The Key that Fits the Lock, Part Two Print
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.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

 

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