On Wisdom in Old Religious Traditions


The other day I came up with what I think is a new idea for the interpretation of the Creation Myth as presented in Genesis. Caveat: my reason for doing this is not to try to establish grounds for any faith, i.e. I am not evangelizing here. As someone who is a practicing Episcopalian, however, I frequently have cause to ask myself, “Ok, what were these old geezers onto, if anything? What ancient insight is buried in here, no matter the  inconsistency with what contemporary science understands about the basis for these old scriptures?”

My insight has to do with the fact that when people with a contemporary outlook try to make sense of the story in Genesis 1 through Genesis 2:3 (the six day version of creation), they do it against the backdrop of our contemporary scientific understanding of the emergence of the world. That is to say, earth was created out of the condensing material in the solar system, it gradually cooled, land formed, water pooled into oceans, a hydrologic cycle was established, single-celled life emerged, plants and animals evolved from that, first fish and other sea creatures, then amphibians, then reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally humans.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, it is quite a natural tendency to view these old scripture through the lenses of cosmology, astronomy, geology, meteorology, biology, and the social sciences. Unfortunately for our contemporary worldview, relatively few people take philosophy seriously any more as a discipline. It’s true that as our scientific knowledge has expanded—and has been quite effective in affording us control over our world—topics that were once on the lips and minds of philosophers are now better understood through science. But philosophy, taken not as descriptive, but rather as normative, has age old tools that are forbidden to science.

A very important, yet not well understood topic for today’s world is the nature of consciousness. On the one hand, the scientific discipline of cognitive studies works hard examining brain processes and structures, and it attempts to correlate these with kinds of mental performance and experience. A lot has been discovered. On the other hand, to use one of philosopher Alva Noë’s expressions, no one using a cognitive science perspective has yet been able to give a convincing explanation of why “the world shows up for us” when we are awake. Our everyday consciousness of the world is a miraculous, magnificent gift to us, and yet locating consciousness within our scientific world view is a challenge. So we tend to take consciousness—more or less unexamined and untouched—for granted in our everyday interactions.

Philosophy as a historical discipline has often attempted to give an account of consciousness, especially starting from Descartes on. There is a vast discourse on the nature of consciousness embedded in the writings of the existentialists: Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre, and more contemporary thinkers such as Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. A whole philosophical discipline, phenomenology, details the methodology and scope for exploring consciousness from a first-person point of view. Now I attempt to examine none of this research in this blog post, rather, I want to point out that this phenomenon of consciousness, while it has been studied by cognitive science, is perhaps better understood when the additional philosophical research is well-considered also.

With that in mind, my insight is that rather than viewing the Genesis account of creation as the creation of the world, we might try viewing it as an account of the creation of consciousness of the world. For one thing, it seems plausible to me that the transcribers of the Genesis mythology of creation might very well have had this phenomenon of consciousness before their minds as they wrote things down. They may not have had access to electron microscopes and magnetic resonance imaging, but they might well have had an intuitive understanding that an object in one’s awareness can be “bracketed” and examined from a first person perspective. Or perhaps not. But with this in mind consider:

Day 1

1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

   2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Perhaps what is being discussed here is the separation of consciousness as an element in creation, consciousness as distinguished from matter. Thus heaven is being identified with consciousness, earth with matter. The writer is using metaphorical terms in verse 2 to suggest that there was undifferentiated matter and a “spirit” that somehow moved it.

  3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

   4And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

   5And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Now taken from the point of the emergence of consciousness, this is intriguing. Anyone who has reflected on their own consciousness knows that light is a very important component in it. Lit objects present consciousness with a lot of information about their identity and character. Not only that, but light is unique in that only light (more broadly, electromagnetic radiation) travels at the same speed no matter how fast its source is moving. The velocity of everything is relative to a source except for light. There is something fundamental and different about it, even though we take it for granted, so maybe the creation of light was the enabler for knowledge about anything.

Day 2

 6And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

   7And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

   8And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

In my thinking I have always glossed over the specific meaning of the word ‘firmament’. It is not a word that occurs in everyday discourse. So I looked up the definition, which turned out to be quite surprising. Taken as an everyday word, it can mean the actual vault of the sky, or can mean more broadly a sphere of influence. In the ancient Hebrew the word ‘raki’a’ meant an expanse or wide extent. In the Gospels Jesus offers metaphors for the Kingdom of Heaven: like leavening or a mustard seed. Leavening gives expanse to the bread, and from a mustard seed comes a vast expanse of plant. Jesus “and the Father (God) are One.” I take all this to mean that there is a level of actual existence possible for some which involves some kind of expanded awareness of the day to day reality most of us encounter.

While there is a strong tradition that the Kingdom of Heaven is something that will come into being at some future time, I also think there are strong arguments for the Kingdom of Heaven being ancient words to point to a level of consciousness that is accessible only through certain tough disciplines: giving up one’s attachment to material things and seeing God in every person one encounters. Easy to say, almost impossible to do. However, as an account of the emergence of consciousness in creation, this amounts to dividing the world into two domains: the domain of the material and of causality, on the one hand, and the domain of the spiritual and consciousness. These are certainly precursors to the creation of human consciousness, which seems to blend both modes.

Day 3

  9And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

   10And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

   11And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

   12 … and God saw that it was good.

   13And the evening and the morning were the third day.

For human consciousness to emerge, there had to be a place hospitable first to life in general, and then conscious, self-aware life. Taking Genesis as the story of developing consciousness allows us to draw from the scientific account of how life on earth emerged without immediately inviting unfavorable comparisons between the ancient understanding of these matters and our current science. So, there had to be a Big Bang, there had to be a coalesing of dust into gas clouds and nebulae, there had to be the formation of stars and encircling planets, at least one such planet had to have the right temperature, water, earth, light, and then, life had to emerge.

Now we know that first one-celled microzoa were created, and both plant and animal life emerged from these. However, there is a certain insight in the Biblical account putting plant emergence before animal emergence, if this is actually an account of the emergence of consciousness. I can remember a time when most people scoffed at the idea that plants were sentient. Seen in isolation from their plant community and from the environment, they do indeed seem quite passive, with some notable exceptions, such as the Venus flytrap and the sensitivity plant, whose leaves withdraw from touch. In our renewed current interest in environmental studies, though, we have understood that both plants and animals, as they live and grow, move and occupy suitable niches within an ecosystem. The primary difference between plants and animals seems to be that plants get their energy through the metabolism of carbon dioxide and through root systems, while animals get their energy through the metabolism of oxygen and through digestion. Plants DO have a kind of awareness, but it is not the kind of awareness that needs to create an accurate representation of the objects in its environment so that it can navigate its body adequately. Plant awareness can not yet think of God, so it is a separate stage in the evolution of consciousness.

Day 4

   14And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

   15And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

   16And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

   17And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,

   18And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

   19And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

It’s difficult to connect the Genesis Day 4 account to the evolution of consciousness, but here are some thoughts. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that in this passage, ‘firmament’ is used to describe the vast expanse of the heavens above, and not to describe some higher level of conscious existence as we discussed under the deconstruction of Day 1. Nevertheless, there seems to be implicit in this passage a distinctions between sources of lights, e.g. the sun, moon and stars, and the idea of a creation pervaded by light (electromagnetic radiation). The idea is that lights emerged from light itself. And as we saw in the Day 1 commentary, light itself may be on a different level than matter, or perhaps be a factor in the creation of that distinct level. In fact, Einstein’s most famous equation sets light and matter into a specific equivalency: E = mc2. It seems that the prophets could have definitely profited from philosophical analysis in any case.

Day 5

20And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

   21And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

   22And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.

   23And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

There does seem to be an awareness in this passage of moving creatures as a different order of life than the plants, which are not themselves animated, that is, goal-seeking on an individual level of existence. Clearly we have learned that taken as communities, plant species do move and adapt to the environment. But that in itself is a less complex form of responding to environmental change or stability than animal species, which not only evolve as a species, but also individuals in a species which can change their location based on what they perceive to be in the environment. Here, individuals not only respond to their environment, they represent it to themselves in some sense, and the representation is itself an affordance for their responding.

Day 6

 26And 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.

   27…

   28And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

   29And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

   30And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

   31And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Looked at from the eyes of contemporary science, there is much to criticize in this passage. Still, it reveals that these ancient eyes and minds were quite aware that the consciousness of humans was a step up from the consciousness of animals, and that a step up from the consciousness of plants. Human beings can “have dominion” over these creatures. In the language of consciousness, human beings have intentions and can carry out plans, so it makes sense for them to have assigned the job of the stewardship of the earth—a job that we have largely not lived up to. Humans have a free will, and they can choose or not choose to do what they should do. They can understand this.

People have also misused this passage to imply that we are free to do anything we want about the plants and animals and the resources of the earth. What we are learning in the present world is that while we seem to be the only earth creatures who have evolved language, we are certainly not the only creatures who are self aware, who suffer grief, loss, and joy. I am speaking of the great apes, chimpanzees and bonobos, whales and dolphins, elephants, and certain parrots. Also, the ancients did not even understand that the earth was a planet, the sun was a star, and that there are nearly uncountably many planetary systems in this Universe. We may never encounter them, but it is entirely likely that there are other self-aware and language-using creatures in the Universe. Surely the God who created the Universe, if such exists, is not merely a planetary god, but god of all these beings, too. Which brings us to

Day 7

   1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

   3And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.

From the point of view of the language of consciousness, it must be that God-consciousness is still a higher level. Contemporary cosmology is now asking the question (and giving some very tentative answers) “From where did the Big Bang come?” Whatever their answers, to convince a scientist, we must be able to observe consequences of a scientific hypothesis in ordinary old time and three-dimensional space. On the one hand, if consciousness transends ordinary space and time, part of it is forever opaque to scientific methods. On the other hand, if conscious transcends ordinary space and time, and if there is a higher level of consciousness than ordinary human consciousness, then ancient minds might very well have been on the track of attempting to express that reality. Israel called it ‘Yahweh.’ Jesus called it ‘the Father.’ Jesus embodied humanity when it takes a God’s eye view. I think he did a pretty good job of that. Most of the rest of us are still growing our consciousness along those lines. At least hopefully …

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Author: Jim Andris

Retired gay married early adopter. Cooking, cleaning, fixing. Makes good music occasionally; U name it. Churchy dude. Likes to think about things, too much, sometimes. Dump Trump. Trying not to do too much harm. Revisiting blogging. Looking for a new handle on things. Exploring genderqueer.

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