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The Key that Fits the Lock, Part Two Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 01 August 2012

On the sixth day of creation, God made the “beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle, and everything that creepeth on the earth,” and He saw that it was good. But the day’s work was not done. For God then said: “Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping thing that moveth upon the earth.” So it was done; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and commanded them to be fruitful and to multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it.

In his recent stew of science and bluff, On Human Nature, the self-proclaimed “Bright” Steven Pinker can hardly leave the gate before he makes a colossal blunder. He says that the Genesis story of the creation of man insists upon the complete separation of the human from the animal world. Pinker aims to fold our conception of man back down into that animal world, as it has been the aim of theosophists east and west to free man from the shackles of mere matter.

His interpretation of Genesis, if indeed he has bothered to read it with any attention at all, is complete nonsense. Man shares a day with the cattle and the wild beasts. Man is also blessed by God in words that recall the recent blessing of the birds and the fish: “Increase and multiply.” Man is evidently, then, a part of that material creation. 

That Adam names the animals – with God, to steal a happy insight from Raïssa Maritain, waiting to see what names Adam would give them – suggests a genuine relationship with them. For naming, in the ancient world, is never regarded as arbitrary. Nomina sunt consequentia rerum, says the medieval dictum: names are consequent upon the things named. When Adam names the animals, he intuits the peculiar nature of each, and clothes that intuition in speech proper to man. He and they share the same Eden.

Yet Genesis also affirms that there is something about man that does indeed separate him from the beasts. The difference is vast; in a way, it is greater than that which separates the material world from nothingness. For man, though a part of that material world, is greater than the world of which he is a part, because he, and not that world, can not only “become” all things by the power of his imagination and his intellect; he can posit worlds that have never existed at all. 

He is made in the image and likeness of God. That means, to the sacred author, that there is a creative power in man that God himself has blessed; and Adam’s naming the beasts is but the completion of God’s having blessed them at first. 


       Paradise (The Garden of Earthly Delights) by Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1500

It means not that God must be conceived in anthropomorphic terms – there is none of that in Genesis, beyond the bare necessities of a metaphor here and there lest the author resign himself to absolute silence. It means that man must be conceived in theomorphic terms: he is God-shaped. He knows; he rules; and he is made for love. “This now,” says Adam in joy, when God completes the creation of the human race by the complementarity of the sexes, “is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”

This presentation of man is startling. We do not find it among the neighbors of the Hebrews, in the Mediterranean basin. The Greek mythographer Hesiod seems to assume that mankind arose spontaneously from the fecund earth. Man’s relationship with the gods is ambiguous and difficult. It’s not Zeus who provides man with fire, but the rebellious Titan, Prometheus. Zeus sometimes tests a man’s reverence and respect for the law, but he does not love man, nor is man called upon to love him. 

Sophocles will sing the glory of man whose mind measures the heavens and whose cleverness tames the seas; but he will also affirm our pitiable weakness, and repeat the bitter saying of Solon, that no man should be accounted happy until his death.

In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, man is fashioned from the blood of Kingu, the evil consort of the sea-goddess Tiamat, from whose scattered members was formed the material world. It is not a creation, then, but a rearrangement. Marduk, the Zeus-like warlord who directs all of this, is the tutelary god of Babylon, and his imperial rule over the other gods reflects the Babylonian imperial rule over her subject peoples. As for man, he is made so that the lesser gods will not have to tend to irksome work in the temples of their betters. Man is made for labor, as an underling, if not a downright slave.

But to what, in Genesis, is the work of this most unusual creature directed? To the joyful and soul-restoring work of worship. The whole creation is so oriented. For on the seventh day God rested, and He blessed and hallowed that day. 

If man is the pinnacle of that creation and made in God’s image, then the Sabbath is a blessing for man most especially. As the creation of the universe is summed up in the creation of that intellectual being who can “become” all things, so the creation of that being, man, is oriented towards the very life of God.

This too elevates man above animal. Even a secularist must confess that work becomes more human as it becomes free. Animals do what they must to survive, and so does man; but man will revel in beauty for its own sake, and so he imparts to his work the light of contemplation. He is what Genesis in mythic language and what the Church in theological language says he is: an embodied soul. He is dust, and the dust is wondrous indeed.


Anthony Esolen
is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
 
 
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Comments (17)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 01, 2012
An excellent article that calls to mind Pascal - "A thinking reed.--It is not from space that I must seek my dignity, but from the government of my thought. I shall have no more if I possess worlds. By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought I comprehend the world."
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written by Frank, August 01, 2012
...and the Genesis story also conveys to us that God gave Man dominion over the animals. That stated and the following a bit off topic, I would like to encourage my fellow Catholics here to have lunch and/or dinner with their families at your local Chick-fil-A today.
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written by Grump, August 01, 2012
Tony, Man's intelligence and creativity alone separate him from the lower animals but he is still an animal in all other respects.

Man, said to be made "in the image of God," is the only creature capable of evil, which more than offsets his "dominion" over the rest of creation and takes him down several rungs.

A literal interpretation of Genesis cannot be taken seriously given its hazy and lazy reasoning. You allude to the allegorical aspects, but many who profess to believe reject any metaphorical interpretation. They insist all passages are dead-on accurate word for word and ought to be accepted verbatim.

The first chapters of Genesis are replete with contradictions and problems of order. Too many to list here, but a few examples, calling into question which came first, man or beast?:

GEN 1:25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

GEN 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

GEN 2:18 And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

GEN 2:19 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.

As the late philosopher Antony Flew conjectured about the problems of Design in making mincemeat of William Paley's watchmaker analogy in Natural Theology:

"Some lines from Uncle Tom's Cabin are more revealing here than perhaps the authoress herself recognized. For, unlike the Yankee Miss Ophelia, poor Topsy had never been theologically indoctrinated by either parent or preacher. Yet she had had abundant opportunity to learn from rural observation what in my young day urban fathers used to reveal to schoolbound sons as "the facts of life." So it is Topsy who answers for unprejudiced common sense and common experience:

'Do you know who made you?' 'Nobody, as I knows on,' said the child with a short laugh. The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added: 'I s'pect I grow'd. Don't thin nobody never made me.'
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written by Other Joe, August 01, 2012
Dear Grump,

It is possible for words to be literally true and also completely inadequate. Take the expression, "God made the earth." The word "made" is literally true, but its meaning is almost entirely metaphorical since God is not a watch maker, or a cobbler, or even a scientist. The actual operation of creation, since it is initiated from what to us can only be known as "nothing" is beyond our tests, our experiences, our words and even our speculations. Those who believe in the literal truth of the scripture are not so much wrong as narrow minded. Man is not the only creature capable of evil according to the scripture. You imply that evil is a talent, when it might better be described as free choice, the choice not to align with the divine. The ability to choose is the terrible price we pay for individuation. Lastly, the latest information about biology (including metagenomics) points dramatically at the role of "programming" in the proper sequencing of life's processes including aspects of how organisms "evolve" and when. One could almost say, "In the beginning was the word" and mean it literally.
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written by Chris in Maryland, August 01, 2012
Grump:

I am not trying to pounce on you, but I want to say something straight. Your persistent recourse to the prop of literalist/fundamentalist error is a false pretense for arguing against Catholic appeals. It's a red herring, it has no relevance to Catholic faith. If you want to grapple with Catholic things, then grapple with them. You need to come to grips with Catholic things, and stop pretending you are by complaining about fundamentalist things.

In Christus Veritas
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written by Randall, August 01, 2012
Professor Esolen, I'd been waiting for the next part of this series. I have very much enjoyed both parts. Please continue.

You touch somewhat on man's creativity in regards to his being made in God's image. I recently re-read a fascinating book by Dorothy Sayers titled "The Mind of the Maker." If you or any TCT readers have read this book, I would love to know your thoughts. I highly recommend the book.
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written by jsmitty, August 01, 2012
When I teach Genesis 1-3 I usually spend 2 days on the creation stories and a 3rd on the fall.

I think you're interpretation is basically right Tony, only that I would not resist anthropomorphization of the deity as you seem to; there clearly is that in the 2nd story in the way God interacts with the man. I don't think we get divinization of man revealed until the NT and thus it's probably pushing things too much to find it here-- though there is a strong communion between God and man in the second story. I do agree that the 2nd story does feature human beings as the pinnacle of creation but when one reads with that the status of man as a 6th day creature in story one, this summarizes the natural/supernatural state of man nicely.

And the fellowship between man and God is of course complemented by the utter sovereignty of Yhwh in the first story, who speaks and is seen by no one but brings something out of chaos by his word of power.

Also I see you know Enuma Elish. I might add the degree to which story one is a deliberate rejoinder of sorts to the Babylonian myth. Whereas Babylonian cosmogony features creation as the side effect of a war between Tiamat and Marduk, here Tiamat (Heb. Tohum or "the deep")is overcome by Yhwh without a fight. Thus the God of the Bible is not a warring party within chaos, but is the sovereign force who brings order and subdues chaos.

Nice piece overall!
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written by Grump, August 01, 2012
@Other Joe. I found your comments worth pondering. Thanks for an interesting response.
@Chris. It may be a "red herring" to you but to me doubt is very much part of who I am. I wish I could embrace "all things Catholic" but I have problems with some of the dogma of the Church, which rests on "fundamentalist" thought. I do not mean to be a troll here or the skunk at the garden party. The forum moderators have been nice enough to allow dissenting views such as mine. You should know, in case you don't, that I was born into the Catholic faith and have since strayed off the path due to excessive use of reason, I suppose. Lastly, when I read the Parable of the Sower, it makes me realize that sometimes the "seed" doesn't take because the soil is no good. I may belong in this category. At any rate, I mean no offense to you or others who are firm believers.
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written by Brad Minerl, August 01, 2012
@Grump: I don't think you have "problems" with dogma as much as you have problems with obedience.
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written by Grump, August 01, 2012
@Brad. Astute observation. I've more often gone against the grain than with it. I suppose total obedience comes with total conviction.
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written by Grump, August 01, 2012
Postscript to Tony. I like what you said about imagination. Einstein said logic can take one from A to B but imagination can take you anywhere. If nothing else, Tony, you make me think.
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written by Chris in Maryland, August 04, 2012
Grump:

The Catholic appeal to reason has no intersection with the fundamentalist demand for submission. As Benedict has taught, The One Who Loves has created us in His image, with reason, because He loves us as Father.
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written by Tony Esolen, August 05, 2012
Grump: On the contradictions, so called: Just a little tweaking in translation resolves them. Or rather, a little tweaking in translation makes them show up to begin with. The peculiarities of Hebrew can play havoc with us, because there are only two tenses, there are hardly any verbals (participles, gerunds, infinitives), and there are very few "operator" words, like "notwithstanding" and so forth. There is no pluperfect in Hebrew, so what looks like a straight past tense ain't necessarily so, as the reader should understand it. But plenty of absolutely orthodox readers of Genesis say that there are two creation stories, and I won't argue the point, as it doesn't seem to me to be important. The habit of reading Scripture figuratively is as old as the rabbis -- certainly as old as Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine.

One of these days ... I'll have to write a piece that's been rattling in my mind, about the severe retrenchment of claims to double or multiple authorship, in non-Biblical literature. I wish the news would get round to the Biblical exegetes. Almost nobody (I say "almost" only because, heck, there's always somebody hiding under a bush somewhere) now believes that the great Anglo Saxon poems, The Dream of the Rood, The Wanderer, and the Seafarer were written by more than one person. The overwhelming majority of people now believe that Beowulf too is the work of a single genius. After a heyday, the two-author Iliad and two-author Odyssey people are in hasty retreat; the most you'll get now, typically, is that there may be stitched-in ancient material worked on by the one "Homer," which seems reasonable enough; yet such patches seem to be fewer and fewer. The thing is that people who STUDY POETRY FOR A LIVING have gotten the better of the philologists and have perceived deep and complex unities, where discrepancies had been perceived. NOBODY but out-of-touch high school teachers now says that Shakespeare included comic scenes in his tragedies to provide "comic relief"; again, it's because people have perceived the deep and complex unities of imagery and theme and intention. I think that if a person used to Dante and Shakespeare and Homer reads Genesis, the impression is of overpowering unity of imagery, theme, and intention; even the "begats" assume a worthy and significant place, and needn't at all be attributed to some "priestly" author who was interested in those things, no more than the catalogue of ships should be attributed to anybody but Homer, or the disquisition on the spots on the moon should be attributed to anybody but Dante.

Apropos of the exegetes: I challenge anyone to "forget" the authorship of Shakespeare's plays and then, using the philological methods (with concealed theological agendas) popular for several decades among the exegets, determine that one man wrote all of them. AT LEAST FIVE "Shakespeares" would be discovered, if we didn't have the one name to go with them. Heck, he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor at about the time he was writing Hamlet (!).
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written by PJ, August 05, 2012
Regarding Pinker's claim that Genesis (and thus Judeo-Christian cosmology) treats man and animal as absolutely separate: Gregory Nazianzus once declared sagely, "Man is an animal called to become a god."
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written by Suzanne, August 12, 2012
I, like other readers, had been eagerly awaiting part 2 of this series, and it hasn't disappointed! Thank you.
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written by Marilyn, August 30, 2012
Dear Grump please allow me to make a suggestion: "I believe that I may understand," according to Augustine. Peter was given the keys to the kingdom not because he understood but because he believed. "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven." Jesus did not come to change our minds but to change our hearts.
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written by Facile1, October 24, 2012
St. Teresa of Avila said "Heaven is not for cowards."

H.L. Mencken said "The best client is a scared millionaire."

I say "FAITH is the key to living courageously because the only antidote to fear is FAITH."

Like animals, you and I have GOOD REASON to fear. But one cannot be happy and fearful also. Clearly, God wants us to share in His joy in creation.

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