You Can Read the Bible

Contingency and Dependency

Matt Carter

These early chapters of Genesis have probably generated more controversy and debate over the past hundred years than any other in the Bible. As ever, this state of affairs has often resulted in more heat than light. While not diminishing the relevance or importance of these debates, I would like us to focus instead on what it means to assert that we humans were created by God however that happened. This focus will hopefully enable us to approach and conduct ourselves within those contentious discourses in a godly manner.

Whenever we engage in a secular debate about the inerrancy, infallibility, or essential truthiness of the Bible as our holy Scripture, we often have a tendency to flatten out the inherent diversity within the Bible. When we adopt the secular world's terms in this debate, we tend to adopt their limited understanding of the Bible as a single uniform thing that may or may not contain truth. We gain an abstracted thing but lose our Scripture. In our haste to defend the Bible, we tend to give up our historic and orthodox Christian understanding of the Bible as a collection of books with joint human and divine authorship. We flatten out its differences in context, genre, and literary structure to use it in its own defense. 

Similarly, we often adopt the secular world's stories about science's own inflated ability to discern and imply truth. This is most often the case when we try to ensure that the Bible makes sense with contemporary scientific consensus. Just as the Bible is more diverse and multifaceted than we tend to imagine in these situations, so also are scientific truths flattened and projected more than we are aware. Scientific truth is more constrained and limited in its capacity to infer truth than we imagine when we accept a flattened and projected scientific consensus. This does not mean that science does not provide us with truth, of course. Nor does it at all suggest that it is somehow a lesser truth. All truth is God's truth. Instead, it simply means that science is not immune to our tendency to presume and project truths beyond the scope where that truth claim is warranted. 

Given this tendency towards oversimplification, we would be well served by allowing biblical stories to speak to us without immediately seeking to reconcile them with whatever else we think we know about the world. Doing so, we may find that the biblical story changes what we already know rather than the other way around, which is what Scripture is supposed to do. 

One way of limiting this tendency is to recognize the contingency and dependency of our knowledge on both God and our communities. We are creatures, and our knowledge about anything is constrained in many ways by our creaturehood. The meanings we take away to our heart-level are contingent on our relationship to God and our community. We are also dependent on God and others in our community for our very ability to get what something means. 

When I read  "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, the significant heart-level meaning I derive from it stems from deaths in my own family and all of my experiences surrounding those times of grieving. I cannot properly articulate that meaning in words, but I know how that meaning feels and has affected me. My know-how meaning from this poem is contingent on my relationships.

I also know that were it not for the special investments of my parents and teachers, I would not be able to even decode those poetic words on the page. I know-how to derive my meaning from this poem thanks to my dependent relationships to these people in my community. This dependency is not only in my past, but it is also in my present. I live in a comfortable home where I have the freedom and ability to read this poem at my leisure. This freedom and ability in the present and, Lord willing, future is, again, dependent on God and other members of my community. I know this poem and have its contingent meaning in my heart as a situated and embodied creature dependent on God and others. 

When I recognize and dwell on my condition in this way, I cherish this poem all the more. I do not imagine consuming and using this poem as much as I imagine this poem, God, and my past, present, and future communities blessing me with this deeply personal and contingent meaning. My heart-level posture is one of gratitude and awareness. 

Imagine if we related to Scripture in this way. This is how we were made to relate to God and his revelation. The world would have us imagine ourselves as self-reliant and sovereign individuals, but that, as Adam found out, is the path of death and separation from God. This is how we move from relating to the Bible as a thing towards adopting a posture of gratitude and having the Bible as Scripture indwell our hearts. And this is part of what it means to know that our loving God created us as good.    

How does the world teach and train us to imagine our fulfillment apart from God and our neighbor? What stories and methods does it use? Are there ways to unlearn the world's influence on us in this way? What stories might we tell to remember and recognize our contingency and dependence?

Consider these questions as you engage with one or more of the following:

 

  1. Wendy and Lucy. How do contingency and dependency play out in this story for the main character? Imagine, remember, or explain how you know-how contingency and dependency feel both when you are as the main character and as others nearby. 
  2. Crazy Heart. How does a jaded country singer find redemption beyond self-reliance and independence? How does he unlearn his imagined self-sufficiency?
  3. "Jewish Morning Prayer as Redemptive Thinking" by Jewish philosopher Peter Ochs. Ochs claims that the regular practice of Jewish Morning Prayer is a way of unlearning the world's socialization of us. He says we can "read the [practice of] Jewish Morning Prayer as a way out of this socialization. Not a contrary way, or a way that simply negates this form of judgment (for we know that a contrary reinforces its negative), but a way to be socialized into forms of judgments that are good for us." How does this work, and could it work for us as Christians?
  4. Can technology function as a substitute for community dependency? If we are all dependent on others, how does technology help us to avoid acknowledging this? Does this help us to flourish? What are other ways we use technology to pretend we are self-sufficient?
  5. The song "Ill With Want" by the Avett Brothers speaks powerfully about sin and distorted dependency. How does our built-in creaturely dependency get distorted by sin? What is different about the perspective that the world has on dependency problems and the one that we learn from God's revelation? How is sin born from distorted desires?
  6. This article by Calvin College religion professor Dan Harlow about harmonizing the creation story and original sin in Genesis with evolutionary biology was and is controversial. Without going into either the theology or the biology, consider these sentences from his conclusion: "They and others have proposed that original sin is a biologically inherited state, a by- product of billions of years of evolution. Intrinsic to the process of evolution is the inclination toward self-preservation at the expense of other creatures. Yet selfish behavior did not become sin (culpable wrongdoing) in human beings until the evolution of their self-consciousness (and God-consciousness) allowed our remote ancestors to override their innate tendency to self-assertion by the exercise of their free will. The same is true of us today, as, at a certain age, we reach moral awareness. So understood, original sin is not the result of a single fall but of repeated falls in the life of every human being and of their cumulative, systemic effects in society and culture. And humanity’s constant falling away is not a descent from some primordial state of integrity but a failure to live up to a divinely posed ideal." (emphasis mine). More recently, Harvard biology professor Martin Nowak and others, however, have published extensively that rather than selfish self-interest, communal cooperation is actually both a more effective evolutionary strategy and the likely driver of most evolutionary biology not self-interest and competition. If Nowak is correct, then Harlow responded to an assumed but not actual scientific truth by modifying biblical meaning. Does our preference for imagining ourselves to be self-sufficient also produce a self-imposed responsibility for figuring out not only the answers to every question but their universality as well? Even if we are not employed as theologians or biology professors, how does this way of imagining ourselves shape us? 

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