Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Karl Jaspers on creation

Reading through a collection of essays by the mid-twentieth-century existential philosopher Karl Jaspers, I happened upon one entitled, "The Creation of the World." And though Jaspers was not a Christian, and certainly not a biblical theologian or historian, there is a great deal to be admired in it.

Like his contemporary, Martin Heidegger, Jaspers affirms that human knowledge can be nothing but subjective. "The world in its entirety cannot become an object," because we aren't outside of it, but in it. "Fundamental, objectless cognition not only transcends all definite knowledge but defies knowledge." And because we arrive fully submerged in its current and remain so, objective knowledge is ontologically beyond us--even where mathematics is concerned: "Wherever deductions exceed the realm of possible experience and the results will not be subject to experience, either, we are about to delude ourselves. Constructions of mathematical possibilities are as speculative and deceptive as the old, conceptual ones of metaphysics, and equally tempting." But here is where Jasper's discussion of creation gets interesting.

Real knowledge, that is objective knowledge, of what exactly we mean by the word "creation" is impossible to us, he says. If we cannot achieve objectivity about the world we live in, how then can we expect to swallow the origin of this world? So, then, creation "is unimaginable, not to be visualized by any analogy in the world. It is not even a temporal process any more, since time itself has only been created along with everything else. The creation of the world is exempted from temporality, which is part of the world."

And what if we could swallow it? Then, he says, we would cease to be human beings, for "we would no longer be living in the possibilities of our situation; we would command a view of it, would have control over it, and would thus have terminated it. Everything would be manifest. Knowing our beginnings, we would be at the end of our humanity." In fully grasping it, we would step outside of creation into--what? And even if we could fully grasp it, would we grasp an answer to how we come to think and to know? Scientific knowledge--that is an arrived knowledge of the world through testable method--doesn't tell us that.

At this, Jaspers zeroes in on freedom, because freedom is the human way of being in the world. Human beings are fundamentally "en route to realization." We are explorers, forever pushing at the boundaries and possibilites built--thank God--into the very framework of our limited ontologies. "In the awareness of our freedom, which is incomprehensible in terms of the world, we transcend the incomplete world we can know." That is humanity. "As animated bodies we are part of Creation, but our freedom comes directly from God. Thus, while being in the world, we are also from elsewhere. We find ourselves in the world, and yet we are not of this world alone." That is humanity. "We live in time--that is to say, we are never finished; we are only searching and striving. We never know what eternity is, nor what is eternal in us and in our doings, but it comes to be present in ciphers, in parables, in reflections--for example, in the cipher of the idea of Creation." Yes, that is it exactly.

Creation is both beyond us and alien to us, and yet for us, for it insures our very being toward the future. Theologically, we read that creation insures our very being toward God's eschatological culmination of all things.

The idea of God's creation of the world will be a symbol, then, not a matter of knowledge. It is in the abyss revealed by the idea of Creation that we, along with all our mundane knowledge and activities, are engulfed and sheltered at the same time. . . . The idea of Creation stirs us by the very fact that it does not permit us to know. It points to depths in which, at the same time, it hides our origin. [And so] in all our human possibilities it remains essential to illuminate, not to conceal, the mystery that a world exists, and that we are in it. [And] if we are in the world from elsewhere, our mission in the world transcends the world.

So, finally, Jaspers leaves this challenge to those who would disagree with him. "Thinking through it," he says, "will serve to illuminate the absence of knowledge from it." And so he writes:

The symbol [creation] serves to support and to reassure us by the very fact of consciously uttering paradoxes. We say, "God created time"--but the word "created" describes a temporal process, contradicting the meaning of the sentence. We say, "God made the world out of nothing"--and we operate with the word "nothing" as if it were something, again contradicting the meaning of the sentence. What is conceived in the symbolic idea of Creation is not a process we might observe, not even as a figment of our imagination. What it means cannot be adequately meant by us, for it transcends our faculties of imagining and thinking. . . . Its unveiling would either be the delusion of a pseudo-knowledge, causing us to neglect what we can do, or it would be truth--and then it would mean our transformation into other beings that we humans are.

In the reorganization of my own understanding of creation and in the beginnings of an exploration of the disparate worlds of religion and science, I find Jaspers' ideas penetrating and reasonable. And though I am not yet sure what to do with the book of Genesis, nor how the fact of its deeply theological and symbolic nature overturns (or, what is more likely, deepens and expands) safe hermeneutical categories of genre, I believe it is not altogether stupid to propose a hypothesis.

It is my feeling that placing the cosmogenic sections in the early chapters of Genesis more firmly into their Ancient Near Eastern setting will reveal them to be not a "scientific" explanation, but a thorough going theological critique of the cosmogenic cosmologies and mythologies of the nations by firm assertion of the first commandment, and by critique I mean the simultaneously dual nature of judgment, which is to damn and to save.