to do God forming us in His image. I submit that the likeness is narrower than we typically assume, and furthermore that it is not conditional—meaning that it does not come with a responsibility on our part and thus that it dissolves should we act irresponsibly. 

I contend that the likeness pertains rather narrowly to our ability to order (or form) things by reason and physical force. If we exclude the possibility that God has a form and furthermore that it’s shape is roughly the same as the human body—an anthropomorphic claim to be sure—the human soul is left to be formed, or ordered, in the likeness of God. It is by virtue of how our souls are ordered—as being superior to our corporeal bodies, according to Plato and Augustine—that our species has dominion on the planet from a religious standpoint; other animals do not have such souls, and thus rightly are to submit to human rule.

Having an ordered or formed soul may simply mean that humans too can order things—having dominion being necessary to being able to implement formations. Having a soul in the likeness of God may also imply loving how God orders the world in the decision of creation—meaning including our species. Furthermore, such a soul may imply stewardship, or responsibility. These are inferences, however, at least in story in the Book of Genesis at the point in which we are formed in the image of God. To be sure, the Pope’s claim that we are obliged to use the stuff of Earth for the good of people and the glory of God as stewards has a Biblical basis; my point is merely that the duties of stewardship in our use of the environment so as to protect rather than destroy it are not explicit in the pope’s religious rationale—that God formed or ordered the world and gave us dominion because we are formed in God’s image.

Another problem subtly undermines the story in Genesis regarding Man being created in the image of God. In Genesis 1:26, “God creates [Adam] ha’adam ‘in our image’ (Heb selem) and ‘according to our likeness’ (demut).”[19] In Genesis 5:3 (also from the Priestly source), Adam begot a son “in his own likeness” (bidemuto) and “after his image” (kesalmo). Crucially, selem and kesalmo are the same word, as are demut and bidemuto. [20] The Anchor Dictionary concludes from these identities, “(J)ust as there is something of the father in the son, and there can be communication and response between the two, so there is something of God in ha’adam, and there can be communication and response between them.”[21] The likeness of God, the Father in heaven, to his human “sons” and “daughters” is as though parallel to the likeness a man and women have to their offspring. Augustine’s warning against thinking of the relation between the Father and Son of the Trinity by summoning images of the prototypical relationship between a human father and son is relevant. Thinking of Jesus’ line, “As the Father has taught me,” in terms of a father teaching a son, for example, would be to “fashion idols” in one’s heart.[22] To borrow an expression from Nietzsche, such idols would be human, all too human (i.e., self-idolatry). God being wholly other (i.e., transcendent rather than merely immanent),[23] Adam’s son is in Adam’s likeness not as Adam is in God’s likeness; rather than being parallel, Adam’s respective likenesses to his son and to God are qualitatively different, and yet the image or likeness of God is in both Adam and his son. It is important, therefore, to view being created (i.e., formed) in God’s image in a (narrowly) distinctively religious sense.

Thirdly, the pope’s statement that we are “not authorized to abuse [creation], much less destroy it” involves over-reaching in including destruction. Should mankind eventually put enough carbon in the atmosphere that the species itself goes extinct for want of a habitable climate, the planet would still exist; it would still have order. Ecosystems would doubtless regain equilibrium at some point, especially if the maximizing species is zerstört. This issue is not the destruction of the Earth; rather, the harm is much narrower, albeit central to an egocentric species. The pope did say a "selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads . . . to the misuse of available natural resources.”[24] Ironically, the religious figure may have been on more solid ground were he to have used the selfish and boundless thirst for power and wealth as the basis of his moral position on climate change.

The Pope’s insistence that a "right of the environment" exists and that our species has no authority to abuse it or render it unfit for human habitation has no basis in the story of Creation. He is on more solid ground in asserting a specifically Christian duty to use our dominion on Earth for the good of our species (i.e., each other) and for the glory of God. The sense of responsibility, as in the expression, With great power comes great responsibility (from the first in a series of Spiderman movies), enters the picture with the Jesus of the Gospels, who maintains that we exercise dominion as stewards acting on God’s behalf and thus in God’s interest, rather than our own. The responsibility that comes with having dominion is put in terms of loving God by caring for each other and the species under our dominion. Hence we have no authority to abuse or destroy the environment, yet the religious rationale here does not extend to a “right of the environment.”

I turn now to the religious rationale in the Gospels. In the ancient Middle East, “steward” (oikonomos) most often applied to the position of household manager, where the household essentially is a small business.[25] According to one scholar, Jesus’ notion of stewardship is in line with this common usage.[26] Stewards in the New Testament, especially in Jesus’s parables, “are associated with the qualities of faithfulness, loyalty, business acumen, and the ability to provide for those under them.”[27] Jesus asks at the end of one of his parables, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their portion of food at the proper time?”[28] The steward is God’s servant, charged with using the dominion to care for the other servants and ultimately for God. Such love, rather than God as Creator and mankind having God’s likeness, is the basis for the pope’s assertion of an obligation to use our power (and wealth) in caring for each other and in line with the glory of God. “Our position is that of stewards, not absolute rulers. The earth is God’s gracious provision to us as a dwelling-place, and should be treated with respect.”[29] 

The virtues of humility and compassion are of course of great value in Jesus’ eyes, and thus in how we are to properly use the delegated authority.[30] Jesus insists that to care for the least among us—whether other people or species—we love God. In the parable of the sheep and Goats, Jesus has the king say, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.[31] Efforts to keep the atmosphere suitable for human habitation are ultimately based on loving God by caring for the least among us—such as the people who are or will be most detrimentally impacted by the changing climate. Hence, we have finally found a religious duty and a limited authorization of dominion.

Concerning a natural right of nature ordained by divine decree and manifesting in natural law, the best I think we can do is summon the now-extinct Christian tradition of justice as love and benevolence, which ran from Augustine to Leibniz. The latter theorized that we are all owed love and benevolence from others because we exist. Leibniz characterizes God is perfect being.  God being love (from Augustine and the New Testament), the extent that we have being, we are due love; the extent that other people have being, they too have a just claim to being loved in terms of benevolence. In other words, we have a natural right to be loved by others, who are in turn duty bound to be benevolent universally (that is, to anyone, since everyone has some being). 

In Latin, Leibniz’s phrase is caritas sapientis seu benevolentia universalis. (“Love in so far as reason permits; that is, universal benevolence”). Caritas, from which we get the word “charity,” means love. More particularly, caritas is human love “from below” rather than divine love (agape) “from above.” Human love (Augustine), raised from lower to higher goods by reason (e.g., from garden-variety lust, or eros, to love oriented to God, the highest good) (from Plato), is the same (or manifests) as universal benevolence (i.e., “love thy neighbor”) ( from Augustine). This love is distinct from God’s own self-emptying love (i.e., agape), as evinced in the Crucifixion.

In his Codex Iuris Gentium (1693), Leibniz writes, “Charity [i.e., caritas: so love, not “charity”] is a universal benevolence, and benevolence the habit of loving or of willing the good. Love then signifies rejoicing in the happiness of another.” Having a comfortable habitat or environment that is at the very least habitable by humans is an example of a good conducive to the happiness of others. Therefore, we justly have a right to a world with adequate natural resources and an atmosphere that is suitable to our survival and that of our progeny (i.e., be fruitful and multiply). Yet we still haven’t reached a right of the environment, or nature, itself. 

Stretching Leibniz’s theory of justice further, I suppose it can be said that the environment has a right too—to be loved in a way that includes benevolence directed to nature’s good—because nature also has being. Less than that of the species formed in God’s image, to be sure, but the extent to which nature exists, it can be said to have a right to be loved benevolently, which is to say, with its good being willed by humans. Admittedly, the right justly enjoyed by the environment is weaker than the right that we have to be treated benevolently in furthering our good; we have more being, than does a tree, for instance,  because we are closer to perfect being—being formed in God’s image. Nature, in other words, does not have a soul. This religio-philosophical rationale is not explicit in Jesus’ rationale in the Gospels, however, so the pope’s religious rationale falls short of justifying the existence of a right of the environment.

In short, the pope’s speech at the U.N. may have included some hyperbole that plays on some common misconceptions regarding Creation and us being created in God’s image, as well as how these serve as a religious foundation for our species’ responsibility to prevent global warming from worsening. Additionally, I contend that he undercut his own religious rationale in that God urges our species to reproduce and have dominion. Furthermore, the verses are mute on responsibility toward the environment.

The pope might have also been subtly undermined from a Christian standpoint more generally due to the historical shift in the dominant theological attitude on whether wealth necessarily involves or implies greed from “yes” to “no”—which is to say, from anti- to pro-wealth.[32] In going “up-stream” against the mandate of wealth from a Christian standpoint, the pope doubtless had the heavy task of justifying his basis even to Christians ensconced in the pro-wealth Christian paradigm. For example, the Prosperity Gospel asserts that God rewards people having true belief with material wealth, in addition to salvation. God looks on the true belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior with such favor as to bestow material blessings on the people who so believe. These Christians may resist the prospect of the prosperity bestowed by God being subsequently clipped back, even from a Christian rationale! 

Moreover, I submit that the use of a living myth (i.e., a religious narrative) as a rationale for changes in the domains of government (i.e., public policy), business, and empirical science (i.e., on the environment) is inherently problematic. Conflating the Creation story with astrophysics is itself an instance of a category mistake—treating two different categories as if they were the same, or at least interpenetrable. 

The larger issue here may thus be the propensity for our species to over-reach when it is in the domain of religion, as if religion must encompass everything or else be null and void. Even just within the religious domain, we may be liable to make erroneous inferences without an operative cognitive feedback loop of self-critique that could catch the over-reaches. 

I have pointed in this essay to two scholars whose inferences regarding the Book of Genesis and Psalm 8 are not supported by the respective texts. I also highlighted the matter of category mistakes, wherein the religious domain is conflated with another, qualitatively different (yet in some cases related) domain. Myth, historical accounts, and natural science, for existence, can be thought of as different languages with different purposes. 

For instance, the writers of the Gospels writing to record empirical history in writing their respective faith narratives; this is not to say that those writers could not have drawn on remembrances of historical events and personages—but the writers would have felt at liberty to invent or bend history to make a religious point. To subject the resulting faith narratives to criteria for empirical history would be erroneous. Nevertheless, the inference is commonly made—and with the assumption of not being able to be wrong in making it. This presumed entitlement tends to apply to religious beliefs, inferences, and assumptions in general. This phenomenon utterly astounds me and perplexes my intellectual curiosity into hyper-drive to explain it's sheer existence. 

Even just within the religious domain, we may be liable to make erroneous inferences without an operative cognitive feedback loop of self-critique that could catch the over-reaches. In this essay, I pointed to two scholars whose inferences regarding the Book of Genesis and Psalm 8 are not supported by the respective texts. I also highlighted the matter of category mistakes, wherein the religious domain is conflated with another, qualitatively different (yet in some cases related) domain. Myth, historical accounts, and natural science, for existence, can be thought of as different languages with different purposes. For instance, the writers of the Gospels were not intent on recording empirical history in writing their respective faith narratives. To subject these to historical criteria is therefore erroneous, and yet the inference is commonly made—and with the assumption that the person cannot be wrong in making it, or in regard to his or her religious beliefs, inferences, and assumptions generally. This phenomenon utterly astounds me and perplexes my intellectual curiosity.

In late September 2015, I read that the Mormon Church’s hierarchy felt it necessary to put out a statement warning their flock not to join the rising chorus of members who believed that the “blood moon” lunar eclipse would signal the end of the world. Imagine trying in exasperation to convince those members already convinced even just that they may be wrong. The following day, I spoke with a woman who believed firmly that her religious sect (or denomination) in Christianity is not a religion (i.e., in the domain of religion). I did not even try to suggest that a religious group is by definition a religion or a subset thereof. I suspect that cognitive denial is on overtime when it comes to the human brain applying itself to religion (or spirituality). Faulty assumptions and inferences were also in the mix as she presumed to know my religious faith and the related beliefs and experiences only on the basis that I’m a scholar.

As a scholar, I endeavor to go where the ideas lead me, rather than where I necessarily want to go ideologically, politically, or theologically. For example, it might surprise you to learn that I am very much in support of reducing carbon (and methane) emissions, so I would welcome justifications. Staying on the fixed tracks of logical reasoning and coupling idea to idea as if a theory were a train can easily mean diverging from the relatively curvy tracks of ideological and religious preferences, though of course not necessarily. Put another way, academic arguments face some rigid constraints that distinguish theories from mere opinions.

From my observations and study, I hypothesize that the brain may be structurally deficient when it comes to handling the phenomenon of religion (and perhaps only marginally better in entertaining political beliefs). Like our propensity (and perhaps biological necessity) to pollute, homo religiosis may be inherently vulnerable to going too far without realizing it. Specifically, the human brain’s cognitive and judgmental means of self-correction on religious matters may be seriously impaired, even as we presume we cannot be wrong. We are, after all, created in God’s image—or so we believe, perhaps all too conveniently.

In his bizarre existentialist “novel of ideas,” The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera pokes fun at our species' highly esteemed status in the Book of Genesis.

“The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. . . . But let a third party enter the game—a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God says, ‘Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars”—and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical.”[33]

If there be anyone suspecting that a horse wrote the Book of Genesis, the cognitive impairment triggered as the human brain partakes of the religious domain must be much more severe than even I suspect. As an example of the impairment I have in mind, the type of certainty implied by the word actually in the passage above may be empirical (or even metaphysical) rather than that which applies to religious myth. Kundera is questioning whether Yahweh is real outside of being a character in religious writings that include narratives (i.e., myth). In suggesting that the God in the Book of Genesis might not be “real,” Kundera is treating religious myth as if it were interchangeable with metaphysics and empirical science—the three domains being on the same “plane” and thus potentially conflictual. In other words, the author goes beyond religion’s native turf, overextending it into other domains, and thus commits category mistakes. With such a propensity of looking into other yards, he may not even recognize that which is native in religion’s own front yard. Nevertheless, his main point in the passage is that convenience (and the tiny related matter of self-interest) figures prominently in Genesis as it is written, and I would add interpreted.

We can extend the point to include how convenient it is for believers to swallow a faith narrative [i.e.,  mythic language] uncritically, even overreaching in giving it dominion in other domains extrinsic to but related to religion, and exaggerating the religious claims such that the embellishments become included as truth, and thereby being consecrated as sacred presumably (though problematically, according to Nietzsche) beyond the reach of reason. 

Ironically, the faulty inferences in religion are typically hidden under the religionist’s presumption of infallibility (i.e., not being able to be wrong in matters of religious interpretation and belief). These impairments in cognitive functioning may be the silent killers of religion, and the most difficult obstacle for a religious rationale as it seeks credibility in the public square. That is to say, as religious discourse seeks credibility in the secular realm, in domains such as politics, morality, metaphysics, astrophysics, and even economics. Treating such areas as vassals and obsessing on them (e.g., on abortion and gay marriage in morality) risks neglecting that which is in religion’s own domain. 

Pruning religion back may actually strengthen it, as its distinctive core will have room to breathe and come to the fore. I submit that religious experience, whether in worship, prayer, meditation, or communion with the divine via ritual preparation, is the central plant in the domain of religion. Ironically, religious symbol, myth, and even ritual can crowd out this sort of experience, which involves a yearning for beyond the limits of human cognition and perception.

If the native fauna in religion’s own back yard are indeed predominantly of the religious-experience genus, and if such transcendent-oriented experience goes beyond the limits of perception and cognition, then perhaps a focus on the experiencing itself—the reference point lying beyond—might not be vulnerable to the cognitive afflictions. Perhaps one of the self-defeating tendencies of religions has been the tendency to load attributes onto the transcendent referent point—a point properly having no area. In other words, transcendent experience may be more intense, and free of the cognitive trappings, if the focus is on the yearning, or transcending, itself rather than the nature of the object, which is by definition beyond the limits of human perception and cognition anyway, according to Plotinus. As Joseph Campbell said, the mask of eternity set in front of a person may be the final obstruction to his or her full, or pure, religious experience.

Furthermore, an experience that transcends our awareness of ourselves and our daily world may have as one of its byproducts an increased sensitivity to experience of simply existing in the world upon the person’s return to it. When the focus is on other people, such automatic (rather than intentioned) enhanced sensitivity is, I submit, none other than compassion—a desire to act to further another person’s good and happiness out of empathy and caring. An enriched inclination to be compassionate may be a natural result of regular “time outs” from even experiencing being (in the world). 

Jesus of the Gospels can be viewed as an example of the religious experience/compassion relationship, as he prays a lot and is very compassionate. The experience of distinctively religious yearning transcending the world is, I contend, a superior source of compassion than any others that rely on intention. Ironically, pruning the tree of religion back to within the domain of religion may be the path less travelled back to justice as love manifesting as universal benevolence for the good of each other as well as our species’ habitat on planet Earth.




[1] Nicole Winfield and Jennifer Peltz, “Pope Beseeches World Leaders to Protect the Environment,” Associated Press, September 25, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon (New American Standard). (accessed online on September 25, 2015).
[4] The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2, David N. Freedman, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 942.
[5] Gen. 1:1-3. Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 3.
[6] Gen. 1:9-10. Tanakh, p. 3.
[7] Anchor Bible Dictionary, p. 943.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] In the first volume of Old Testament Theology, Gerhard von Rad distinguishes the attributions of divine intervention from the empirical history. Reading the text, I had the sense of the historical history being the bones and the faith history furnishing the flesh. See Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper, 1962).
[13] Gen. 1:26-28. Tanakh.
[14] Bruce Vawter, On Genesis: A new Reading (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), p. 59.
[15] Anchor Bible Dictionary, p. 944.
[16] Psalm 8:5-7, in Tanakh, p. 1115.
[17] Richard Higginson, Transforming Leadership: A Christian Approach to Management (SPEK: London, 1996), p. 7.
[18] Psalm 8:2,4-7.
[19] Anchor Bible Dictionary, p. 943.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22]. Augustine, Tractates on John: Books 28-54, 40.4, trans. John W. Rettig, Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 88 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), p. 126.
[23] From Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, John W. Harvey, trans. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958).
[24] Nicole Winfield and Jennifer Peltz, “Pope Beseeches World Leaders to Protect the Environment.”
[25] Richard Higginson, Transforming Leadership, p. 50.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Matt 24:45. 
[29] Higginson, Transforming Leadership, p. 7.
[30] Ibid. For a discussion of Jesus’ notion of stewardship applied to leadership generally (and particularly in the business context), see Skip Worden, Christianized Ethical Leadership in Business: The Servant, Shephard, and Steward (Seattle: Amazon, 2015). It is a short booklet.                
[31] Matt. 25:40.
[32] Skip Worden, God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth (Seattle: Amazon, 2015). This text is oriented to the general educated reader, including laypersons, clergy, and business practitioners. The related book, Godliness and Greed, is an academic treatise oriented to scholars and their students. Ironically, God’s Gold is a better academic text as I had another chance to clear out errors and re-think and clarify my points.
[33] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Michael H. Heim, trans. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), p. 286.