Brian Brock: Jesus Christ the Divine Animal?

amazon.com

Zondervan, Andrew B. Torrance, Thomas H. McCall

ISBN: 978-0310536086, Zondervan, May 8, 2018, $25.88

The authors of Christ and the Created Order have noted the fact that, although Jesus Christ is in every way central to the Christian faith, christology is usually poorly represented in the science-faith discussion. The New Testament describes a cosmic Christ, who is not only the key to the unfolding new creation through his death, resurrection and glorification, but is also the source and purpose of the old creation - the world that science studies.*

The reviewers here (Daniel Deen and Jon Garvey) endorse this need for a more christological approach. As ever though, the devil is in the detail, and we seek in these chapter reviews to bring our own insights to bear on the views offered in the book.

This chapter, written by the reader in moral and practical theology at St Andrews University, is subtitled “The Human Distinctive Reconsidered,” and that encourages me to précis the main message from the outset. Brock suggests we should not rankle at the suggestion of evolutionary biologists, from Darwin on, that no particular traits are unique to humans, but instead should see the story of Adam and his offspring as primarily about a calling, in history, by God, to a particular role in his creation. Thus he departs from the long tradition of seeking “the image” in particular human attributes:

I will suggest that to be human is ultimately not a biological but a vocational designation. The real history of humanity is the story of God’s attempts to open and reopen communicative relations with human creatures, first in Eden, then in the temple, and supremely in Jesus’s invitation into the kingdom of God.

This has clear resonances with Genealogical Adam (of which the author understandably shows no awareness) for it seems to allow for the possibility of “pre-adamites” outside the garden showing evidence of any level one likes of biological and cultural development. Note also the threefold division of human history, which matches my own “three testament” proposal.

Brock actually says much more, and I found the chapter dense with thought-provoking ideas - for example that of Mary’s womb as an Edenic sacred space apart from the world in which Jesus, as the second Adam, experienced original innocence, as Adam did in the garden. I also found I had to read the chapter several times, partly because his theological vocabulary is different from mine, but I note also that he cites Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida on the last page - it’s hard to spend much time with French postmodernists without tending to become incomprehensible oneself!

Let me now seek to comment on some of the detail surrounding his thesis. On the question of evolution, he seems on the one hand accepting of whatever scientists might conclude from the biological theory. On the other, he is very cognizant that, in reality, it is the mythic power of Darwinism that needs to be challenged, as Genesis itself challenged the worldviews of its age. Quoting Mary Midgley, he says:

Whilst scientists may often decry the blending of science and religion in popular discourse, Midgley insists that it was psychologically and logically inevitable that evolution began to play the role of a powerful folktale about human origins.

Accordingly, it seems that (broadly) Brock is happy to accept the truth of the scientific continuum between man and the animals, but eager to confront the cultural conclusion that man therefore is merely an animal. And the Eden narrative forms the basis for that confrontation.

Whilst still on the science, I sensed an equivocation in his dealings with evolution. In citing Augustine’s famous passage about the need for Christians not to make themselves foolish by denying scientific findings, he also notes that Augustine does not so much adopt those findings, as engage with them as prevailing cultural views. In other words, it’s as if he’s saying, “I don’t need to dispute evolutionary science - though I’m untroubled should it be overturned in future - but the evolutionary mythology is false, and needs to be challenged.”

In this perhaps ambiguous context he sees the vocation of mankind as a calling out from evolution’s “patterns… that are configured by depredation and conflict,” with creatures engaging constantly in “self-preservation at all costs.” I have a problem with this as a statement of fact, rather than as interaction with a prevalent worldview, because (as I have argued in my forthcoming book) evolution is not characterised by selfishness and cruelty - or at least no more so than the natural world which was known, and considered “good”, both by Bible authors and early theologians. To be fair, Brock concedes that such conflict may be seen by Christians as "nonmoral and religiously innocent." “Before the law,” he points out from Rom 4:15, “there could be no sin,” another point of resonance with Genealogical Adam thinking. However, if we re-calibrate his “conflict” model of evolution in terms of a call from an old, perishable creation to a better, spiritual, new creation, then I am fully on board.

So let’s turn to how he deals with the biblical message. He takes the Eden narrative to be an account of (possibly unrecoverable) historical events, as opposed to an historical account of events, which, he plausibly suggests, is the only way it could have been written:

Given the peculiarity of the real events, it is clear that Genesis should not be understood to offer a newspaper account… since the conventions of modern positivist historiography assume the stability of the universal causal laws of our contemporary experience as the framing condition of what could conceivably be counted as a true story about the past.

Thereby, Genesis departs from, and subverts, “Darwin’s positivist account of history.” Nevertheless, just a page earlier he has called out the error of much modern theology in divorcing empirical study from exegesis, which I take to imply that investigations attempting to place Adam in space and time need not necessarily be dismissed as concordist, whereas crude literalism serves nobody’s interests.

Another significant point is that Brock doesn’t regard God’s calling of mankind as exceptional in kind. In fact, he considers each creature to be the recipient of its own special vocation:

The events that give creation its narrative, and so its history, are fundamentally those discreet divine engagements by which God opens communion with creatures.

Even the lower creatures, then, are not “just” the outcomes of evolution, but “have been put lovingly into places made for them.” Brock suggests, as an instance of such an “opening of communion with creatures,” “lightning strikes on the primeval soup.” This appears an admirably providential model of evolution.

It is associated with his insistence that creation - even, presumably, creation through evolution - is always a sovereign act of God on a passive recipient. In this he alludes once more to a threefold division of history: the original creation was achieved ex nihilo, so also is individual salvation through the effectual grace of God, and so also the final resurrection of the dead. In this way he absolutely rejects the concept of creaturely “co-creation”:

In no sense is the preceding formlessness a cause or limiting factor in God’s work, any more than a sinner can manufacture their own redemption or a dead body can be understood to condition God’s resurrecting activity.

Here again, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Thus, the faithfulness of God is apparent both in creation, and in the whole history of humanity in Adam. And so in the call of Adam, God’s initiative both in Eden, and in the subsequent provision for sin, remains paramount, and of a piece with his work throughout creation history:

What is original about original sin is that Adam and Eve are woken up - declared innocent - in the sphere of eschatological peace by the divine word. They alone could experience the terrible shock of falling from this state because before them nobody was in it… The difference between us and the first coiple is that they are the start of a new bifurctaed history. Any change in their physical nature due to the fall was not the cause, but the effect of their becoming beings who, coming from having no history to having one history with God, fall into a divided history, a new socialld characterized by inner division between “God’s view” and “the human view.”

Brock closes his piece by asking if, perhaps, he has given too much weight to Darwinian science. If he has, in my view it is only in making too much concession to the mythical element of evolution (as “red in tooth and claw”), which may, however, be an apologetic strength. He points out that, positively, Darwinism prompts us to look beyond any of our animal attributes - all of which have some counterpart in animals - to a more theological account based, as many scholars are now exploring, on our role and vocation amongst creatures and before God.

And in this, the chapter is a very valuable contribution both to the subject of the book - christology in creation - and the desire shared by many of us here at Peaceful Science to place a truly historical and theologically significant Adam in the material world explored by science and history.

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This is a very interesting summary. I’m looking forward to going deeper into this. I’m pleased to report that @Brian is here to discuss his chapter with us.

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@Brian, I had some questions for you…

What do you mean by Darwinian exactly? From a scientific point of view, Darwinian evolution was disposed of by at least 1968. Do you mean, rather, just the grant evolutionary story of materialistic origins?

Do you agree with what @jongarvey is saying here? The Genealogical Adam is summarized here:

Can you expand on this? I’ve been drawing out the same idea in a book I’m in the middle of writing right now. How is Eden like the womb? How is Adam’s creation like the Virgin Conception? Does this push you more towards seeing Adam as de novo created, rather than refurbished?

This seems like a very good program. I am on board with this. The good news is that there is a scientific consensus forming around human exceptionality.

In what ways should we see the Eden narrative as confronting the mythology of evolution, rather than its science?

@Brian, I’m looking forward to hearing from you. Thank you so much for joining us.

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Thanks so much Jon for this sensitive and thoughtful review of my chapter in Christ and the Created Order . It is rare privilege to receive such a close and careful reading. It is crucial for sustaining the sort of conversation you are trying to foster here, which I very much appreciate.

One central thrusts of the chapter doesn’t really appear as sharply as I’d intended it to in the paper, and so rightly doesn’t appear in your review. I am trying to get christians out of the game of looking for the “human distinctive” because I think that it reduces humans to functional traits. As someone who has thought a lot about disability, I’m trying to find a way to affirm that human beings are good as they are without being forced to defend the presumption that humans as better than other creatures because they can “do something” that other animals can’t do. It seems pretty evident to me that this sort of thinking disadvantages people who are taken not to be able to perform as we imagine human beings should be capable of doing.

You rightly pick up that I therefore focus on the moral implications that come with setting up hierarchies of creatures graded from lower to higher. Creatures are what they are. I’m appreciative of evolutionary niche theory for letting us admit the beauty of the worm’s doing what worms do without having to pretend that what humans do is somehow better than what worms do. I did my first degree in biology, and I did so because I find life unbelievably fascinating. I also learned in that study that evolutionary theory is always in motion, and should be, as a scientific theory. I was sensitised very early to the difference between a scientific theory and a religious or moral myth. As you picked up, this distinction is the central theme of this particular paper.

One other subtext of the paper my resisting the defining of the “higher” animal—the human—as deserving of being the ruler of creation. One way to read the language of image of God is to say that it points to our vocation to be delegated rulers. This essay is part of a much larger project where I work out the problematic entailments of how we Christians have practiced living in the world over the past century or so. Suffice to say that I think we have not really thought seriously about the difference between dominion, theologically understood, and domination. As a result we’ve defended domination under the heading of dominion. This is my way of getting at the ecological critique.

I also want to reserve the language of the image of God for Christ. There is lots more language in the New Testament enjoins Christians to “put on” the image of Christ than there is emphasising every human already “having” the image. Much contemporary Christian use of the language of the image of God is more concerned with justifying human superiority than provoking Christians to be more Christ-like.

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We have been discussing this several times on this forum: Disability and the Image of God. I agree with this direction.

@Revealed_Cosmology, one of our regulars from a while ago, would entirely agree with you on this.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the questions from my last post.

By “Darwinian science” I am pointing to Darwin’s theory more narrowly, which I take to be the culturally disseminated form most people associate with the idea of “evolution”. I realise that the science has moved on, but I would suggest that the popular idea of evolutionary mechanism has not. I am not discussing these themes with scientists in this book (I have done so in my collection of essays entitled Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church). I am simply assuming that what scientists do on the job and what people think they do are pretty widely divergent. At the scientific level, “Darwinian” names a powerful hermeneutic, not a method.

I’m just learning of the Geneological Adam thesis, but I think my own presumptions lie pretty close to what the theory is after.

My comparison of Mary’s womb and Eden is an attempt to point out that even the biblical record presumes that God can create islands of original innocence in a world already broken and rife with sin. The ultimate reference is ecclesial, and I am trying to unpack that insight in relation to the Christian story of origins. I would not use the language of refurbished for Adam, for another more complex set of theological reasons, namely, that the law and redemption work at a different level of reality than material causality. Material causality does not make us sinners or save us, so God’s command is operating at a level not present in a purely materialist world.

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This theme of disability and the Image of God keep coming up. Let me know if I have this right. There are three main ways theologians and exegetes have understood the Image of God.

  1. Capacities. A set of abilities have in common God, such as rational though, and distinct from other creatures.

  2. Relational. A certain sort of relationship we have with God and each other.

  3. Vocational. A certain sort of calling, perhaps to represent Him in this world.

To these three, there are at least two other notions often connected to the Image of God, perhaps for cultural, philosophical, or other contextual reasons:

  1. Universal rights and human dignity,

  2. Soulish. A “human” soul, instead of being soulless creatures.

  3. Structuralist. A specific biology that is one to one linked with the Image of God.

It is hard to derive #4 and #5 from the text, but it seems that some people have these views. It seems as though you are taking a vocational view, #3. Is that correct? How would you describe the vocation that God has given us? How does a severely disabled person fulfill that vocation?

Thanks Brian - I’m glad I got your meaning right!

What I particularly liked about your piece (personally speaking) was the way it matched up with so many of the ideas I’m thinking about currently here, and also in my own forthcoming book on the goodness of creation - and yet in a different form of words.

It does seem that there’s a convergence of ideas of people who take both science and Scripture seriously. May the conversation continue!

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Yes, Joshua, I am elaborating the vocational definition of the human, which I would not see as excluding important aspects of the relational definition.

The vocation God has given to humans is to be Christ’s presence in the world. The human vocation, the only way to fulfil the command to “have dominion over the earth” is to “be conformed to Christ”. Thinkers like Jean Vanier have explicated in great detail why people with intellectual disabilities especially fulfil this vocation very palpably, and why we totally truncate the Christian language of the image of God when we use functional definitions of the image to undermine their capacity to fulfil the human vocation.

I’ve presented as simple an explanation of the importance of this point as I can manage in this sermon I recently preached in Cambridge. I’m trying to use the deep grammar of biblical language to unseat the dominant accounts of dominion that I believe have been hijacked by colonialist, functionalist and neoliberal anthropologies. You might find my train of thought in this chapter illuminated by looking up the parallel argument I have published elsewhere analysing the mythic power of Adam Smith’s proposal that human beings were proto-capitalist traders in the garden of Eden.

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Two more questions.

Have you looked that the reading of Genesis by Ishmael, the telepathic Gorilla? This reading is surprisingly engaged with the text, and adds a new sort of weight to the fall. It seems like it might fit some of the directions you are going.

To illustrate his philosophy, Ishmael proposes a revision to the Christian myth of the Fall of Man. Ishmael’s version of why the fruit was forbidden to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is: eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil provides gods with the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die—knowledge which they need to rule the world. The fruit nourishes only the gods, though. If Adam (“humanity”) were to eat from this tree, he might think that he gained the gods’ wisdom (without this actually happening) and consequently destroy the world and himself through his arrogance. Ishmael makes the point that the myth of the Fall, which the Takers have adopted as their own, was in fact developed by Leavers to explain the origin of the Takers. If it were of Taker origin, the story would be of liberating progress instead of a sinful fall.

Ishmael and his student go on to discuss how, for the ancient herders among whom the tale originated, the Biblical story of Cain killing Abel symbolizes the Leaver being killed off and their lands taken so that it could be put under cultivation.[9] These ancient herders realized that the Takers were acting as if they were gods themselves, with all the wisdom of what is good and evil and how to rule the world: agriculture is, in fact, an attempt to more greatly create and control life, a power that only gods can hold, not humans. To begin discerning the Leavers’ story, Ishmael proposes to his student a hypothesis: the Takers’ Agricultural Revolution was a revolution in trying to strenuously and destructively live above the laws of nature, against the Leavers’ more ecologically peaceful story of living by the laws of nature.

The Takers, by practicing their uniquely envisioned form of agriculture (dubbed by Quinn “totalitarian agriculture” in a later book) produce enormous food surpluses, which consequently yields an ever-increasing population,

Second, have you seen how Greggor of Nyssa understands the Dominion passage? Of note, he is called the “first abolitionist,” as he may be the first person who totally opposed all types of slavery. His reading of the dominion passage is that man was given dominion of over all the beasts of the field, but not over other men. So dominion, for him, would end up being how he might argue against the Dominionism of the last generation, and this is where he would ground universal rights, in universal law.

Curious your thoughts…

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@Brian,

Please say hello to everyone at the Orthodox Studies Center at Cambridge, and Met. Kallistos!

Thank you for joining us!
Given your understanding of the Divine Image, how do the disabled, or the fetus, or the aged reflect the divine image? What are Vanier’s ideas/examples?

I suppose my own way of arguing for the rights of the disabled (which I’m still very much formulating) would go something like this: Christ is the FORM or Logos of God in a very Platonic sense, and is THE human being. The disabled, etc. are also made in the logos (small L) of God, but their mode of existence (and ours) has not been fully aligned with the principle or logos of our existence. Only Christ aligned the mode of our existence with the Logos of our existence. But because the disbled are part of the logos of humanity,they should be accorded all the same rights as any other human being. My language is all very inspired by Maximus the Confessor. This, I believe, is one way of preserving human rights and differentiating between human and animal rights. My view does require a bit of a saltatory “jump” (but not a special creation) between our last common ancestor and human beings though. Otherwise, it would be hard to make the case for some sort of quasi-platonic form of “human beings.”

Under your own view, what about a disabled person, or aged person sets them apart from an octopus/chimp/dolphin/other very intelligent animals? And how would your view effect our diets? Should we be vegan, or is meat-eating ok? I’m curious how your view might differ from the one I very tentatively propose and how it might be able to co-exist with it.

Thank you,

-Mark

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@swamidass

Thanks for the paper on Nyssa! I knew about this but had been meaning to look more into it.

I’d not heard about the Ishmael novel Joshua, and it sounds fascinating! I’ll have to read it. I am sure that the murder of Abel is related to their respective modes of life, and I’d love to see some more thoughtful hypotheses about the logic of that aspect of the biblical story. Jacque Ellul’s The Meaning of the City makes a similar point, and develops in relation to all the technologies that are then listed in the account that follows immediately after (the stirrup, the city, etc)

Nyssa’s reading of dominion as excluding other humans may have been the earliest, but it was by no means unique. Augustine makes the same point in some detail. The church Fathers generally had a much more morally serious view of human life than we give them credit for.

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Mark, I think you’ll find the essay reviewed in this blog post useful in that it is entirely directed to explaining why asking “what sets humans apart from animals” is just the wrong question. And if you ask a wrong question at the outset, the questions that follow are not answerable. I think the question about diet, for instance, can be engaged biblically, but it is silly to do it out of an exegesis of the command to have dominion.

As for reflecting the divine image: every human being is called to be like Christ. They are made to do it. That does not mean that they actually do it. To assert that disabled people are included in this calling is a stipulative claim. What it means to respond to it will be different in different cases. Start with your own case: what does it mean for you to be like christ? Disabled people, Vanier often says, are often more like because they respond to people’s emotional state, and don’t live to competitively triumph over other human beings. Imagine if Hitler had been born with Down’s Syndrome–we would all have been better off.

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Great reference to Ellul. Someone is going to have to review this for us…

I’ve been working out the idea that Genesis is not about the creation of biological humans, or some other taxonomical category. However, if we read the setting and narrative moves of the text, it very much seems to be a narrative about the rise of civilization, and yes, the rise of cities. I do not mean that Adam and Eve were the first agriculturalists or the first founders of a city. Perhaps there were others before them.

Instead, I would argue that their entry to the seen changed the character of civilization, turning it towards corruption. It seems that early cities violated this Nyssian view of dominion, and were all about exerting power over other men. Early cities are full of prostitution, slavery, and often grow up around ziggurats filled with the bones of consequent. They are evil places. Agriculture enables this type of city, but it is not as if agriculture requires cities to be oppressive. Perhaps Genesis is telling us that civilization didn’t have to arise in this evil way, but could have arisen differently?

I’d also note the importance of the Tree of Knowledge. The full teaching of Scripture seems to value knowledge. So why was this knowledge available? Why was it forbidden? My best guess is that God eventually intended to give it to Adam and Eve, but they took it too soon. Or perhaps they had a choice of building civilization alongside God, or taking the knowledge themselves to build it on their own. Either way, it seems that the “increase of knowledge” we see described Genesis is deeply resonant with the increase of knowledge as civilization rises.

Perhaps the Tree of Knowledge was an understanding or vision of how civilization could rise and reshape the earth. Like many types of knowledge, this knowledge could be used for good or for evil. Adam and his progeny, in his fall, ends up using this knowledge to make an evil society instead of a good society. What makes them different is not biology, but their knowledge.

I also think that Ismael is a smart gorilla. I think he gets the anti-hero duality of Adam correctly:

Any how, that is just a sketch I am working through, which will soon be part of a book. What are your thoughts? Is this servicable?

Also, keep in mind, if Adam and Eve lived any time before 6,000 years ago, we can presume that we all genealogically descend from them. This seems to keep intact quite a bit of traditional theology of original sin too. It also seems to flesh out what original sin is in a more material sense.

What do you think @Brian?

One more thing @Brian

Your chapter makes a big effort to separate the Image of God from human uniqueness. Historically, it has been thought that evolution is a threat to human uniqueness. However, nowadays, there is a consensus forming around human exceptionality. It turns out (no huge surprise) we are continuous with other animals, but we are also discontinuous, as truly exceptional animals. There is a paradox here, as both are true. We are apes, but we are more than just apes.

With that emerging consensus in mind, for human exceptionality (not uniqueness), how does that adjust your view? I understand your concerns about disenfranchising humans with severe disabilities. However, it seems that Genesis does speak to human exceptionality, and this is also a real finding of science. How would you integrate this notion into your model?

In your push against Dominionism, I think this history is important.

Related to this, it seems to be in error to connect human rights and dignity to the Image of God, as is often done. The historical case for human rights seems to derive from natural law. Recovering the dominion of Genesis, as over the beasts of the field, but not other men, seems to create space or even an endorsement of natural law.

Have you thought much about this?

@swamidass,

I tend to agree with you, but natural law, especially in Lockean terms, is almost an extension of Aquinas’s understanding and the very early Spanish scholastics, and is linked to rationality. See Murray Rothbard’s extension of these principles to ultimately argue for anarcho-capitalism. See the first few chapters of his The Ethics of Liberty. I doubt @Brian would be comfortable with these conclusions and therefore wants to argue for another way of understanding of the image of God?

Notice Rothbard’s love of Aquinas because he split theology and philosophy into two camps and his dislike of Augustine for NOT doing this. This is all very interesting.

I LIKE natural law, though I think Nyssa might be a better person to begin with than Aquinas.