(lenten) thinking out loud, i: Scripture and the Resurrection in light of the deep history of life on earth

Alongside occasional posts outlining, in quite ‘uncooked’ and sporadic form, some of the current directions of my thought in relation to things like the history of technology and technics (particularly in relationship to the Islamicate world and our relationship to objects and bodies of historical inheritance therefrom in the present), at least during Lent this year I’d like to offer up some reflections, also quite sporadic and rapidly sketched, on theological and other issues that have been occupying my thinking lately, particular in relation to the deep evolutionary history of life on earth and its implications for Orthodox Christian theology and practice (I also have in the works a long essay on my own personal journey and perspectives on the controversy apprehension- or rejection!- of such a deep time perspective has occasioned in Christianity). The following is then an initial exploration, precipitated by a passage by St. Gregory of Nyssa, of the intersect of Scriptural views of the created order, the deep evolutionary history of life on earth as expressed in our genetic ‘archive,’ and the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

Our takeaway from Patristic explorations of science and theology should not be to adopt their particular interpretations, in the majority of cases anyway, given that while impressive for the era, and in a genealogical line forward to much our own body of epistemic workings out, the majority of that scientific knowledge is now entirely antiquated if not downright quaint. What counts is the same thing that counts about the production of that knowledge in the first place, as well as the theological routes visible in the Scriptures: not the particulars but the processes and the underlying presuppositions about the order and legibility of the universe and its relationship to God. St. Gregory is entirely comfortable thinking about divine creation in terms of the prevailing science—we might rather say natural philosophy—not to make Scripture say something novel but rather to read Scripture in light of what was then known about the natural world (and in this regard we can in fact see multiple strategies from the Fathers, precisely as we would expect for anyone with a genuinely high view of Scripture and its inspiration—that it can sustain many meanings and interpretative paths across chronological spans). In St. Gregory’s case the basic message that he—rightly I think—sees in the Genesis account as having to do with the place of humans in the created order and in relation to God is pretty readily transposable to what we know of evolutionary history. There is, as Genesis in fact suggests pretty overtly, continuity—we would say genetic continuity—between ourselves and all previous lifeforms, and we carry the evolutionary traces of them in ourselves, in our sensations and our instincts. And as part of God’s good creation, this evolutionary inheritance is fundamentally good, it is a part of the biological package necessary for life. Sin results in our misuse of our evolutionary heritage, and we alone of all creatures can make use, or misuse, of our biological inheritance precisely because we possess consciousness (in St. Gregory’s parlance, ‘reason’) and a soul, which I think we really ought to think of as shorthand for our unique relationship with God—the other principle lesson of the Genesis account. That consciousness and that relationship with God, of course, entail our free will, our being moral creatures who can ascend towards God and divine transformation or who can descend towards sin and destruction (of ourselves and of the wider creation, which ‘groans’ in anticipation of its transformation through God working in and with us).

Of course none of this per se speaks to whether we ought to understand Adam and Eve as pointing towards literal discrete historical figures or something else: I really do not think the story itself indicates one way or the other all that conclusively, and can be read in multiple ways, indeed, demands multiple readings and interpretive routes by, among other things, the inclusion of not one but two origins stories for Adam and Eve right there in the opening chapters of Genesis. The details and perhaps the relationship to historical time are different in each, but the basic gist is the same: humans are creatures derived from the same origins as all other creatures, ultimately the fruit of the earth itself, but who are given a special relationship with God and carry His image, and are instructed by God to live in a particular relationship with Him and the created order, but are capable of contravening that relationship, with their sin ultimately having ‘real-world’ effects within the wider creation and within human self and society. God calls us bipedal, consciousness-bearing hominids to a special status in the world, to inhabit the created order as creatures ourselves in kinship with all other living things but as points of contact with God, as priests and worshipers who are in the world yet consciously (and freely!) oriented towards God. That of course is half of the story: the second half (though really it is the entire story) is that God Himself enters into the stream of evolutionary time and development, a stream that we as humans were meant to transfigure and transform, not from a bad state to a good state but to a transformed state, one only realized through in a sense deiform created beings simultaneously in relation to the wider natural world of which they are a part and in relation to God and the suprasensual order of the spiritual world and of Divine Life Itself.

St. Gregory would have been very excited to learn, I think, that humans quite literally carry within their genetic code a record of their deep past reaching back to the earliest life forms (even if the signal thereof is no longer visible to us down to the earliest periods), we contain within ourselves a continuous and cohesive expression of the wider living created order in a quite concrete sense—and that in becoming human God the Son took on in a manner beyond comprehension the whole history of life as contained and expressed in our humanity, in the genetic code that generates our biological reality. In rising to life again Christ quite literally brings to life, brings to divine life and being and transformation—transfiguration—not just humans as discrete entities but humans as bearers of the whole previous history of life on earth (that is, one such trajectory, standing in as it were for the many others), assembled from the fundamental elements of the earth—and so bears into divine life all of creation as expressed in our genetic history and physical-chemical assembly, a genetic history that contains a record of specifically human history, too, including our sin and acts against divine order. At a cultural level, it is no accident that Christ was incarnate in a particular time and place speaking a particular language within a particular cultural sphere. For much as our genetic code and its epigenetic expression doesn’t just relate but really is the cumulative expression of creation’s whole past and present, culture—particularly language—is itself the record and the expression of the deep human past, of its good and bad and terrible. Christ literally physically bore in Himself, in the humanity He received from the Theotokos, the whole sweep of the evolutionary history of life, the cosmological history of matter, and the cultural history of human society—and in dying and rising again He completed the arc of transformation invested in us and, in a sense, fulfilled by us in the person of Christ, who is not just the ‘second Adam’—that is, human—but is indeed the ‘true Adam,’ the true human. Christ models in Himself and specifically in His post-Resurrection interactions with His disciples the ultimate end of the created order, the full trajectory of the history of the cosmos and of life on earth: not replacement or effacement or even radical rupture but transformation, a form of being at once very much continuous with and yet in other ways inconceivable in relation to current life. Scripture gives us really no ‘hard details’ about the ‘after,’ just as we cannot extract a theory of evolution or cosmological expansion or really any such details from the creation accounts of Scripture. We are given indications and clues in Scripture, outlines and stories; for the large arc of life’s history scientific inquiry can fill in many gaps, if not explain things theologically really. For the future of the created order’s trajectory, for what the salvation and transformation in Christ looks like, again, we have hints and clues, stories and symbols—and, as a sort of prefigurative ‘fossil’ record if you like, the life of the Church and the lives of the saints, men and women who embody to a visible extent the life of Christ in the here-and-now, before- in a strict chronological sense at least- the general Resurrection, yet also within and through that Resurrection.

Indeed Grace Will Be The Judge

Mar Isaac
St. Isaac of Nineveh (c. 613 – c. 700) ܡܪܝ ܐܝܣܚܩ ܕܢܝܢܘ

Who, then, understands this and faithfully discerns is not able to rejoice in works but only in the goodness of God. And the one who truly recognizes that God’s goodness is the cause of his joy, does not hold that his joy be only for himself but rejoices for all creatures. His joy comes to be more abundant than the sea, because it is the goodness of the God of the universe affording such joy, and all creation is a partaker in it, even sinners share in this.

So then, he is quick to rejoice even for sinners. He says in fact: ‘They are not far from mercy because of the goodness of the Lord of the universe by which righteousness has been given even to me without works.’ And again he says: ‘All like me share in this great good because God is good: He only requires a little will then He gives His grace abundantly and remits sins.’

This is the grace which strengthens the righteous, preserving them by its being near and removing their faults. It is also near to those who have perished, reducing their torments and in their punishment deals with compassion. In the world to come, indeed grace will be the judge, not justice. God reduces the length of time of sufferings, and by means of His grace, makes all worthy of His Kingdom. For there is no one even among the righteous who is able to conform his way of life to the Kingdom.

But if human realities are to be judged and examined according to justice, yet in listening to the word of Scripture one investigates according to exterior knowledge, not entering into the meaning- where is justice here? As it is said, He is merciful in all His works. However, even when He chastises here below or in the life beyond, it is not correct to consider this as justice, but rather fatherly wisdom.

Nor do I call ‘exacting punishment’ even those times when God visits one with a severe aspect, either here or in the life beyond, but rather ‘instruction,’ because they have a good end. On that account, as I said, no one is able to make his way of life resemble the Kingdom and that way of life which is granted only by mercy.

So then I have explained what was already said, that we inherit heaven by what is His and not by what is ours. And this grace is given every day, not just from time to time. If we all receive this grace, let us rejoice in Him who gives it and the greater will be our joy! Let us adore and give thanks for it, and an even greater gift will be given.

Whoever then has joy by reason of his way of life, this joy is false, or rather, his joy is wretched. And not only in his joy is he wretched but also in his understanding. Whoever rejoices because he has truly understood that God is good, is consoled with a consolation that does not pass away, and his joy is true joy. This is because, as was just said his soul has considered and perceived that truly the goodness of God is without measure.

St. Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Third Part,’ in Isaac the Syrian’s Spiritual Works, ed. and trans. by Mary T. Hansbury (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016), 102-104.

If You Do Not Will, It Is Not Able to Enter

It has been some time since I have presented a translation of my own of a Syriac source here. To be honest, I had allowed my command of Syriac to become rusty through neglect, something I have begun trying to rectify. As part of this effort, I present here a translation of a Syriac scholia, or short selective commentary, on a passage from the book of Genesis. The author is Mar Jacob of Edessa, a prominent and productive Syriac Christian bishop and writer of the seventh century (A.D.). This text, while explicating a passage about Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, is really an examination of freedom of will and the mechanics of human wrong-doing, with the verse in question acting as a jumping-off place, and supporting evidence, for the centrality of human freedom in moral action.

*

 Behold! If you do good, I will accept you (Gen. 4:7a): And also, I am accepting of you if you do good. These are an evident indication that God wills the repentance of man, and receives his repentance. And He is longsuffering with him, and gives him also means that call him to this, because He wills his salvation.

But, if you do not do good—upon the door sin is crouching. You are turned towards it and it has mastery over you (Gen. 4:7b): These [words] point out that mastery of the house[1] and freedom of will belong to humans, and that one wills by his own will. One calls to sin that it come upon him and have mastery over his soul. If he does not will it, sin is not able to draw near to him. That is, it crouches upon the door of your mind, like a fierce animal outside of the gate of a house. If you turn towards this by your own will, and open up to it, it enters and has mastery upon you. And if you do not will, it is not able to enter against you.

By means of these you are clearly taught that Satan is not the sower of sin able to compel, or govern with force the rule of the house of the human mind, and sin is not the seed itself of evil. For this Cain was condemned, for he did not come to repentance of these things, though he opened the door to sin by his own will, and it entered and took mastery over him, as God said to him, and he murdered his transgression-less brother, from envy alone.

Mar Jacob of Edessa, Scholia on the Old Testament


[1] That is, mastery of the human body, or perhaps the soul: the exact meaning of the phrase, here literally translated, is a bit ambiguous.

Drip the Oil of Your Grace, My God

_____________

I have removed to a distance, Benevolent One, I dwelt in the desert
and I was hidden from You, the sweet Master.
I came under the night of life’s worry,
and there I sustained many stings and wounds,
having gone up I bear many blows in my soul,
and I cry out amid the suffering and trouble of my heart:
have mercy, have pity on me the transgressor!
O soul-loving doctor Who alone loves mercy,
Who heals the weak and wounded as a gift,
cure my bruises and wounds!
Drip the oil of Your grace, my God,
and anoint my injuries, wipe out my infections,
form scar tissues and bind up my severed
members, and remove all the scars, Savior,
and heal the whole of me completely as before
when I did not have defilement, when I did not have any bruise,
nor infected injury, nor stain, O my God,
but calm and joy, peace and meekness,
and holy humility, and patience,
the illumination of long-suffering and excellent works,
long-suffering and utterly unconquerable power.
Hence much comfort from tears each day,
hence the exultation of my heart
gushed forth like a spring, flowed everlastingly,
and was a stream dripping honey, and a drink of merriment,
continuously turning in the mouth of my mind.
Hence all health, hence purity,
hence cleansing of my passions and vain thoughts,
hence dispassion was with me like lightening,
and always associated with me. Understand me spiritually,
I who say these things, be not wretched, defiled!
The dispassion produced in me is the unutterable pleasure of communion,
and boundless desire for the wedding feast, for union full of God,
partaking of which I also became dispassionate,
I was burned up with pleasure, blazing with desire for it,
and I shared in the light, yes, I became light,
higher than all passion, outside all wickedness.
For passion does not touch the light of dispassion,
just as the shadow or darkness of night cannot touch the sun.
And so having become such, and being such a kind,
I was relaxed, Master, as I took confidence in myself.
I was dragged down by worry about perceptible matters,
I fell down, wretched, to the concern of life’s problems,
and I become cold like black iron,
and lying around for a long time I took on rust.
Because of this I shout to You asking to purified anew,
Benevolent One, and to be lifted up to the first
beauty, and to enjoy fully Your light
now and always unto all ages. Amen.

St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), Hymn 46. Trans. Daniel Griggs

Ghazali on Plants, Astrology, and Some Other Stuff


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (450-505 AH/1058-1111 AD) wrote about pretty much everything. He is best known for the work from which the translation below comes from, the Ihya Ulum-al-Din, the Revivification of the Religious Sciences; he is often referred to- not incorrectly in many respects- as the great synthesizer of Sufism and ‘mainstream’ Islam. He is also remembered for his engagement with philosophy, which included both thorough-going critiques and (sometimes unintentional) integration with his theological and mystical concerns. In this passage, drawn from volume four, book two, section four of the Ihya, Ghazali describes the operations of nature as understood through his particular reckoning of Islamic philosophy. He limits his analysis to the nourishing nature of food and where it comes from; this however leads him down several paths, including a short excursion into a critique of astrology. Most of it is pretty self-explanatory; some terms like ‘traces’ are rather technical but I think are still understandable in the context. There are a couple of spots where I was not entirely sure of the meaning- as always, suggestions for a clearer or more accurate translation are always helpful.

Know that there are many sorts of food, and that God has, in creating them, given great wonders beyond reckoning and consecutive causes without end, and the mentioning [of these things] in every food can be stretched out on end- food providing healing, pleasure, and nourishment. But let us take nourishment [as our topic], as it is the root of the rest. And let us take from all we have gathered the grain of wheat, leaving off every other nourishing thing. So we say: When you find a grain or grains, but do not eat it, but rather resolve [to save it] and so remain hungry, then what you need is for the grain to grow in itself, to increase and multiply until it meets the full measure of your need. God created in the grain of wheat potency (al-quwa), which nourishes it, just as He created in you. While He divided you up into sense and motion, unlike in a plant, He did not make you different in nourishment, because a plant is nourished by water and draws it up into its insides by means of roots/veins [the Arabic word means both roots and veins], just as you are nourished and draw up [water].

But we will not remain mentioning the means of the plant attracting nourishment to itself, but instead we will simply point out its [sources of] nourishment. So we say: Just as wood and soil do not nourish you, but rather you need specific food, likewise grain is not nourished by just anything, but rather has need of something specific. For instance: if you leave grain in your house, it will not increase, as there is nothing there for it other than air, and air alone does not suffice to nourish it. And if you leave it in water it will not increase, and if you leave it in land without water it will not increase. On the contrary, whenever earth has water in it, its water mixes with the earth making mud, and this is pointed to in His words: ‘Let man look to his food: We pour out water, then we split the earth, and we plant in it seed: grapes, herbs, olive trees, palms…’ et al. However, water and dirt do not by themselves suffice. If you leave it in damp, hard, packed earth, it will not sprout due to the lack of air. It needs to be left in in ground that is stirred up, worked loose, so that air can penetrate it. But then air cannot move to it by itself, so it needs winds to move the air, and to strike with power and force upon the ground until it penetrates it- and this is pointed out in His words: ‘We send vivifying winds.’ Verily, their vivification is in the occurrence of the coupling of air, water, and earth. But all of that does not profit you if it is excessively cold or in wintertime, but rather the seed needs the heat of spring or summer.

So, inasmuch as its nourishment needs these four conditions, see what it needs of each one: if it needs for water to be led to agricultural land from large rivers, springs, and streams, then see how God created large rivers, gushing of springs, and streams flowing from them. But perhaps the land is elevated and water does not rise to it- then see how God- exalted is He- created clouds and how He directs the winds upon them in order to lead them, by His permitting, over the quarters of the earth (they are the rain-bearing clouds). Then see how He sends rain-bearing clouds over the earth during the spring and fall, according to need, and see how He created mountains conserving water, springs flowing out of them gradually- for if they burst out suddenly, then the lands [below] would be flooded, and the crops and cattle would be destroyed. And it is not possible to enumerate all of the graces of God in mountains, clouds, rivers, and rain.

And as for heat, it does not arise by means of water and earth- rather both are cold, so see how the sun dawns and how He created it distant from the earth, warming the earth at times and not at others, so that cold arises according to need for cold, and heat arises according to need for heat. And this is but one of the wise matters concerning the sun- the wisdom evident in it is more than can be reckoned. Then the plant, when it rises from the earth, the fruit becomes congealed and hardened, so that it requires moist softness in order to ripen. So see how He created the moon and made among its specialties the capacity of making moist and soft, just as He made among the sun’s specialties the capacity of heating. So it [the moon] ripens fruit and transforms it, through the power of the Wise Creator. And because of that, if there were trees giving off shade which blocked the shining of the sun, the moon, and all the stars, then they would rot and decrease, just as small trees rot if large trees overshadow them. And you can know the moist softness of the moon in that if you uncover your head at night, then moisture that passes over from it through clouds will alight on you head. And just as your head is moistened, so fruits are also. But we will not linger, as we do not here desire a deeper investigation.

Rather, we say: every star in the heaven manifests some sort of benefit, just as the sun manifests heat and the moon moistness, and not one of them desists from great wisdom which the power of man is incapable of enumerating. And were it not so, then He created them as jest and emptiness, and His words would not be sound: ‘Our Lord did not create this in vain,’ and His words, ‘We did not create the heavens and the earth and is between them in vain.’ And just as there is not in the limbs of your body any without use, so is there none among the limbs of the earth a limb without use. And the whole world is as a single person, and the units of its bodies are like limbs- the limbs of your body are mutually reinforcing and aiding in the whole of your body, and the explication of that is lengthy. And it not seemly for you to speculate; rather, faith [holds] that the stars and sun and moon are subject to the command of God, glorified is He, in occasions which were made as means of wisdom. The differing with Revelation is under the heading of prohibition against the belief of the astrologers and the ‘knowledge of the stars.’ Rather, the prohibition against faith in the stars is twofold: One: that you believe that they are the doers of the actions, independent in them, and that they are not subservient to the power of a Director which created and controls them- and this is unbelief. Second: the belief of the astrologers in the detailed description of what they report regarding the traces which are not comprehended by the whole of creation, for they say that out of ignorance. And know that the precision of the stars is deficient before but one of the Prophets, upon them be peace. Then that knowledge is obliterated and does not subsist until it is unmixed, the right in it not being distinguished from the wrong. So belief that the stars are a means for traces which occur through the creating of God, exalted is He, in the earth, plants, and animals- [this belief] is not repugnant to religion, but on the contrary is truth. However, the allegation of knowledge by means of these traces regarding unknown particularities is repugnant to religion. And that is as if you had a garment that you washed and wished to dry out, and someone said to you: Take your garment out and spread it out, and the sun will rise and the day and the air will become hot- his deceit is not thrust upon you, and attribution of wrongdoing by the speaker is not incumbent upon you through his assignment of the heating of the day and air. And if you ask someone about the change of his face and he says: The sun beat down on me in the road, and my face was darkened- he is not being deceitful towards you.

And so it is with all the traces, other than that some of the traces are known, and some unknown. As for those which are unknown, it is impossible to allege knowledge in them, while of those which are known, some are known to everyone, like the occurrence of light and heat through the rising of the sun, while others are limited to some people, like the occurrence of dew through the rising of the moon. Therefore, the stars were not created in jest; on the contrary in them is abundant wisdom beyond enumeration. For this reason, the Prophet of God, upon whom be peace and prayer, looked to the heavens and recited His words: ‘Our Lord did not create them in vain-  Glory to You! Deliver us from the torment of the Fire.’ Then Muhammad said, ‘Woe to the one who recites this verse, then wipes his moustache with it’- meaning that one would recite but abandon further contemplation, limiting his understanding of the realms of heaven to knowing the color of the sky and the shining of the stars- things even the beasts know. So the one who is content in knowledge of that is ‘the one who wipes his moustache’ with the verse. But God- exalted is He!- possesses in the realms of the heavens, the stars, people, and animals wonders which those who love God seek to know.

Whoever loves a certain knowledgeable person, he does not cease being occupied in seeking out his writings, in order to increase in the full measure of understanding regarding his wonders out of love for him. It is likewise regarding the craftsmanship of God, exalted is He: verily, the entire world is of His composition; indeed, the composition of writers is from His composition, which He composes by means of the hearts of His servants. Are you amazed over the composition but not amazed at the composer? On the contrary, whoever makes the composer subject to his composition according to what benefits him in guidance, payment, and knowledge, it is as if you thought that it was the playthings of the juggler that were themselves dancing and moving in rhythmic, proportionate movements. But in fact you do not marvel at the playthings- they are clumsy things, without motion- rather, you marvel at the skill of the juggler, moving them through subtle connections hidden from sight. Likewise, the nourishing of plants is not accomplished save through water, air, sun, moon, and stars, nor is that accomplished save through the celestial spheres in which they are embedded. Nor are the celestial spheres complete save through their motion, and their motion is not complete save through the celestial angelic beings which set them in motion. And so the mention of the distant causes could be extended, but we will leave off their mention, letting what we have mentioned clarify whatever we have neglected- so let us confine mention of causes to the nourishing of plants.

A Slap in the Face

“An anecdote had it that he [‘Ali an-Nashi’, d. 976] was once engaged in a disputation with al-Ash’ari… The disputation was in progress when, for no reason at all, he slapped al-Ash’ari’s face. Taken aback, Ash’ari demanded the reason for his opponent’s unprofessional conduct. Nashi’ said: ‘That is God’s doing, why get angry with me?’ Beside himself, Ash’ari exclaimed, ‘It is you doing alone, and it is bad conduct exceeding the bounds of decency in a disputation!’ Whereupon Nashi’ replied triumphantly: ‘You have contradicted yourself! If you persist in your doctrine, then the slap was God’s doing; but if you have shifted from your position, then exact the equivalent!’ Whereupon the audience broke in peals of laughter; Nashi’ had made his point that humans are responsible for human acts.”

The Rise of Colleges, Makdisi

I suppose that many of my readers will be familiar with the perennial debates in Christian traditions over the nature and extent of God’s knowledge and determination of human actions. As the above story should demonstrate, the same sorts of questions early on arose in Islam, and became topics of heated debate- and at least one very clever “visual aid.”