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An Analysis of Genesis from a Modern Philosophical Perspective


The following is an essay that received a grade of A from The Catholic University of America. Its views do not represent those of all writers on this website.

Present-Innocence, Past-Immersion, and the Future-Horizon:
An Analysis of Genesis from a Modern Philosophical Perspective
by William Deatherage
PDF Version

            “The Queen of the Sciences.” This honorific was synonymous with theology for millennia but has since vanished with the rise of the popular misconception that the subject pertains only to unintelligible faith. More specifically, the Bible, the fundamental source of theology’s study, has been framed by many skeptics as internally incoherent and externally inaccurate, making it obsolete. “Modernism,” a broad term referring to recent secularized and humanistic philosophies, has emerged to claim theology’s throne, offering an allegedly more intelligent approach to knowledge and ethics. However, despite their often-rocky relationship, modern philosophy may actually offer traditional theology a bounty of assets. From phenomenology, to existentialism, to systematic knowledge, it is possible that the modern philosophical project could assist theologians in resolving many of the inconsistencies that skeptics of the Bible have expressed concern about. As one of the most controversial books in the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis lends itself as an appropriate testing ground for the application of modern philosophical methods to Biblical studies. Specifically, the foundations of Kantian epistemology, Heideggerian aesthetics, and Kuhnian paradigms can help resolve tensions within Biblical theology by constructing a methodology involving a present-innocence, a past-immersion, and a future-horizon.

Upon first inspection, scripture is beset with many problems, three of which can be found prominently in Genesis. First, it appears that many doctrinal teachings that the Catholic Church promulgates, such as creatio ex nihilo, are either vaguely defined or entirely absent from their source material. Additionally, many events in the Bible seem historically impossible or contain contradictions in their narratives. This causes many readers to inquire why such stories hold any theological significance if they did not transpire the literal way that they are described. Finally, God’s character in in the Old Testament often appears rash, incoherent, cruel, and even evil, as He promotes slavery, division, and even genocide. All three of these problems contribute to a premature rejection of Genesis’s value, if not that of the entire Bible. However, with the aid of three modern philosophical approaches, I will argue that these issues not only can be resolved, but that their resolutions contribute to a deeper understanding of theology.

The first solution that I propose is called the present-innocence approach. While the Catholic Church’s intellectual might preserves the teachings of Christ in a beautiful and noble manner, the unintended effects of systematic theology can include a rigidity that stifles theological innovation and the promotion of a blind trust in theologians, ultimately leading to dead dogma among the faithful. Enter Immanuel Kant, who is famous (or infamous) for grounding philosophy in pure reason. He is often blamed for the separation of theology from philosophy and, by extension, the relegation of the former to a subject of pure faith. However, to understand modern philosophy, it is important to filter ideas from their effects. Just because Kantian philosophy may have been weaponized to knock theology from its perch as “Queen” does not mean that Kantianism, as a whole, is bad or unintelligent. On the contrary, Kant’s genius shines in his epistemology, which laid the groundwork for phenomenology. He describes  that “appearances to the extent that as objects they are thought in accordance with the unity of the categories are called phenomena.”[1] Thus, the world as it appears to man is called “phenomena.” He contrasts this with noumena, which is “the sensible data, for then nothing would remain through which it would be thought,”[2] or the world as it actually is. Kant’s epistemology paints a revolutionary picture of man’s relationship with the world. The real, noumenal, world exists. It is the object of our studies, but beyond this, there is not much, if anything, that can be known about it for certain. The “phenomenal world” is what we perceive as real. This model creates a symbiotic relationship between man and the world, since without man there is no perception, but without the real world, there is nothing to perceive. That said, the immense gap between man and reality, which could be comparable to the gap between man and God, is of particular interest to the ideal Biblical scholar, whom I will refer to as “The Biblical Theologian,” (emphasis on the capitalizations). For many, Kant’s skeptical approach to the real world yields stress, doubt, and confusion, but therein lies the beauty of Kantian epistemology. Yes, there are inherent truths of the world that are required for knowledge to exist, (Kant emphasizes mathematics, for example), but they are certainly limited. Acknowledging the limitations of man’s flawed perception and capacity is integral in constructing a present-innocence, in which The Biblical Theologian prepares himself (or herself) to enter into the realm of theological observation. He or she rids themselves of their biases and presumptions regarding scripture, humbly acknowledging the majestic gap between their perception and reality. This prepares The Biblical Theologian to interact with the Bible with an open mind. Perhaps most importantly, this cleansing of the intellect also includes suspending value-based judgments (for now) that could interfere with the authentic study of very different societies in the Bible, which had very different worldviews and ethical values. Thanks to the present-innocence approach, the Biblical theologian is ready to enter the world of the Bible as if they were experiencing it for the first time.

Once The Biblical Theologian has emptied his or her mind of expectations and preconceived judgments of scripture, they are ready to enter the world of the Bible. Martin Heidegger is credited with providing the foundations of existentialism and modern aesthetics. Frustrated with philosophy’s obsession with objectivity and over-systemization, Heidegger’s fundamental aim was to reconstruct how man interacts with the world. He writes, “When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it transmits is made so inaccessible […]  it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something which we need not even understand.”[3] Essentially, Heidegger’s problem with tradition is that the observer often becomes so caught up in the synthesis of knowledge that they neglect to interact with the source material itself. For Heidegger, the only solution is to encounter the source of knowledge in its most primordial state. He continues, “Thus ‘phenomenology’ means […] to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.”[4] Applying this to Biblical theology, once The Biblical Theologian enters a state of present-innocence, they are charged with encountering God’s Word in its rawest form. This approach, past-immersion, does not concern itself with objectivity or the value-based judgments that were abandoned in present-innocence, rather it allows for the Biblical world to open itself up to the observer, who takes on a more reactive, as opposed to active, role in observation. Heidegger’s aesthetics provide excellent guidance for how scripture should be encountered, as a work of art, not a quantifiable science. Unconcerned about the historicity of art, Heidegger states, “The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings. This opening up, i.e., this deconcealing, i.e., the truth of beings, happens in the work. In the art work, the truth of what is has set itself to work. Art is truth setting itself to work,”[5] To understand how or why God operates, specifically in Genesis, the reader must dwell in the world of an ancient Israelite by becoming an ancient Israelite. Thus, for The Biblical Theologian, the Bible stops being a historical textbook or list of rules, and instead becomes the gateway into the dwelling place in which God is encountered and unconcealed to the reader. It is only fitting that such a model be adopted for this past-immersion approach, since the process of revelation is one in which God plays the active role of presenting reality to the observer, whose only directive is to reactively engage with His Word.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions boldly attempts to reduce the history of science to a universal cycle, which he calls “paradigm shifts.” A scientist’s objective, according to Kuhn, is to solve puzzles.[6]  He states that “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.”[7] However, once a scientific model begins to consistently fail at solving said problems, it enters a “crisis.” Such a crisis is resolved by either adjusting a feature of the scientific paradigm or rejecting the paradigm altogether in favor of another (e.g. replacing egocentricity with heliocentricity). Theology finds itself in a rather unique position as a paradigm. Unlike natural sciences, which readily admit their lack of certainty, the Catholic Church adamantly holds that Her teachings cannot err. This essentially creates a perfect paradigm that can be developed but never discarded. Recall that the present-innocence and past-immersion approaches disregard value-based judgments for the sake of an authentic and raw encounter with God. However, it is important to remember that the Bible is not a series of isolated vignettes that stand on their own. On the contrary, the Bible is appreciated much more if it is understood as a fundamental component of the Christian paradigm. Thus, The Biblical Theologian begins to see glimpses of established doctrine in a future-horizon approach that allows them to visualize how the elements of scripture are gradually incorporated into broader theology. This is difficult to accomplish while clinging to a present-innocence, but it is akin to a child who suspects and anticipates their Christmas present after shaking the box. Yes, the child is uncertain about what is concealed in the box, but they can already start forming well-educated guesses regarding what is inside as they tear off pieces of wrapping paper. Similarly, The Biblical Theologian catches hints of doctrine without jumping to conclusions while in the unconcealment process. In this sense, the future-horizon is a teleology that gradually guides Biblical events to slowly reconstruct and possibly contribute to the Catholic paradigm, only this time with a fuller and richer comprehension of Church teachings.

To better understand how the future-horizon acts in unity with its counterparts, it might be beneficial to visualize a sunset’s horizon. The sunset-gazer remains immersed in experiencing the sky’s vibrant beauty, yet he or she anticipates the colors that they notice forming on the outer rim of the horizon. Like a sunset, the Church’s intellectual tradition can be understood as a process that is best encountered in a state of presentinnocence, while acknowledging, via future-horizon, that there is a clear end that said process is directed towards. After all, even the most beautiful of sunsets eventually fade to one color, but The Biblical Theologian takes delight in their past-immersion experience.

Using this framework, The Biblical Theologian can begin to address major problems of scripture starting with the lack of evidence of certain doctrines in the Bible. Three examples in Genesis include creatio ex nihilo, the serpent’s identity, and original sin. The creation narrative begins with “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[8] Nowhere in this passage is it mentioned that God created the world from nothing. In fact, if anything, it seems to imply that matter pre-existed creation. Genesis also never explicitly mentions that the serpent, who is plainly referred to as “the serpent,” is Satan, which the Church clearly teaches. Finally, the problem of original sin pertains to the fact that the doctrine is not explicitly defined in Genesis, and it is rarely mentioned throughout the rest of scripture. One would think that such an integral teaching would be more prominent in the Old Testament. These are just three examples of issues that threaten to upend the Catholic paradigm, as it seems like the very sources that the Church cites as origins of these teachings do not actually contain them.

The application of present-innocence to this issue is fairly straightforward, as it simply commands an acceptance that these teachings, as the Church holds them today, are not explicitly defined in the Old Testament, let alone Genesis. That said, The Biblical Theologian does not abandon said teachings, as they understand, via future-horizon, that God’s revelation is a drawn-out process that is rarely confined to a single passage or book. As The Biblical Theologian dwells in the world of the Bible in past-immersion, a broader narrative emerges that is built upon by each subsequent book. And just as Genesis, as a story, is incomplete if read on its own, so is the theology that it teaches. The Biblical Theologian is not discomforted by this fact, and they do not jump to rash conclusions because they, guided by the future-horizon, know that said teaching will gradually reveal itself in a manner that fits comfortably within the paradigm of Catholicism, free from contradictions that would lead the Church into error.

Sure enough, all three teachings hold when they are paired with later Biblical passages. St. Paul’s accounts on original sin, for example, are critical to Christianity’s understanding of the subject: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”[9] Creatio ex nihilo is trickier in the sense that no Biblical passage explicitly endorses it, though basic metaphysics necessitate a pre-eminent God, demonstrating the lasting contributions of pure reason within the paradigm of Christianity. Lastly, the serpent’s identity comes from the book of Revelation, which reads “He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.”[10] These examples illustrate the interdependency that all books of the Bible, and even basic principles of reason, have on each other. And while the present-innocence and past-immersion cements The Biblical Theologian in a fresh experience, the future-horizon ensures that he or she is not led into making rash judgments during their encounter with God (such as concluding that God is evil). Thus, the problem of absent teachings from certain books is addressed by the understanding that doctrine, just like Biblical narratives, is tethered together in a continuity that is best encountered via this present-past-future method.

The second problem concerns the accuracy of the Bible, both historically and internally as a narrative. For example, a seemingly minor discrepancy emerges in Genesis 4, when it is written that “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.”[11] This does not make very much sense, as Cain is the son of the first humans, Adam and Eve. Who could possibly pose a threat to kill him? On a grander scale, the flood story presents a menagerie of inconsistencies, from the number of animals Noah was instructed to bring aboard (two of every kind in chapter six, seven of every clean kind in chapter seven), to the number of days that rain poured down upon the Earth (one hundred and fifty in chapter six and forty in chapter seven). This assumes that such a flood even occurred, as there is little empirical evidence to suggest that it did. Finally, many stories in Genesis seem rather pointless in terms of contributions to Judeo-Christian history. Why should anyone care about two brothers fighting or the family life of Abraham? The inclusion of such seemingly minor stories indicates that the Bible is simply a collection of parables and incoherent epics that surely could have no bearing on a theology.

It is quite evident that there are, indeed, many inconsistencies in Genesis, which any scholar with a present-innocence would recognize. That said, The Biblical Theologian, understands that the supremacy of historically accurate events over non-accurate ones is a byproduct of the Enlightenment’s obsession with objectivity. Thanks to their present-innocence, The Biblical Theologian refuses to make value-based judgments on the sole basis of historicity. The idea that Biblical scholars throughout history were unaware of these inconsistencies is an arrogant assumption to make. Instead, in typical Heideggerian-Aesthetic fashion, The Biblical Theologian will understand that the preservation of such inconsistencies and “pointless” stories, which could have been corrected by any ancient editor over thousands of years, indicates greater, not lesser, meaning in said details. So, the first step in addressing this issue is to renounce the modern idea that historicity equals meaningfulness. The next step is to engage with the text as an ancient Israelite would. In doing so, The Biblical Theologian will likely recognize the variations in writing style littered throughout not only Genesis, but the entire Old Testament. They may conclude that these works were not written by a singular author, but were instead compounded and edited over centuries of intense theological evaluation. Accompanying this mentality, The Biblical Theologian will be readily assured by his or her future-horizon that every story and minor detail was preserved for a greater purpose that serves the gradual formation of doctrine.

Regarding Noah’s Ark, The Biblical Theologian, from a past-immersion approach, would instantly recognize a flood narrative and would value the symbolism, moral implications, numerology, and countless other aspects of the story before he or she even considers its historicity, just as ancient Israelites did. Such tales were not only popular in the region, but they were essential to any burgeoning religion. Historically, the lands that the early Jews inhabited were quite prone to flooding, so what better way to illustrate their God’s mightiness and uniqueness than by weaving Him into a pre-existing narrative?  This is not to say that a flood never happened, rather it did not need to happen. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the fact that no Biblical author or editor eliminated historical or internal discrepancies in the text supports this idea, as even the inclusion of conflicting counts of animals and days was more valuable to the editors than historical consistency was. Therefore, the value of flood stories is not tied to historical accuracy, but in how they illustrate the relationship between God and creation. That said, the fact that Christ, St. Paul, the Apostles, and several early Church fathers acknowledge the flood will reaffirm The Biblical Theologian of its validity in the Catholic paradigm once they read the New Testament. In the meantime, The Biblical Theologian is assured by the future-horizon approach that such an event is, indeed, meaningful. This anticipation of affirmation also applies to the Cain and Abel story, which is replicated in Luke’s prodigal son parable.[12] Thanks to the future-horizon approach, The Biblical Scholar can expect even the most minute motifs to re-emerge in the most surprising of contexts, making every single detail and so-called “pointless story” theologically significant. But even as vignettes, a personal God’s laws are often best revealed in His personal encounters with individuals like Cain and Abel. Backtracking to internal inconsistencies, the fact that Cain fears being murdered when there is no one in existence to kill him (other than his family) reaffirms that Genesis seems more concerned about the theological lessons it teaches than historical continuity. Thus, the narrative “inconsistencies” of scripture and “pointlessness” of anecdotes are of little concern to The Biblical Theologian when such details and stories are chocked full of symbolism, imagery, and living examples of how God operates in the world.

The final problem of scripture involves God’s character. Throughout Genesis alone, God reflects childish, cruel, sadistic, and seemingly evil tendencies. A prime example of this occurs in Genesis 21. God commands Hagar, Sarah’s abused slave who has run away, to not only return to Sarah but willingly submit to the pain and suffering that her mistress inflicts upon her. Additionally, in Genesis 11, God prevents man from building a tower because they dare to accomplish something without His guidance or approval. Lastly, the flood scenario returns, this time as an ethical dilemma, as God’s rash decision to annihilate all of humanity is downright genocidal. Thus, Genesis presents a problematic God who is inconsistent at best and masochistic at worst.

Immediately, the present-innocence approach is required to abandon ethical viewpoints of today that might be imposed on a totally different time period and culture. At first, this seems counterintuitive, as the Church does promote infallible moral truths. However, just as the unconcealment of doctrine and salvation history took thousands of years to progress, so did mankind’s understanding of God’s character, commandments, and ethics. And just as a good parent does not teach their infant child ethical lessons reserved for adulthood that they cannot comprehend, God, the perfect Father, gradually guides man through an ethical development into maturity. Thus, it is advantageous for The Biblical Theologian, using the past-immersion approach, to evaluate the God of Genesis based on the ancient world’s understanding of ethics. That said, the future-horizon is important to keep in mind, as The Biblical Theologian understands that God’s character never changes. Instead, it is our understanding of God’s character that does, just as Thomas Kuhn noted “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.”[13] And while many of today’s ethical systems stem from Judeo-Christian values, such roots did not grow overnight, as they required millennia to develop. Therefore, it is unfair to evaluate God based on today’s understanding of ethics, as God cooperated with His ancient people’s ethical and cultural standards and gradually steered them toward more complete moral fulfillment.

The predominant thought coursing through the mind of The Biblical Theologian in a state of past-immersion should be one simple question: “What about this Biblical passage stands out to me, an ancient Israelite, who is reading this for the first time?” In a world of slavery, angry gods, and rocky relationships between man and the divine, it is important to focus on how God impacts the cultural standards of society. Regarding the Hagar situation, detractors of Genesis are quick to highlight God’s seemingly cruel command for Hagar to submit to slavery, but a key passage is often neglected: “and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’”[14] These verses would instantly set off many alarms of any ancient reader. The Angel of the Lord addresses Hagar, a female Egyptian who is not a member of God’s sacred people, by name, and promises that her son will not only be free from slavery, but that he will be a father of a nation. From the past-immersion perspective, The Biblical Scholar sees that God is merciful, answers the cry of all who are oppressed, and extends His promises to all peoples, even women and slaves. Backtracking a few chapters, The Biblical Scholar will notice that the Tower of Babel scene represents the culmination of mankind’s pride. The same lineage that ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, killed Abel, mated with the quasi-divine Nephilim, and engaged in wicked behavior that justified a flood were now not only attempting to “make names for themselves,” but were deliberately disobeying God’s command to disperse throughout the Earth. The common denominator across these events appears to be man’s desire to be like God. Thus, God’s actions at the Tower of Babel are justified by an understanding of the blunders and offenses mankind repeatedly engaged in throughout Genesis. Backtracking again to the flood, God’s character provides perhaps the most “damning” evidence of His wickedness. Again, it is important to note from a past-immersion perspective that most major ancient religions believed that a flood happened but disagreed on the details regarding how it transpired. Thus, the importance of Genesis’s account is not in God’s action of flooding the world, but how and why He did so, in comparison to other deities. In Babylon’s Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods intend to destroy humanity permanently for no given reason, but are thwarted by a lesser god, who informs a human of their plan. In Genesis, God punishes mankind for his insolence, but has no intention of eliminating humanity, willingly choosing Noah, a righteous man, to save the species. In comparison to other gods of the time, the God of Judaism is much more powerful and competent, yet merciful. So, by abandoning modern ethics in a state of present-innocence, The Biblical Scholar can better evaluate God’s character in a past-immersion by comparing Him to other deities of the time period, with the assurance from their future-horizon that the totality of God’s nature will gradually be unconcealed through an organic relationship between Him and His maturing people.

The Bible presents countless problems and challenges that, upon first inspection, threaten to upend the Catholic paradigm. However, when addressed with proper methods, such quandaries can actually enrich the Catholic intellectual tradition. As Kuhn says, a scientist is essentially a puzzle-solver, so if theology is “Queen of the Sciences,” then it is worthy of a versitile toolbox. With all due respect to older styles of Biblical scholarship, modern philosophical approaches to epistemology, aesthetics, and systematic knowledge brilliantly extract meaning from the historical and contextual discrepancies of the Bible while humbly emphasizing the mysterious nature of God and the real world. Additionally, such methods prove effective in combatting the post-empirical world’s obsession with historical and empirical accuracy. The Catholic Church is no stranger to appropriating philosophies from non-Catholic cultures, such as Scholasticism from pagans and Muslims, so borrowing concepts from modern philosophy is well in the realms of possibility. The Biblical Scholar, applying the present-past-future method, will be able to encounter God in a more intimate manner that can only enrich his or her understanding of the Catholic paradigm, in the hopes of contributing to its continual development today.

 

 

Bibliography

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1962.

Heidegger, Martin. Origin of the Work of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,     1970.

[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), A249.

[2] Ibid., A250-1.

[3] Martin Heidegger. Being and Time, (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1962), 43.

[4] Ibid., 38

[5] Martin Heidegger, Origin of the Work of Art, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 19.

[6] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 37.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Gen 1:1-3

[9] Rom 5:12-21.

[10] Rev 20:2.

[11] Gen 4:15.

[12] Luke 15:11.

[13] Kuhn, 120.

[14] Gen 21:17.

1 comment on “An Analysis of Genesis from a Modern Philosophical Perspective

  1. A minor note: Recent (the last half century) discoveries by archeologists have pretty much concluded that there were large floods in the eastern areas of the earth during near prehistoric times. This is also supported by flood legends of many religious groups in the present time. Whatever lessons were to have been learned by the flood seems to have been intended for most of the early states.

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