Tag Archives: science

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). http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2010/PSCF9-10Schneider.pdf.

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.


As if the Genome Wasn’t Long Enough

Having discovered it while browsing the medical literature, I am beginning to read Gillian K. Ferguson’s The Human Genome: Poems on the book of life. Although I expect to read some of it now and then, I do not expect to read all of it. Ferguson may be the only person to sincerely read all of it–all 1,000 pages. The blog version strikes me as a bit heavy on the “extra-features”. Ferguson writes quickly and doesn’t appear to look back. Consequently, everything gets plugged into the “manuscript” – notes, favorite quotes, definitions, the whole box of research papers (minus those that the mice ate). Her poetic style suffers likewise – rather than finding the one turn of words that best does the job, she will redo the job several times before she let’s it go. For example, the poem “Does God Remember” (2 May 2008) focuses on the chemical nature of life, but does so immediately following a prior poem which imagines the creator as a chemist “Who Breathed Chemicals into Life” (1 May 2008). The redrafting continues within poems as well. “Does God Remember” begins:

Does God remember the defining;
shining organic coalescence, time

when the first cell settled
– the wondrous chemistry.

What follows is a series of riffs each doing their best to imagine God’s alchemy. The poem ends, however, with little for the reader to carry away. In fact, one wants to return to the top of the poem just to recall what was to the point for taking the flight to begin with. Here’s a bit more of a micro-view of the redrafting I am complaining about:

Even God thought it was a miracle

when He had made it possible,
dreamed them into existence –

imagined the matrix, Word,
to call from Periodic Table,

list ingredients, principle, into life –
held his breath that it would work,

this calling to matter of pattern,
this holy glueing; good practise

for his trick of body and soul,
joining of irreconcilable stuff

only a god could possibly pull off –
like a magician with a miracle, or

two up his sleeve; bouquets

I think that could be profitably reduced to about 5 lines. I like the glue and the periodic table, but that should do it. And by all means, one should avoid the double reference to “miracle”. It’s kind of silly to think of God as “like a magician with a miracle”, but even worse to use this as way of describing a God imagined to be surprised by the creation: “Even God thought it was a miracle …”.

Like I said, I’m beginning to read this poem, so there’s still a chance that it will grow on me. It’s a fascinating project and I applaud the Scottish Arts Council for deciding to spend their money on such an ambitious attempt to bring import and meaning of contemporary science into the cauldron of verse. (May 2, 2008)

Of Lime Trees, Eels, and Lord Randal

K. Silem Mohammad at {LIME TREE} has initiated an ambitious blogging project — to comment on all one hundred of poems included in the 100 Best-Loved Poems, a Dover paperback edited by Philip Smith. While I admire and envy the ambition, I’m afraid that I will not (though plenty tempted) join this journey. I have never read an anthology of poems in which, for good and bad reasons, at least a handful of the included poems left me absolutely unimpressed. Or speechless … I’ll let the reader put a positive spin on that, if they so chose. That will not stop me, however, from chiming in now and then.

For example, let’s look at the first entry, which both introduces the project and comments on the ballad “Lord Randal”. Mohammad does an excellent job of showing the students enrolled in a creative writing class (presumably some of the readers of {LIME TREE}) how to enjoy a poem that may have been written, originally, as a song to be sung. The professor also does the students a favor by indicating that the poor sap Lord Randal was poisoned by something he ate — many students miss this fact. Mohammad, however, suggests that the eels are to blame: “the prospect of eating anything called “eels boil’d in broo'” ought to raise a red flag vis-à-vis poisoning”.

Is this true? Undoubtedly the thought of eating eels makes many contemporary, American stomachs turn, but did the author of “Lord Randal” regard the fish with similar suspicion? I don’t think so. Although less common these days, eel is still eaten and digested by English speaking pallets. In fact, in London, jellied eels are today part rite-of-passage and part delicacy. I doubt that Lord Randal’s mom was too worried that he had eaten eel — she probably served eels boiled in broth several times every year … or, at least, whenever he happened to bring them home.

So, what is it, in the Dover edition of the poem, which suggests that Lord Randal was poisoned by his “true-love”? Surely not the eels … it could have been rabbit boiled in broth or potatoes boiled in broth … and still, I believe, the suggestion that his dish had done him in would remain. Why? Because his mother doubts his report and repeats the question: “Where gat ye your dinner … my son?” Of course, there’s the dead dogs too.

Having said that, I should note two things: first (in my favor), other versions of the poem include stanzas which elaborate on the nature of his meal. These suggest that he has eaten what he thought was an eel, but what his mother would have told him was a newt or some kind of poisonous salamander or snake; second (in Mohammad’s favor) eel blood does contain a toxin. A powerful toxin (ichthyotoxin) which, when injected directly in the blood stream, as was demonstrated with dogs, proved to be deadly in even minuscule amounts. (That’s one of an endless list of examples of beneficial, but ghastly research. In this case the ethically suspect experimentation contributed to Charles Richet’s Nobel prize for his work on anaphylaxis — work that has saved many human lives.) This toxin, however, would have been destroyed when “boil’d in broo”. At any rate, this toxin was discovered centuries after the poem was written and, although it may contribute to our contemporary worries about eating the strange, snake-like fish, it wouldn’t have been know to Lord Randal, to Lord Randal’s “true-love”, to his mother, or to the first “beefy bards” that sang his sad song. (April 22, 2008)