Tuesday, December 27, 2005

retreating into abstraction, thank god

John Gray, in Straw Dogs, a book I’ll possibly be taking issue with later, describes the cardinal error of Christian theology as its treatment of humans as ‘in form, very like a god’, with dominion over other creatures upon the earth. Here’s the vital passage in Testament:

Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness, to have domino over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, all wild animals on land, and everything that creeps on the earth.’

God created human beings in his own image;

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that moves on the earth’.

God also said, ‘Throughout the earth I give you all plants that bear seed, and every tree that bears fruit with seed: they shall be yours for food. All green plants I give for food to the wild animals, to all the birds in the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, every living creature.

Now, leaving aside the trivial question of who the roving reporter was who overheard God’s pronouncements and transcribed them, and how accurate the transcription was, the passage makes clear how we’re expected to think of ourselves, as godlike guardians and rulers over the earthly kingdom, with the power of life and death over its non-human creatures.

It’s passages like these, Gray and many others have argued, that help to explain the sort of kerfuffle that arose when Mr Darwin came along with his Origin of Species. Some other, less anthropocentric religions, would be able to incorporate the theory of evolution with scarcely a shift in their religious concepts, but for Christians the special place of humans between the beasts and their god is a central dogma, and evolution more or less completely undermines it.

In fact, I find it strange that the Roman Catholic church officially accepts evolution. I’ve heard a few commentators say that catholics have far less difficulty with the theory than protestants do. Offhand, I can’t think why this should be so. One argument has it that catholics are uncomfortable with creationism because the created world is so imperfect and contains such apparently needless suffering that to promote their god as intelligent designer might mean attributing to him more than a little malicious intent.

This raises interesting questions about where Catholicism officially stands viz a viz the first chapters of Genesis, but of course the compatibility, or otherwise, of the theory of evolution with Christian belief cannot be decided by official decree. My own feeling about this is that Christianity and evolution are harder to reconcile than is often contended.

There are some obvious implications to the Judaeo-Christian myth about the special place of humans in their god’s creation. For example, it seems to me that the notion of the soul, so frequently used in Christian thinking, both metaphorically and otherwise, is placed under some pressure by a modern evolutionary understanding. The metaphorical seems all that’s left of it, and the danger for Christians is that their god also is coming to look more and more metaphorical and abstract.

Not that I have anything against this retreat into abstraction myself. May it continue. Meanwhile, we need to recover from the destructive effects of such a hubristic religion – one that might have served well enough a small population in the Middle East centuries ago, but which is currently, through its blind pride, doing a great deal of damage to the planet.

Basically, my dislike of this universalising and simplifying belief system runs deep. What I most despise about Christianity is the lies it tells to itself, lies intended to simplify that which cannot be simplified. It’s a fearful or gutless, and profoundly deceitful religion, and that in itself is destructive of the spirit. I hope I never stop fighting against its insidious impact.



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