WILLIAM BLAKE : “JESUS WAS AN ARTIST”

Verily , verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the earth and die it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.”

GoSPEL OF ST. JOHN 12.24

Curiously, although brought up on the Bible, I never noticed this saying until I read Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov where it is used as an epigraph. The power of the saying acting with the creative insight of poetry immediately struck me.

The saying relates, of course, to Jesus preparing his disciples for his death and its consequences. The single grain of corn if left on the surface is unfulfilled. The buried seed is as dead, but contains new life bringing forth new seeds of growth.

If this sounds like great poetry bringing out the deepest meaning, is this what Blake meant when he distinguished Jesus as an artist? For Blake this did not mean that Jesus expressed himself through the arts. Like Socrates, Jesus produced no written work. Blake sees, however, in Jesus a power of creative imagination central to being an artist or a poet. The Imagination is the quality which Blake, rather like Coleridge, appears to see as the supreme gift.

For creative imagination we might single out his “sayings” or his power of vivid speech. He speaks creatively not by presenting rules or flat statements or simple directions but by utterances that involve us in seeking to puzzle out what he means. Whether it is by direct teaching or by telling stories, as parables, he leads us into re-thinking. His sayings are ever memorable: think of a few of dozens:

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head”,

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,

Ye are the salt of the earth but if the salt hath lost its savour wherewith shall it be salted”,

He is an artist as shown by his pervasive story-telling. (But without a parable spake he not unto them. Mark 4.34). Think of the parable of the prodigal son, called the most perfect short story ever told. How he gets us to enter into the state of mind of both sons! with the younger: And he fain would have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat and also with the elder But as soon as this thy son was come which devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf . But he also takes us into the mind of the Father, not directly by thought, but by action: But when he was yet a great way off his father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him. At the end the Father sums up the reason for joy which the elder brother has to decide if he is going to come to terms with : This thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found. In the shortest compass we have been invited to use our imaginations to access three minds and work out our own feelings.

Or think of the parable of the of the Good Samaritan ever an inspiring tale, exposing bigotry, of a person of rejected background acting with charity as against those with official religious duties who passed by on the other side. It is a tale that runs so deep in our culture that we use the phrase, to be a good Samaritan.

The imaginative power that enables Jesus to create such tales also enables him, with supreme quickness, to see into the minds of those seeking to bring him down. Think how he deals with the challenging questions of those seeking to trap him: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not? and Jesus’ answer ” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. Always he seems equipped through his imaginative understanding of the questioner and what is at issue to answer in a way that, instead of falling into the trap, he puts the questioner on the spot.

But it is not only his speech and parables that show creative imagination. He also acts creatively on those who need healing. He is sensitive to the touch of the woman, who, afraid to speak to him, touches his robe. He brings her forward, in fear, but having “made her whole” he reassures her beautifully: Daughter be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. To those whose illness or mental disturbance is caused by awareness of sin he is again reassuring: Son thy sins be forgiven thee

His imaginative capacity to see beyond limits means he refuses dogmatism. Brought up in the Jewish tradition he naturally respects the Law but is also daring enough to challenge its whenit limits thinking.”Ye have heard it said “Thou shalt love thy enemy and hate thine enemy”, But I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” To those who would condemn the stoning of the woman taken in adultery he challenges” Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone”.

With creative power and highly developed critical understanding, he challenges conventional attitudes both towards sinners , and exposes the self-righteous. Once heard who can forget the story of the Pharisee and the publican?: The pharisee thanked God he was not as other men are. and he is contrasted with the publican who stood afar off and would not so much as lift his eyes to heaven but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me , a sinner

Creative people prize spontaneity and have a natural love of the openness of children. Jesus held up children :

Unless ye become as little children ye shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven”.

And also he held up those devalued by society : much to her amazement, St John has him in long conversation with the ostracised Samaritan woman at the well:”Give me to drink” and then proceeds to tell her what she needs to know:

Whosoever shall drink of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give them shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.

His imaginative action is also declared in his life purpose, his journey carrying his sense of God’s calling. We might pick out particular actions of dramatic power: the Palm Sunday parade on a donkey, the cleansing of the Temple protest, the passover meal, the washing of his disciples’ feet . These are all acts of a man who understands the power of dramatic teaching pointing us to understanding of the meaning of what he is doing.

Wondrously he sees himself not only as a prophet but also the point, God-guided, towards which the Jewish tradition is leading him. On tradition T.S.Eliot is helpful here: by understanding the way in which he, in his art, has been shaped by tradition he develops the awareness of the way in which he can extend the tradition. Jesus steeped in the Scriptures- in the Psalms ( quoted on the cross), in the prophetic understanding of Isaiah and Daniel and Zechariah-understands in what direction he must go, even though that direction leads to the Cross.

To call Jesus an artist is not to delimit him but to point to the nature of his creative power.

“MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?”

Gethsemane presents a new situation. Before this Jesus would retire from the multitudes, and also from his disciples to be apart. He sought out solitude to be with God. Three times in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel he seeks to be in solitary places with the God he calls Father. Gethsemane, however, for the first time, reveals a new pressure. He appears to be at odds with the purpose the Father is guiding him towards.

And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast and kneeled down and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.(Luke 23.41-42)

What he most longs for is in opposition to what is being imposed upon him by God from which it is clear the only way out is that he must die. This may puzzle us, simply because, we understand from all the gospels that Jesus is preparing himself and his disciples for the inevitability of his condemnation to death. We must allow, however, there to be a difference between the vision of an inevitable future and that future become present.

Does Jesus fear death? Perhaps, being human, he has to know that fear in particularly terrible form:

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground. (ibid. 22.44)

But the story of Gethsemane moves from distress and agony to resolution. Through soul-wrenching prayer he has accepted what God has required of him; he stirs the sleeping disciples, for now, he is ready to face his captors.

Has Jesus, however, had for the first time to glimpse aloneness?- the possibility, not only of being apart from the rest of humanity, but also separate from the beloved Father? Perhaps the early stages of Gethsemane show what will become much more so on the Cross, leading to the cry: Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani? or My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15.34).

Here Jesus’ plight on the Cross, a sufficiently barbarically cruel punishment in itself, is increased beyond measure by the sense that he is abandoned, the God who has always been faithful to him seems no longer present to him; or, at least his purposes seem unfathomable. What he is suffering seems beyond any sense of purpose.

What are we to make of this? Does Jesus’ life end in defeat after all? True,in Luke, he is recorded as later saying:

Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” and having said this he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23.46)

and in John “It is finished”. (19.30).

But in Mark the agonised question is made the final utterance. And is this not something sceptics, like Albert Camus, have latched on to? Jesus’ ministry ends in defeat. He has been proved wrong.

Step back! Consider Auschwitz, holocaust, genocide, slavery -ships. Think of the children Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov speaks of suffering unspeakable cruelty. How we might ask, can Christians dare to preach a gospel of hope knowing of such examples of people suffering abandonment and torture? The message should be strangled in our throats before it could be uttered, unless we have faith that the Crucifixion and the forsaken Jesus were not the end of the story.

For hope can only be uttered because Jesus knew what the crushing sense of abandonment really means. Ultimately without that cry on the Cross Jesus could not be the saviour of all the abandoned and tortured because, for them, there are levels of pain that he might not be seen in his own life to reach.

A small group of disciples, many of them women, watched him on the Cross. For them, Calvary, would be a scene of defeat-a great enterprise ending in disaster. But if that were the case these words would never have been recorded in print. There would be no good news , no gospel. The disciples, by whose witness the words of Jesus’ ultimate loneliness were transmitted to the world were those who, miraculously supercharged with purpose, were able, following the Resurrection, to say, “Look abandonment and death does not end it all. We are not in the end alone and abandoned. Christ is risen! God is, after all, faithful”.

But Christians cannot sound naive or unrealistic in their preaching and spreading of the good news because they know so many are suffering that ultimate loneliness and to them we can speak in knowledge of the Saviour abandoned as well as the Saviour risen.

CHRISTIAN AND PAGAN : ORIGINS OF FOLK-SONG AND DANCE.

Recently we looked at Christmas carols and wassailing songs and their early development from Medieval times. I drew attention to a wassailing song featured on the Waterson’s album “Frost and Fire”(first released 1965) which has a variety of songs associated with different seasons and rituals of the rural year. This album has very interesting notes written by an authority on folk song A.L. Lloyd. Lloyd explores the origins of folk song and dance.

What are the songs really about? Let’s begin with Adam and Eve. The first men plucked their food from bushes and trees, and in open country they became hunters. They learned to tame animals, to grow food plants, and turned herdsmen and agriculturalists. When plants and beasts abounded life was good. If they withdrew people starved. Fertility was vital. Its stream dwindled in winter, ran again in springtime. Gradually, people got the idea of trying to stimulate that fertility by performing stamping dances to waken the earth, leaping dances to provoke crops to grow high and bulls to breed. They tried to bind the potency of nature to themselves, dressing in green leaves or animal skins to perform their magic ceremonies, ritually eating and drinking enormously at certain seasons to take into themselves extra portions of the vital spirit dwelling in sacred animals and plants. Man was on the point of inventing the gods.

Lloyd writes as a Communist. His interest is in the life of the folk, the origins of their creativity and how the songs express the necessity to survive through their work and find communal ways of seeking to induce productivity in what they do. He rejects explanations of mystical belief:

So much is talked of myth and sun worship and such, that its necessary to recall that behind most of these calendar customs and the songs attached to them lies nothing more mysterious, nothing less realistic than the yearly round of work carried out in the fields. We’ve divided our cycle of customs according to the economic seasons-winter, spring, summer and autumn . Less formally we might better have divided them, according to economic seasons-the ploughing, sowing, augmentation and harvesting of crops. For its due to their relation with economic life, not to any mystical connection, that the song-customs have persisted right up to our own time.

This was written a generation or two ago and for many readers these customs of rural life will be alien to them. Christmas survives in a commercial urbanised setting, and Easter, for those who have lost an understanding of its religious significance has become simply a matter of supermarket bought Easter eggs and perhaps rolling eggs down a convenient slope; likewise Hallowe’en, which has lost connection with the dead temporarily returning. In rural areas. the celebration of the May queen might persist and there may be celebrations around mid-summer eve.

Yet perhaps, behind the economic necessities that Lloyd wants to stress, he underestimates the mysterious otherness of the world about the folk as something mysteriously created. Lloyd, himself , seeks to make sense of the religious aspect as “man on the point of inventing gods”:

The most gifted man in the community took the lead. He was the medicine man, the priest, the king, the representative of divine power. He was the one who dressed in skins or leaves, who killed the sacred animal, cut the sacred tree, led the earth shaking dances of springtime, lit the reassuring bonfires of midwinter, headed the band of heroes who marched through the village at critical seasons, singing and dancing for good luck and fine crops, and extracting their rewards for driving off the demons of sterility and want. And because the medicine-man was the representative of all that’s fecund, in early times he was killed even before his potency faded so that another vigorous representative could take his place and the continuance of fertility assured. Eventually, as manners softened, the ceremony involving this ritual slaughter, a rite compounded of anxiety, hope and remorse, changed its character. Instead of the king, a slave, a prisoner of war, an animal even was sacrificed, and finally the ceremony became a symbolic spectacle, a pantomime dance of death and resurrection that comprised the first folk play and thus the beginning of all theatre.

Lloyd explains- and of course he is thinking primarily of England and northern Europe- the effect of the arrival of Christianity thus:

When the Christian church arose, it ranged itself against the beliefs and customs of the old nature worship and prudently annexed many of the seasonal ceremonies. Thus the critical time of the winter solstice, became the season of the Nativity of the new god. The season of the great ceremonies became the time of his slaughter and resurrection. So it happens that in many of the songs of this record, pagan and Christian elements are inextricably tangled.

This is all very well. Lloyd offers indeed a brilliant summary of the processes by which man invented god. and the way in which the Christian revelation might have worked into popular acceptance by its great stories being adapted for the ceremonies of the folk. What again, I think, is lacking in Lloyd -and what is missing from Marxist understanding as I myself understand it- is a recognition of revelation. For the “new god” of Christianity is not limited to an economic rationale; he presents a revelation beyond that rationale.

Lloyd describes well the direction of mind that led to man creating gods. Man seeks fertility, potency, good fortune, magic and seeks the power from beyond that enables these. But the Christian revelation that so caught the medieval peasant mind, making so popular celebratory carols of the Nativity like “the Holly Bears a Berry”, is not to do with drawing power and vitality, it is to with awakening of wonder. The wonder comes from recognising the new truth that God has brought. For the dawning of the new truth is the revelation, not of a God who is urged into being to bring dynamic power promising potency and fertility but a God who acts on us to awaken the consciousness to a new awareness through the gift of His child.

To Lloyd “it’s not necessary to be anything other than an ordinary freethinking twentieth century urban western man with a proper regard for humankind, to appreciate the spirit and power of these songs. He is right, I think, to point us to the origins of our western culture, going back to its folk roots. The great beauty and wonder of early folk song of medieval carols, of medieval poetry is that they enable us to remenber something of our past that we are in danger of forgetting in what seems an increasingly neurotic world : a culture in which the qualities of natural vitality and the power of revelation are united in expression. In the face of the modern world it seems increasingly our past upon which we must draw for strength of insight.

“THE EYE IS THE LAMP OF THE BODY”: PLATO AND JESUS ON TRUE SEEING.

Both Plato and Jesus demonstrate the need to see clearly. Following the last post on Plato’s Cave here is a poem based on one of the miracles of Jesus.

        THE SIGHTING
           John 9

Out of the shame of spittle,
by the scratch of dirt,
he made an annointing.

Oh, it was an agony- the gravel 
in the eye, the rude slime, the brittle
clay caked on the lid.

But with the hurt
light came leaping, in the shock and shine, 
abstracts took flesh and flew;

winged words like view and space,
shape and shade and green and sky,
bird and horizon and sun,

turned real in a man's eyes.
Thus was truth given a face 
and dark dispelled and healing done.

(Luci Shaw "The Sighting"The Lion Book of Christian Poetry 1981) 

The miracle is descibed in John’s Gospel thus:

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a blind man , which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master,who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work. As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world. When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle and he annointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And said unto him, Go,wash in the pool of Siloam (which is by interpretation, Sent). He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing. (John 9 1-7 KJV).

The prisoners in Plato’s cave are not blind but they do not see clearly. In the gospel passage Jesus, in declaring himself the “light of the world”, is, as the sun in the Plato story. He is also the redemptive force that heals. In the poem the healed man is able by the light of healing to give meaning to words that had remained meaningless or abstract to him. Things were made real. “This was truth given a face”.

The Plato allegory follows stages of enlightenment. Because of lack of true knowledge the prisoners cannot see properly. In the shadows of the cave they do not see the world as it is and by their “education” they are misled in understanding what reality is. They can readily be indoctrinated with a false view of what things are like. When the prisoners escape, the possibility of true education is opened to them. At first their seeing is confused. The sun dazzles. Curiously, in the Gospels, there is another Jesus healing of a blind man that works like this. In Mark 8:24-25 when Jesus puts spittle on his eyes he reports “I see men like trees walkng” Only when Jesus “put again his hands on his eyes, and made him look up” was he restored and he “he saw every man clearly”. True seeing, distinguishing what is there, clearly take time.

Ultimately, if he goes far enough, the escaped prisoner can see clearly. It is not just a case of identifying things. The sun shines and provides the light by which one sees. The sun is the source of light. First, the escapee sees things like trees and hills but then he realises the source of seeing is the sun. The final stage of his development of proper sight is to see the sun as the source of what he sees and understands. What is around him is good-especially when compared with the shadowy reflections in the cave, so the source that enables him to see is good. To Plato that is the ultimate intuition reflecting the nature of the Source, as the Good.

Jesus also speaks of clear sightedness. In the Sermon on the Mount he declares: “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye be unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light within you is darkness how great is that darkness!”(Gospel of St. Matthew 6. 22-23. New International Version). To Jesus God is the Father, the Shepherd , the Creator. Jesus sent from God reflects His nature and character. He heals the blind and the blind through him see the Father. The seeing is something given, a redemption, salvation.

Plato is concerned with education. The prisoners back in their cave need to be released. Only education can do that. Those who see must go back to educate those left behind. But here is a problem. Once they return to the old world, because their sight is blinded by the dark, they find it difficult to express their seeing. They might tell the prisoners what they see is a false reflection of reality. But, an artefact passing, an alert prisoner can identify the object to his fellows’ satisfaction whereas the returned educator does not offer what seem to be clarity. They may well prefer the world they have. And the returned educator may be mocked as a misty-eyed dreamer, seeing other worlds that do not exist.

We go back to Christ. Is this what he means by the “light in you is darkness”? -like that of the alert prisoner within his cave he is assured and confident in his identification but the identification is misleading because nothing is seen in the clear sight of day, in the sunlight, from the source of good. Jesus, in the St. John Ch 9 healing, refers to the Pharisees. The Pharisees objected to the healing because it was done on the Sabbath. Their knowledge of the Law has become so elaborate and complex, their rule-making so rigorous that they do not see the blindingly obvious truth that something wonderful and good has been done, someone who was blind, now sees. Jesus says in that gnomic, paradoxical, poetic way he often adopts. “For judgement I am come into the world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind“. (Gospel of St. John 9. 39). The rule-makers, the so-called teachers, like Plato’s false rhetorists, the sophists, do not encourage insight, only bewilderment.(see Note) Pharisees who are with Jesus and heard his words ask him “Are we blind also?” Jesus said unto them: “If ye were blind ye should have no sin; but now ye say, We see therefore your sin remaineth”. (ibid41) Sin is the assumption of knowledge when there is failure of true understanding. In the face of revelation of the wonderful they are in denial.

Plato seeks to lead us to true-seeing by educating the understanding to the point where we see or intuit the source of goodness. Jesus, reflecting God’s love, has the power to heal us of our blindness, so revealing to us that love.

NOTE: Plato was suspicious of the emphasis on rhetoric by many teachers of his time as he saw them encouraging sophistry. “Plato generally treats them (ie. Sophists)) as charlatans who talked purely for victory and took money for teaching the technique” ( Simon Blackburn (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy O.U.P 1996).

This is refected by our modern meaning of sophistry: “Specious or over-subtle reasoning, the use of intentionally deceptive arguments; casuistry; the use or practice of specious reasoning as a dialectic exercise”. (S.O.E.D.)

On the developments of Plato’s thought, I have found very helpful Understanding Plato David Melling. OPUS 1987)

GUEST POST: “THE TOWER OF BABEL” (2)

BY RAY INKSTER

Genesis 11 begins with the story of the Tower of Babel-but why on earth was it include in the sacred text?

In the first eleven chapters of Genesis we are in the realm of myth, which is the expression of the truth in story form. the book itself reached its more or less completed form around the sixth century BC, when Jewish people were allowed to return to their own land after seventy years exile in Babylon.

While there, they would have seen one of the wonders of the ancient world-the Ziggurat, or temple of the God Marduk, which was almost 100 metres high, with seven tiers, three great staircases, and an imposing temple at the top-where the earth met the heavens and the God Marduk his subjects. The Babylonians believed that Marduk had defeated the Jewish God, whose Temple in Jerusalem had been reduced to dust and ashes and that, as a result, to quote 11.4, they had made a name for theselves.

The Jews who returned to what now became Judea did not, of course, share that opinion, especially since the Babylonians and their Marduk had in turn been overthrown by the Persians. In part, therefore, this story about the ill-fated Tower of Babel pokes fun at the Babylonians god-like pretensiousness.

In common with other instances in Genesis, the story also offers an “explanation” for a puzzling fact-in this case, that the world was found to have different peoples in it with different languages. In a similar manner, Genesis also provides “explanations” for names. The name “Babel” in Hebrew, sounds like the word for “confused”, and so is said to reflect the fact that God had “confused” the speech of the tower’s builders so that they no longer understood each other and, in their frustration, “left off building” the tower.

Apart from the fun, however, there is a more serious point being made. In a number of the myths of the Ancient Near east at that time, there is the theme of various gods becoming upset that humans were getting above themselves. They make such a raucous din with their unruly behaviour that the gods can hardly get any peace or sleep. Steps had to be taken to put them back in their proper place.

Echoes of this theme appear in Genesis 3 where, after their disobedience in the Garden of Eden, God says to members of the divine council that”man has become like one of us”, and must therefore be driven out of Eden into a world which will now be much less of a “paradise”. Similarly, in Genesis 6, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth” and the Flood was necessary to clear that wickedness away and make a new start, this time governe by a covenant between God and man.

Humans are incorrigible, however, and so, in Genesis 11, they decide to “build a tower with its top in the heavens”. They’re going to show God what they can do, pay him a visit on his own territory and try to call the shots. Having promised after the Flood that “never again” shall all flesh be cut off”, God now devises a less drastic but effective stratagem for reminding human beings that he has made them, “a little lower than the angels”, and that they must learn to keep that place.

And this is where the story has something to say to ourselves in our 21st century. Some wit once remarked that having built the tower, if only they hadn’t tried to climb to the top things might not have ended the way they did. There is an aspect of human psychology which suggests itself when people are asked why they climb life-threatening mountains, or want to visit distant planets, the reason being, “because they’re there”. Sometimes that’s fine, but at other times alarm bells should ring.

Why are we mining and burning fossil fuels? Because they’re there, and they’re warming our homes, but also now our planet. Why did we smash the atom? Because we could, and we’re producing energy that lights our cities, but also stockpiling nuclear weapons that can destroy ourselves and our world. Genesis 3 would say to us that “our eyes have been opened, and we’ve become like gods, knowing good and evil”. We need to learn discipline and to rein ourselves in-to leave the fossil fuels where they are, and to destroy the weapons of mass destruction. Our scientists need to understand that they aren’t gods, who can produce a “theory of everything”, which would explain all that is physical yet solve nothing that is moral or ethical. Our religious leaders need to understand that they aren’t gods, who exclusively possess all truth, while any who differ from them are infidels to be treated accordingly. The Tower of Babel story reminds us that we are not gods, but human beings. There is so much that we can, and will, never know. We need to understand and accept our limitations, recognising that though that might often lead to our frustration, in other ways it could well be our salvation.

The Greeks, of course, had their own myth-that of Icarus, whose father made him wings of feathers glued on with wax and taught him how to fly. He warned him not to fly too near the sun, but Icarus “could” fly higher, and so he “did” fly higher. The wax melted, and the boy fell into the ocean from which he did not emerge. The wings of Icarus, the Tower of Babel-we can’t say we have not been warned.

Ray Inkster

CORRESPONDENCE : ON ADAM NAMING THE ANIMALS

NOTE: Correspondence is welcome and may be published. Please follow CONTACT details. The letter below is on the post before last. If the last post on the KINDNESS OF STRANGERS suggests any examples-personal or historical-that you would like to communicate please get in touch.

Hello Alan,

Another interesting blog, much of which I have no quarrel with. As I’ve said elsewhere, the last few decades have seen consciousness being taken far more seriously, as opposed to being taken for granted. The rediscovery of panpsychism is particularly noteworthy, with its giving consciousness, or perhaps better “mind”, priority as that out of which “matter” emerges, rather than the other way around. We ourselves have minds, which links us to the primordial “Mind” and out of minds, the matter of painting, poetry, prose, music, drama emerge. So I share your interest in the Coleridge quotation. But enough of boring agreement-let’s get down to where I take issue with sopme of what you’ve written.

In what you write, in keeping with a number of elements in the early chapters of Genesis, I pick up a sense of “exceptionalism” in relation to human beings, and that’s an idea I regard as needing careful definition, lest it “get a bit above itself”, despite the best efforts of Charles Darwin. I notice you appear to say that humans are “living souls” unlike “the other animals”. This is, perhaps where I have an advantage due to my erstwhile training in Hebrew.

In Genesis 1.24, God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures. Transliterated, the Hebrew for “living creatures” is nephesh chayah(Scottish ch sound). Nephesh is rooted in the idea of “that which breathes” and is given the meanings of “living being, perso, self, soul” etc. A nephesh chayah is therefore a living breathin being. So what? Just this-in Genesis 2.7, after God “blew breath of life(sic) into his nostrils, the man became a living bein- a nephesh -exactly the same as all the other living, breathing creatures in Genesis 1.24 creatures. So there’s no exceptionalism there-in my view at any rate. If humans are “living souls ” so are all other living creatures.

To share another bit of agreement, I can go along with what you write about the way in which language facilitates creative imagination, on an individual and shared basis, and you make a valid link with the man’s naming of various creatures. Incidentally, since in mythology, names are sometimes linked to the “essence” of the named, I’m reminded of the Catholic hell fire preacher, whose name was Father Furniss!

But to get back to issue taking- in mythology , naming can be associated with exerting power. Isis tricked the Sun God into revealing his name, so that he could force him to get her son Horus elevated in the divine pantheon. In Genesis 1.26 the intention in proposing to make humans in the image of the gods is immediately, and therefore primarily associated with their “ruling over” all other living creatures, as the gods did. The verb “radah” means “to have dominion, to dominate over”. In 1.28 the act itself is at once followed by a “blessing” is designed to encourage and facilitate reproduction and “subjugation” of the earth. The verb “kabash” is rooted in the idea of “treading underfoot”, and means “to bring into bondage or subdue”, and is used of rape in the book of Esther. And in Genesis 3.16, the woman is told regarding her husband that “he shall rule over you”. Here the verb “mashal” means to have dominion, to reign as a monarch over his subjects.

It might be said I’m nit-picking. But you’re writing, after all, about the importance of words and language. The editors of Genesis did not have to use these verbs. They could have used others, but these are the ones they chose, and must have had their reasons. And whereas you, Alan, rightly counter-balance them with counter-examples, there have been plenty others who have not. The centuries long history of misogyny, and the current ongoing rape of the planet’s fossil fuel resources, despite the the rapidly increasing instances of drought and forest fires, melting ice-caps and thawing permafrosts etc etc bear witness to some of the unhelpful words we find in Genesis, and elsewhere.

As we both know, the Hebrew Bible is not a book, but a library, compiled , edited and re-edited over hundreds of years, by lots of different people, employing different genres, with different agendas, and for different audiences. This means that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t have “a message” for us. It has a multiplicity of “”messages” many of which are inconsistent, contradictory and some even morally repugnant. The reverse is of course true. There are individual verses, whole sections, and even themes, which are fascinating, colourful, dramatically moving, inspirational, thought- provoking or just provoking.. We have to read with critical care and attention, which will have its own personal reward.

Anyway it’s time to stop. please understand that though I’ve “nitpicked”, I do appreciate and enjoy the quality of your blogs, especially when they provoke pen to paper, or fingers to key board. You and I sometimes have “meetings of minds” and sometimes “separations of minds”. This is splendid as far as I am concerned. Through aagreement comes encouragement, and through disagreementcomes challenge, both of which we all have need of. More power to your writing elbow.

Reply :

Hello Ray,

Many thanks for your carefully developed response to my discussion. Perhaps your answer betrays rather too much a personal need to balance your well focused appreciation of the Hebrew Bible with too much of a large scale focus on what you see as its effects in our times. There seems too much of a gap between what you are considering in close detail in the discussion of the overall meaning of the creation narratives of Genesis Ch. 1 and 2 with disastrous effects of climate change centuries later et al. I would say too much else requires to be considered before this idea is entertained. A blog post on another topic can hardly allow for this.

Your points on the negative possibilities and dangerous potentials of various terms used, seems at variance with the more obvious contextual meanings. It is not gods ( though there is one reference to “we” in 1. 26, presumably , a relic from an earlier edition) who are being discussed -either in the first creation story (the priestly version God) or the second (Yahweh). The sun , moon , stars are indeed worshipped by other tribes but the acclaimed God who is shown to create man in his image is creator of these. This God sees his creation as good-and after the culmination of creation-humankind very good. He is not likely then in giving humans dominion over creation, encouraging irresponsibility towards what should be seen as a blessing The creation is clearly cumulative, with mankind created as the climax, rather than in assortment with the other creatures. The second story, while very different in isolating the creation of man confirms this emphasis.

On your interesting discussion of the Hebrew term “nephesh cheya”, you point to meanings of ” a living being, person, self, soul”. This allows, as indicated, for “living being” which is the New International Version translation , but also for ” living soul” as in the King James Version. The exceptionalism is suggested to me by the context in both first and second creation stories. The second version distinguishes the creation of mankind above and beyond the creation of “living creatures, cattle, and creeping thing and beast of the earth after his kind.” (1.24) and only then “let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. The second story as the blog post makes clear, distinguishes in Adam the ability to name (hence reflecting the image of God, the initial namer) thus again putting human kind in a higher category.

So while you are correct in claiming that I see the Biblical argument as emphasising the “exceptionalism ” of humankind over other creatures (despite the qualifications you make) I would still argue I am justified by the context in making this distinction. However one defines ” soul,” the link between mankind, created in the image of God in terms of consciousness and in being speech makers, capable of developing a complex language (beyond any natural language of communication animals use) makes human beings exceptional as bearers of consciousness, beyond other animals.

This brings me to ” dominion” or “rule”which you tend to see in negative terms. In the post I mentioned the example of Noah saving the animals- an early act of conservation Humankind did develop agriculture, beyond the hunter-gatherer phase and this inevitably led to degrees of control or “rule”. The Hebrew law, however, was remakable in making allowance for animals and for crop growth making rest a constituent part of the agricultural process. “Dominion” enables David Attenborough to stand before us urging us to make the fight against climate change a priority. What other species is capable of doing that? “Dominion” means accepting the responsibility of stewardship, not its denial.

Dealing with an implied charge of “nit-picking” you indicate the focus in my blog on the importance of words and language. Yes, but the emphasis is -or seeks to be- on words and language in the context of the first two chapters of Genesis. Perhaps in your very interesting focus on Hebrew words you are nevertheless straining the context of what is surely first and foremost presented as “good”, “very good”, a blessing. This seems to me to be especially the case when you associate Genesis with “centuries long history of misogyny and the ongoing rape of the planet’s fuel resources” etc. The permanent difficulties of male-female relations in all cultures is certainly at odds with the emphasis on the ending of Ch2 with male and female together “naked and unashamed”. And greed, lust for power, misogyny -the evils of a what is to be seen in Biblical terms, as a fallen world are linked rather more widely to the human condition (about which the Bible is never other than realistic) than simply a sacred text, as you would see it being misread.

Or not misread, for you seem to want to dandle two possibilities: the Bible as a force for good and the Bible as a force for evil. In arguing that in the Bible there is a muliplicity of messages, some of which are contradictory, some ” morally repugnant” you are surely denying the coherence of theme, within a long-term historical development which followers of the Torah and later Christians (the latter seeing a continuity between the Old and New Testaments) have long understood. The Biblical writers and editors, whatever their genre, were writing not just as individuals but as writers within a tradition promoting a sense of their peoples’ understanding of their connectedness with a providential God which, in seeking to celebrate, they were also seeking to correct and modify, as well as develop. The important part the prophets were allowed to play by including their work in scripture is worth contemplating. For the prophets represented a critical understanding of what was going wrong with people’s faith and their understanding of God. The recognition of the contradictions you point to are bound up with the developing understanding of a people of the need to find a way, as the prophet Micah puts it “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly” with the God who has created them in his image.

Good once again to discuss such matters with you,

With best wishes,

Alan

WHY DOES GOD GET ADAM TO NAME THE ANIMALS?

If you are a regular reader of this blog post you will be aware that recently I have become fascinated by a Coleridge quotation linking God’s boundless creative imagination, the great I AM, sustaining creation and therefore sustaining us in consciousness and our own urge to be imaginatively creative (see God Said”Let Newton Be!”). This interest has encouraged me to look again at the creation stories of Genesis for further enlightenment.

At the beginning of Genesis God speaks creation into being: ” Let there be light and there was light”. and there are various stages in the creative process to the culmination, the creation of humanity : “so God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1.27K.J.V)

God creates us in his own image. It is a striking phrase which would seem to endorse Coleridge’s emphasis on the imagination being central. In creating us, in speaking us into existence, God reflects his image into the bodied form of human kind. God is creative and makes us to reflect his creativity. God looks and sees that the creation of the day is good, so he enables us to look out, to be conscious as no other animal can be, at the surrounding creation, enabling us to see that it is good.

The second story of creation(Genesis 2.4-25) works more at ground level. God is a kind of artist, a sculptor, say, he forms man out of the clay on the ground as a sculptor might form a human figure from chosen materials. But it is not only a material, a physical act, for God breathes into his nostrils the breath of life and he becomes a living soul. I love that phrase “living soul”. In essence the second story is saying the same about human creation, except it is the creation of the one sex, man. By breathing life into him God is giving his spirit, his life into us from the start so that we are not just material bodies, not just embodied creatures like the other animals, we are “living souls”.

What does this mean in terms of the meaning of being human? What power are we given when God makes us living souls? There follows a passge which again seems to me to endorse Coleridge’s stress on connectedness between God’s creative power and our very much more limited creativity.

Here is the relevant passage:

And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make an helpmeet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air ; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not a helpmeet for him.

This is a curious passage interposed between the creation of Adam and the creation of Woman. The parade of the creatures seems ostensibly to be linked to the search for a companion for Adam. But none is found, causing the need for a fresh creation. All this seems a little clumsy compared with the first creation story in Genesis 1. At first too the story of the naming of the animals seems somewhat bizarre and awkward when compared with the tight impressiveness of the first creation story. We have not for instance been informed of Adam’s capacity (presumably God-given) to use language . There seems a rather amateurish almost playful awkardness about the parading of the animals for naming all ostensibly for the sake of finding an appropriate helpmate for Adam to ease him from the burden of living alone.

What the second story enables, however, in the naming of the animals is something I find striking given the connection with the Coleridge quotation on the creative imagination of man. The naming of the animals (we have to accept here this is mythic story telling rather than realistic, hence we are not required to puzzle as to how Adam was versed in language) may at first an almost playful and anachronistic categorisation. But remember how in the first story of creation in Genesis 1 God names things and they emerge as themselves and are then declared good. Adam in naming is looking at and recognising each creature to be different, to be seen as a creature that is distinctive. The naming of the animals therefore enables Adam to recognise and respect the goodness of creation. It is a creative act of recognition linking the creativity of man with the greater creativity of God. The naming of the animals is the first explicit act of man, showing his God-given capacity (as one given speech) to be at his own level, creative.

There is also an underlying significance, I suggest, to the activity in that it involves respect for the distinctive nature of God’s creation and by extension a shared apprehension of its goodness. Critics have quibbled over the use of the word dominance, the giving power by God to man over Nature (see Genesis 1.28). It seems to me however this story places an obligation of man to be responsible in his treatment of Nature. (This emphasis will indeed be furthered by the story of Noah protecting the animals by taking them on the ark in Genesis 8).

What we have then in this story within its context is vitally important. God as consciousness passes on consciousness to Man. God also passes on speech to Man. Indeed it might be argued that it is the ability to make speech, to share language that enables Man to be above the other animals, a living soul. God brings forward creation through speech. Man uses his God-given speech to enable him to be creative. The unfallen world is good; it meets God’s approval. Man, set in a garden, is appointed to look after creation and maintain its goodness. The Genesis stories then endorse the importance of looking after creation and they also point to the primacy of the creative imagination as linking the creativity of God with the creativity of man.

The Bible is a work in which God has the power to connect with humanity and Man with God. Moses and the prophets are encouraged and inspired by God to speak that which is needful to be heard. Coleridge is to suggest this power is continued through the work of the inspired human imagination. That power of connectedness, of inspiration, of imaginative creativity is prepared for by this mythic tale of God passing on the art of speech to Adam enabling him to name the animals.

WHEN SOMEONE TELLS YOU GOD DOES NOT EXIST QUESTION IF HE MEANS GOD OR DOES HE REALLY MEAN THE DEMIURGE?

Suddenly God-or the demiurge- has entered the conversation! The exciting thing about running this blog-post is I have ideas as to where I might like to take them but nothing is pre-determined. It is all a rather exciting journey. I did somewhere early on promise an evolving series. If we have evolved towards God that may seem to be the wrong direction to go about things. If, however, we are discussing the demiurge we might be on the right track. Because whoever God is he is not the demi-urge.

The “demiurge” is here because recently I have posted late poems of D. H. Lawrence on the nature of creation which brought in Lawrence’s idea of the demiurge. Lawrence’s poems distrust an-all- planned- in- advance creation and suggests God is an urge working through creating seeking incarnation. It is a polytheistic vision of God. I was also interested in it as we have been looking at the connection between creative activity, divine and human, raised by Coleridge (see post “Let There Be Light” )

Well the word “demiurge” sent me into further exploration. I turned to a theological writer I have found brilliant, David Bentley Hart. His work The Experience of God Yale University Press 2013 lays the basic understanding of God the great faiths agree on in opposition to what he considers to be a weakness of modern thinking; we have come to rely -under pressure from the arguments of scientific naturalism, mechanistic thinking , scientism- on a stereotype of God which is not the reality the major faiths proclaim. Our “world-view”, that is, has increasingly since Newton (again see post “Let There Be Light”) become dominated by the idea of scientific process: how did things start, get going, what was the originating cause. The argument has become framed by science which is seen as providing the answers and the arguments theists make are therefore often conditioned to be made within this framework. If God exists, western theists assert he directs the process; the argument of thinkers like Dawkins and the new atheists is that such a god does not exist. Hart’s argument is that the subject of such an argument is not God merely the demiurge :

he is the god who made the world “back then”, at some specific point of time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal act of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually written a word about God. And the same is true of all the other new atheists as far as I can tell.”

That strong, critically alert, combative power is one aspect of Hart’s style. He combines philosophical assurance, expansive knowledge of the spiritual works of the various theistic traditions, with a confident and knowledgeable critical appraisal of the limitations of modern scientism. But he is not simply cerebral. Elsewhere he has a marvellous passage introducing the significance of the sense of wonder, which both Plato and Aristotle recognised as the starting point of all true philosophy. However, I shall explore Hart’s work more widely in a future post. For the moment with our eyes focused on the word “demiurge” let us return to Hart’s discussion. Here is a passage from Hart’s first chapter, entitled “God is not a proper name”

The most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God-especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side-is the habit of conceiving God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude,power and duration, but not ontologically [ Ed. ontology: the study of the nature and essence of being ie. the assumption is God does not differ in being; he is simply another thing given a proper name] and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.…….

As it happens, the god with whom most modern atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a demiurge (demiourgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but that came to mean a particular kind of divine world-maker or cosmic craftsman.. In Plato’s Timaeus the demiurge is a benevolent imtermediary between the realm of eternal forms and the realm of mutability [ed.ie change] ; he looks to the ideal universe-the eternal paradigm of the cosmos-and then fashions lower reality in as close a conformity to higher as the interactable resources of the material nature allows. He is , therefore, not the source of the existence of all things but rather only the Intelligent Designer and causal agent of the world of space and time, working upon principles that lie outside and above him. He is an immensely wise and powerful being, but he is also finite and dependent upon a larger reality of which he is only a part.

In following this characterisation of the demiurge Hart demonstrates the inadequacy of the conception of God in much of the kind of debate we hear around us in which we become aware God is seen to be or not seen to be the Great Originator of Things. But to see God in this way is not to see him as God, simply as the demiurge. Hart’s work is not, however, simply focused on the negative aspect of our conceptual understanding but in raising our eyes to an understanding going back to Plato and shared within the spiritual understanding of theistic thinkers from all the major faiths :

God, is not in any of the great theistic traditions, merely some rational agent, external to the order of the physical universe, who imposes some kind of design upon an otherwise inert and mindless material order. He is not some discrete being somewhere out there, floating in the great beyond, who fashions nature in accordance with rational laws upon which he is dependent. Rather, he is himself the logical order of all reality, the ground both of the subjective rationality of mind and the objective rationality of being, the transcendent and indwelling Reason or Wisdom by which mind and matter are both informed and in which both participate.

Futher explication of this is required for a future discussion of Hart but in the meantime if someone argues with you about God make sure it is God you are talking about and not the demiurge!

“THE BODY OF GOD”

Here are two further “Last Poems” of D. H. Lawrence on the subject of the demiurge:

                          DEMIURGE
They say that reality exists only in the spirit 
that corporal existence is a kind of death
that pure being is bodiless 
that the idea of form precedes the form substantial.

But what nonsense it is! 
as if any mind could have imagined a lobster 
dozing in the under-deeps, the reaching out a savage and iron claw!

Even the mind of God can only imagine 
those things that have become themselves: 
bodies and presences, here and now, creatures with a foothold in 
creation 
even if only it is a lobster on tip-toe.

Religion knows better than philosophy.
Religion knows that Jesus was never Jesus 
till he was born from a womb, and ate soup and bread 
and grew up, and became, in  the wonder of creation, Jesus, 
with body and with needs and a lovely spirit.
  

For the contemporary reader puzzled by the idea of the spirit preceding the body Lawrence is reacting to neo- platonic ideas and the bodiless spirituality of his upbringing suppressing the body in favour of the spirit. Ever a non-Christian (though raised on the Bible, a Congregationalist) he had yet hopes in his last years that the Christian idea of the resurrection as the risen body might become empowering for the generation, which following 1914 had known so much sacrifice and death.

                            THE BODY OF GOD

God is the great urge that has not yet found a body
but urges towards incarnation with the great creative urge,

And becomes at last a clove carnation: lo! that is god!
And becomes at last Helen, or Ninon: any lovely and generous 
woman 
at her best and her most beautiful, being god, made manifest,
any clear and fearless man being god, very god.

There is no god
apart from poppies and flying fish,
men singing songs, and women brushing their hair in the sun.
The lovely things are god that has come to pass, like Jesus came.
The rest, the undiscoverable, is the demi-urge.  

NOTES

“D. H. Lawrence Complete Poems (ed. V. de S. Pinto) Penguin Books 1977.

Definitions:

Demiurge(Gk. craftsman). The intermediary that makes the physical world in the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus.

neoplatonism…..Plotinus concived of the universe as an emanation or effulgence of the One, the omnipresent, transcendental Good derived from Plato’s Parmenides. The One gives rise to the realm of nous (ideas, intelligence), and that in turn to soul, or souls, some of which sink into bodies(others remain celestial)….

From Blackburn, Simon Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy O.U.P 1996.

THE IMAGINATION OF GOD

Shortly before D. H. Lawrence died his medical specialist stated, “an ordinary man with those lungs would have died long ago; but with a real artist no normal prognosis is ever sure; there are other forces involved”. (D. H Lawrence Penguin Critical Anthologies ed. H. Coombes 1973). His friend, Aldous Huxley, writes of him: “He looked at things with the eyes, so it seemed, of a man who had been on the brink of death and to whom, as he emerges from the darkness, the world reveals itself as unfathomably beautiful and mysterious. For Lawrence, existence was one continuous convalescence, it was as though he were newly reborn from a mortal illness every day of his life. ( Huxley: Introduction to Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Henemann 1932). Living with tuberculosis for years, dangerously ill on several occasions it is amazing how much he packed into his life of forty-four years. In his “Last Poems” Lawrence writes marvellous poems ( including “The Ship of Death” and Bavarian Gentians) about preparing for death: he writes about God as he conceives God and about the Demiurge.

Here is a poem that fits interestingly, following our recent discussion of the Coleridge quotation on God’s activity and the way in which the poet, working from his creative imagination, reflects, at a lesser level, the greater creative activity of the divine.

RED GERANIUM AND GODLY MIGNONETTE

Imagine that any mind ever thought  a red geranium!
As if the redness of a red geranium  could be anything but 
a sensual experience
and as if sensual experience could take place before there were
any senses. 
We know that even God could not imagine the redness of a red 
geranium 
nor the smell of a mignonette 
when geraniums were not, and mignonette neither.
And even when they were , even God would have to have a nose
to smell at the mignonette.
You can't imagine the Holy Ghost sniffing at cherry -pie heliotrope.
Or the Most High, during the coal age, cudgelling his mighty brains
even if he had any brains : straining his mighty mind
to think, among the moss and mud of lizards and mastadons 
to think out, in the abstract, when all was twilight green and
muddy:
"Now there shall be tum-tiddly-um, and tum-tiddly-um,
hey presto! scarlet geranium!"
We know it couldn't be done.

But imagine, among the mud and the mastadons
God sighing and yearning with tremendous creative yearning, in that
dark green mess
oh, for some other beauty, some other beauty
that blossomed at last, red geranium, and mignonette.  
 

It is as if Lawrence is seeking to see God in creation as reflecting the creative “yearning” or imagination of the artist. For Lawrence, who wrote, “one has to be terribly religious to be an artist” (ibid. Huxley), the wondrous creation he himself so vividly evokes in his work, needed God, but could not have been created pre-formulated, designed beforehand. Beauty emerges from the struggle resulting from a striving to go beyond what is. Here, is another of his “Late Poems” making the comparison directly between divine creativity and human.

THE WORK OF CREATION

The mystery of creation is the divine urge of creation, 
but it is a great, strange urge, it is not a Mind.   
Even an artist knows that his work was never in his mind,
he could never have thought it before it happened.
A strange ache possessed him, and he entered the struggle, 
and out of the struggle with his material, in the spell of the urge
his work took place, it came to pass, it stood up, and saluted 
his mind.

God is a great urge, wonderful, mysterious, magnificent 
but he knows nothing beforehand.
His urge takes shape in the flesh, and lo!
it is creation! God looks himself on it in wonder, for the first
time.
Lo, there is a creature formed! How strange!
Let me think about it! Let me form an idea!

Although this sounds different from creation in the Hebrew Bible, it is intriguing how Lawrence’s saying”God looks on in wonder, for the first time” relates to God in Genesis 1 at the end of each day of creation looking at what he has created and seeing that “it was good” and at the end of the week, “it was very good” . Note too the use of the Biblical phrase “it came to pass” and the wonderful further development of Genesis with “it stood up and saluted his mind”

Theologically, we may say Lawrence is writing about the Demi-urge (and indeed Lawrence has another lovely Last Poem entitled “The Demiurge” ) and not God, but that the demiurge- like the Holy Spirit- inspires the aspirational embodiment that develops within evolution; but I leave that for students of theology to consider. However, as we have recently been considering Coleridge’s quotation (see the post “God said, ” Let Newton Be!”) linking the creative activity of the infinite I AM with the lesser finite creativity of the artist, it is fascinating that Lawrence transfers the kind of experience of creativity, he knew as a great writer, to the activity he recognises as God-like: the creation of the wondrous phenomenal world.

( Poetry quotations from D.H. Lawrence Complete Poems Penguin Books 1993)