Category Archives: Commentary

On John Schneider’s Aesthetic Supralapsarianism

Theologians who are also believers have an uneasy task: writing something new about an eternal subject, about the very foundations of their most deeply meaningful allegiances. Historically, they have done so at the risk of professional and sometimes personal peril. I am not a theologian, thankfully. I find writing hard enough without having to negotiate personal, social, and ecclesial loyalties. I am, however, a believer and a reader. Here, I too easily become one of those ill-informed critics freely boasting of their unprofessional, but deeply felt religious judgments.

All this to say, I have found a piece of academic theology and I have read it with an urgency I seldom feel for scholarly articles:

John Schneider. 2010. Recent genetic science and Christian theology on human origins: an “aesthetic supralapsarianism”. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, no. 3 (September).

Schneider, a professor at Calvin College, mis-titles or, rather, strategically titles the article. He writes very little of real significance about the impact of “recent genetic science” on theology. In fact, I suspect that he merely sees (as many do) “recent” science as sufficient cause to revisit old debates not with new information, but with renewed (or reminded) energy. In a similar manner, he makes an even more strategic reference to supralapsarianism (supra for above or over and laps for the fall; more or less, the idea that God chose the elect for salvation prior to the sin foreseen). Supralapsarianism is advocated by a slim minority of Calvinist theologians, and so it keeps a small a place at the debating table of reformed Christianity. I suspect, anticipating the outrage that ultimately did arrive, Schneider hopes that an invocation of or affiliation with this minority (one that now includes Alvin Plantinga; see his Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’) will preserve his place at this table, but as it turns out, the article is not really about supralapsarianism, nor even about “aesthetic supralapsarianism”. Instead, Schneider risks his employment and probably angers his church community, by arguing (with a very weak hedge) first, that Adam and Eve need not be real people and second, (or simultaneously because) the story of the fall and the origins of sin have been misunderstood not only by Saint Augustine, but even by the Apostle Paul and the author of the Gospel of Luke. Sin, Schneider posits, while relying partly on Irenaeus of Lyon and partly on a “poetic” reading of Job, cannot be separated from the creation. In other words, and this my paraphrase, there’s no going back to a perfect, sinless creation, in part, because it never existed … at least not in any material way, not in this possible world. Instead, we are going forward, thanks to the mercies of grace, foreordained, to a new creation. The story of the covenant broken by Adam and Eve in the garden becomes not an account of how sin came into the world, but rather a way for humans to understand how it divides us from true communion. While sin (and the chaos and destruction, both human and cosmic, that it brings) hurts, it is the part-cause making us what we have been and necessitating the grace we must receive if we are to ever escape its grip. O felix culpa! Or:

Blessed be the time
That appil take was,
Therefore we moun singen
Deo gracias.

(Adam Lay Ibounden, RPO.)

Doing away with Adam and Eve as actual people is one thing. I’m not certain that I would miss them; their bad decisions are replicated every moment of our lives. If it were not for an exact Adam and Eve to first fail God, it could have been me. I know that much about the origin of human sin and I’m not sure I need to know more. On the other hand, realigning the origins of sin as within a “natural” order, sets the enduring ship of Western theology adrift. If thorns, predators, earthquakes, parasites, diseases, rage, jealousy, fear, and lust are simply a part of how the cosmos functions, by design, who are we to expect salvation from the consequences, grief and pain? Would denying the work of the first Adam deny the good news of the second?

Schneider’s atypical-supralapsarianism does provide a solution for the Christian who is also a good student of evolutionary history and the natural record, or (as was once said) the Christian who is also a good reader of “the book of nature”. Although new to me, I do not know enough theology to judge the degree of innovation here, but as Schneider mentions, this is an “old hat” conflict (new genetic science brings very little to the table), one beginning with Copernicus or at least with the Darwinian revolution. I suspect, however, that the hat is much, much older. Death is just so obviously a part of the world that we know; the rose grows with its roots in the corpse. What would the tiger be without a prey? How would this planet hold itself together without its calamities?

I found the article compelling for the same reasons that I hold it in suspicion. Schneider’s solution may be welcomed by Christians caught in the intellectual contradictions, but it smells a bit too convenient. He insists that the “warrants” of his “proposal in this article do not come primarily from evidence of science”, that (in good Protestant fashion) “the authority of Scripture prevails” in his conclusions, but many readers (as I have) will feel that his efforts aim to realign theology to agree with science. (In fairness, his reading of Job is a powerful one–a reading of which Augustine would probably approve–but a Christian scripture as a source for his argument would have been more convincing. It was Paul that wrote most of the Christian scriptures and if Paul was wrong about the origins of sin … what are we to believe?) I would be more convinced, perhaps, with a less direct approach. When I find that my faith puts me in inconvenient places, even in intellectual self-contradictions, I am reluctant to rely on my wits to find my way out. Better to stay in contradiction than to chase after timely conveniences.

As I tire of this bit of confused commentary, and I draw to a close, I realize that readers may conclude that I think of myself as one of Schneider’s (minor) civilian opponents. I do not. Excluding the scriptures themselves, this is the most important thing I have read all year. John Schneider is in a bit of trouble at Calvin College for having written it. (See: Academic freedom blurs and A Black Mark for Calvin College) Calvin is one of the few places where this kind of work is done. Where the faculty, from time to time, will write about what matters most to them and to the church. For the health of the Protestant mind, I hope that Calvin’s administration will weather the outrage and keep John Schneider on its faculty.


Oil and Aesthetics: When will the poets ever shut up?

Oil is a dominant source of energy in the United States, supplying the nation with approximately 40% of its energy needs. … No oil spill is entirely benign. Depending on timing and location, even a relatively minor spill can cause significant harm to individual organisms and entire populations.
— Jonathan L. Ramseur. Oil spills in U.S. coastal waters: background, governance, and issues for Congress. CRS, April 30, 2010. [PDF – 383 KB]

Once stable, oiled birds go through a series of tub washes alternating between baths with a one percent solution of … dishwashing liquid and clean water. The wash time varies depending on the amount of oil, and the size of the bird, but on average it takes two people 45 minutes and 300 gallons of water to do a thorough washing.
IBRRC: How oil affects birds. June 3, 2010.

Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!
–Herman Melville. Moby Dick, or, the Whale (1851).

A popular narrative in recent Western aesthetics holds that the horrors of the Second World War stupefied the artistic sensibilities of 20th century. It came in several flavors (including: beauty is dead, progress is dead, God is dead, meaning is dead, and order is dead), but was premised, by and large, by the problem of evil. In other words, whatever deity it was that the artist had once worshiped, it was no longer worthy of admiration. Without a god to praise, without an aesthetic ideal, without a cause, the poets fell apart or fell into a noisy silence. (“Noisy” in that poets seldom shut up. If they have nothing to say, they babble on, honing their craft, singing: nothing to sing.) This was, the story goes, the end of the modern, the beginning of postmodern.

Clearly, I do not subscribe. First, evil demands more than silence in response; ceding resistance to passivity and chaos is neither clever nor artful. Second, as I’ve said, no one really ever shuts up anyway–the author without authority is, nonetheless, a loud mouth. Finally, my God is not dead and: “He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out'” (Luke 19:40 NRSV. oremus Bible Browser).

Nevertheless, the times justify a longing for silence; the refusal to sing, may become the song of resistance beside the rivers of Babylon. And, at times, sin’s deep reach screams into the fibers of our personal and social existence. Realizing personal inadequacies, the poet might honestly join Donald Davie: “I held my tongue, and also / I discontinued my journals / … / … my calling: / it commits me to squawking / and running off at the mouth ” (“The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted”. Collected Poems, pg 382).

In any case, to speak is to implicate one’s self. And sometimes to speak is to realize just how deep the foul roots of greed and lethargy grow into the human soul. The oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico is inking over the ocean in a great slick of poems. The “Deepwater Horizon” well holds all the rhymes anyone with ears should care to hear. Readers, where would we be today without our oil? What would our world be without the wretched convenience of “modern” transportation? Where would our sources of income go? And all the food we have eaten? The distances we travel for family and career? Our educations and even our books? What would be of nearly all or our ease and leisure?

Each and every word we have written and read is now rising, in great, reeking gallons in the Gulf. If there was ever a time to hold our tongues, it is now.

Dealing with our Devils

On January 12, 2010 an earthquake leveled much of the Republic of Haiti (Haiti Earthquake of 2010, The New York Times).

People died. People are still dying. Soon after the quake, a well-known televangelist (while asking for aid for the victims) attributed the country’s poverty, oppression, and frequent earthly disasters to a pact made with the devil. Supposedly, at some point during the Haitian Revolution and the slave rebellions that preceded it, someone made a deal with the devil to win independence from French colonial rule. (The whole thing smacks of Robert Johnson standing with his guitar at the crossroads, but the phrase is much, much older. Faust, yes … but even the temptations of Christ were “deals”, though not “made”.) The verity of a specific deal made or not made in Haiti’s history does not interest me, nor do I want to join in the chorus of outrage. (Curiously, the words of this “evangelist” are considered worthy of outrage. The man has become some kind of cultural sounding board; when he talks people don’t really listen, but they do define themselves and their friends according to the strength of their emotive responses. I hope that my bit soap-boxing does not add the cultural co-dependency, but it probably will.) I am interested, however, in the exchange, in the fact that it exists. Why are so many people so united in opposition to a silly comment?

I suspect, the televangelist and his outraged detractors share some common impulses. When shit happens, we want to know why. We’re wired that way. If you’re walking down the street and suddenly stumble and fall, you will take a quick inventory: Did I do this to myself? Did someone else do this to me? Let me find someone, anyone, to hold responsible for my pain and shame! It’s all a part of making sure it doesn’t happen next time. The more fortunate folks who witnessed your fall are probably asking themselves similar questions, but they’re more likely to blame you for your misery … even if they saw someone trip you. People “blame the victim” because they are afraid of becoming the victim. If you can identify a weakness or short-coming in the victim that you (presumably) do not possess, you can assuage your fears a bit. Even saying that someone “was in the wrong place at the wrong time”, blames that someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of us do this quietly; some of us, like the televangelist, are vocal about it.

So, when something terrible happens and there are, apparently, no humans to blame for the event, what do we do with our anger and fear? Some blame devils and gods directly; others wait for a vocal nit-wit to say something stupid, and then we unload. It seems to be a popular and cathartic option.

The act of condemning the televangelist, however, is more than merely cathartic. It also gets us off the hook. It proves to ourselves and to others that we are not the kind of person who blames the very people for whom we feel so sorry. But, as I already have implied, we are (to some degree or another) exactly that kind of person.

And the “devil”? Well, yes, an efficacious devil is out of fashion, but I’d bet that you have a one somewhere in your “details”. One doesn’t need to attend to too much of the chatter about Haiti before hearing that the country has suffered from many years of political corruption–corruption leading to poverty, poorly constructed buildings, failing civil infrastructure … all magnifying Haiti’s losses. Political corruption works for some people; the corrupt leaders and regimes did have supporters. Some of these supporters were Haitian citizens, others were wealthier governments and their citizens in other countries. At any rate the supporters saw something to gain and some may have seen a price to pay … you might as well call it “a deal with the devil”. If it makes you feel any better, call it a deal with slavery or colonialism or “homeland security”. Any time that you (or the government leaders that you support with your vote and tax dollars) do something that benefits your well-being at the unjust expense of others, one might call it a “deal” made with the “devil”.

In the end, it is not a question of which one of us made the deal, or even a question of the what the deal might have been, but rather: who is going to pay for it?