Sunday to Wednesday I was in a class on Indigenous Theologies and Methods, which NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) was running here through Whitley College. One of the things we spent a lot of time discussing was the differences between how Western Christians have read the Bible and how the Bible might be read from Indigenous cultural perspectives. One particular emphasis that our teacher Terry LeBlanc (a Mi’qmac man from Canada) noted was the tendency for Western Christians to focus on the rupturing of creation in Genesis 3 and overlook the goodness of creation in Genesis 1-2. His suggestion was that rather than Genesis 3 being an ultimate fall from perfection, it is more like a break in relationship between people, God, spirits and fellow creatures.
At the same time I’ve been participating in the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge for July. Each day there’s a Dungeons & Dragons creature to draw, and Tuesday’s challenge was a wereshark, which I really enjoyed drawing.
@bodieh, who lives in Western Australia (where the government has encouraged the culling of sharks) is one of the organisers of the challenge, commented on this one. I wondered whether this wereshark might be looking for former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett? I wondered whether we should be paying attention to what sharks may be trying to say to us, rather than culling them? It certainly seems unfair to me that we would venture into their natural environment and then kill them when they attack us.
Last week I wrote a bit about Henri Nouwen’s suggestion that we try to avoid recognising our mortality and our limitations by thinking of ourselves as immortal, invulnerable beings. (He wrote about this in his book Reaching Out.) If we trick ourselves into thinking we can completely control our environment and the people around us we end up doing violence to them.
I think the way we’ve often thought about prayer has been as a way to control things, like a religious version of the law of positive attraction. It can be just another way of pretending we’re in control of the universe. A while ago I knew a guy who repeatedly asked me why I prayed. He saw it as a selfish thing to be asking God for things. I think I get where he was coming from.
Nouwen’s challenge is to try and pray without an agenda. He describes this as waiting on God rather than rattling off a shopping list. It’s making space where God’s presence may (or may not) show up. He suggests paradoxically that we find God in God’s absence. Our experience of God’s absence leads us to search for God. That search for God is what prayer is. This approach comes across to me as a lot more humble. It’s not pretending we have God on call.
I don’t what to throw out the idea of asking God for thing either though. I think those kind of prayers do seem pretty selfish when if it’s a wealthy person asking God for more stuff, expecting the universe to revolve at our convenience. I don’t think it seems like that when people who are in serious trouble ask God for help (not knowing if God is even there) because there is no other option available. For those of us in more comfortable situations, we might find ourselves praying in that way too, if we open ourselves up to people who are suffering.
For a while I’ve been reading though old Planescape material for 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. (I’m interested in running a 5E Planescape campaign, so if you’re in Melbourne and interested let me know.) Planescape is a setting that incorporates the various planes of the multiverse, meaning that adventurers are likely to come across representatives of various gods (called ‘powers’). I find it interesting that the god(s) of the Abrahamic traditions is not represented in Planescape and is generally avoided in D&D, especially since Christianity and Islam are the two most widespread religions. I think there are some good reasons for this. It would be problematic to portray Abrahamic conceptions of God in this context.
It seems that people of the Abrahamic faiths are often offended by representations of their god. I think this is particulalry because of the Jewish tradition of holding the name ‘YHWH’ with reverance and because of the Jewish and Muslim instructions against making images of God. I also think it would be problematic to include Abrahamic concepts of God, because the Abrahamic faiths believe there is only one true god. Monotheists aren’t likely to appreciate a setting where their one true god is actually one amongst many. These might not seem like a big deal for those of us who don’t have a faith or who hold our faith loosely, but for many people it’s very serious to portray the divine incorrectly or disrespectfully. A couple of weeks ago I posted about treating Aboriginal culture with respect, and I think most people who read that article understood this. I think for the same reason we might hesitate to portray Aboriginal culture and religion in a game, we should also hesitate to portray other faiths and cultures, and seek to be respectful.
My personal opinion is that the Biblical concept of God is pretty messy. (I’m not familiar with the Quran, so I can’t comment on that.) I don’t think the Bible has a consistent way of portraying God, but brings together various complementary and contrasting portrayals from different communities in different eras. I don’t personally find this very bothering, but I do think it is a reason why there is so much scope for conflict – some people will focus on one idea of God that they find in the scripture, and others will focus on a contrastic idea about the same, one God. If one were to include an Abrahamic depiction of God in Planescape, creative decisions would have to be made about which Abrahamic ideas to emphasise, and those decisions would be bound to offend some people who emphasise other parts of the tradition. Of course, I don’t people who are happy to explore these ideas playfully and creatively (which is what I prefer) would have a problem with this.
I was talking with one of my friends about this topic and he suggested that another problem might be that it’s hard to portray a god who is understood to be transcendent. I don’t really buy into the idea of God being transcendent myself – I think it has become commonplace in the Abrahamic tradiitons because of Platonic philosphy. That’s why I like what Neil Gaiman does with Jesus in his novel American Gods. Jesus doesn’t directly appear in the novel, but it’s mentioned that he’s been seen hitchhiking in Afghanistan, where he’s not so well recognised. It seems not so transcendent, and more like the itinerant rabbi found in the gospels. My understanding is that in the TV show there’ll be different depictions of Jesus, recognising that different cultures at different moments reshape their images of the divine.
If I was going to include Jesus as a power in the Planescape setting, I think I’d be most likely to portray him as a wandering stranger.
One Wednesdays I’ve been gradually been reading and reflecting on the book of Genesis.
Today I’ve been reading about Elohim making an agreement with humanity and all the creatures of the earth. The covenant says that Elohim will never again send a flood to destroy the earth. I find this intersting in light of people of faith who have claimed that the rainbow flag used by LGBTIQ communities is a hijacking of the rainbow symbol. Doesn’t the rainbow flag also call for mercy and an end to judgement, particularly from folks who claim to be God’s representatives?
Today I’ve been reading about the end of the flood. Elohim tells Noah and his family to go out and multiply – an echo of the instruction that Elohim gave to the first people at the beginning of Genesis. This is the beginning of a new creation. The key difference I notice is that as Noah and his family exit the ark and make sacrifices, YHWH is acknowledging the evil of human nature rather than saying humanity is good. But, in this instance, YHWH’s response to human evil is not to destroy creation.
To sum it up, one way of looking at the overarching story so far could be:
Humanity is good. God says, ‘Go and multiply.’
Humanity is evil. God says, ‘I regret creating the world. I will destroy it.’
Humanity is evil. God says, ‘Go and multiply.’
This has me wondering, what has changed in the story?
Last week I wrote a little bit about what I was reading in Genesis about the first person choosing a companion. As I read on afterwards one of the things I noticed was the emphasis on naming. (I don’t like using chapter and verse references if I don’t need to because I think they break up the flow of the text and because I’d prefer if folks go back and read the story rather than just looking at particular verses out of context. But in this post I’ve been looking at the first three chapters of Genesis.)
Genesis starts with an account of creation. In this account the creator is called Elohim – which actually looks like a plural word in Hebrew. It’s like having a deity called ‘Gods’. Anyway, as Elohim is creating things Elohim makes a point of naming some things but not others. Elohim separates darkness and light, naming them Day and Night. Elohim separates the primeval waters by making a firmament, a big bowl, which Elohim names Sky. Elohim separates the land from the water, naming them Earth and Seas. Elohim makes plants, but doesn’t name them. Elohim makes lights in the sky, but doesn’t name them. Elohim makes sea creatures and birds and sea monsters, but doesn’t name them. Elohim makes farm animals and creeping things and wild beasts, but doesn’t name them. Elohim makes people, but doesn’t name them.
After all this we have a different account of creation. Things happen in different order and in this account the creator is named differently: YHWH Elohim.
In this account the animals are named, but it is the first person who names all the animals, in the context of searching for a suitable companion.
When YHWH Elohim creates another person to be the first person’s companion, it seems like the first person tries to name the second person:
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’ (2:23. NRSV.)
So, what is going on with naming in these stories? My sense is that naming in these stories is an act of one exercising power over another. The one who names the other has the opportunity to define the other. Is the first person trying to define an dominate is companion even from the very beginning? Is this a foreshadowing of what is to come? Later on we are told that the man named his woman Eve…
I think this story reflects the patriarchal nature of the societies that birthed it, and that this may be why the man is portrayed as defining and dominating the woman. How different is our society though? Which people in our society have the power to name and define others?
I’m often asked by more conservative Christians about how I can be affirming GLBTIQ+ folks when the Bible says that God’s intention was for human beings to be heterosexual. To back this up they will normally cite a small piece of teaching from Jesus about marriage – but they normally look at it without also looking at Jesus acknowledgement of eunuchs in the same teaching session.
The other text they often cite is one of the two creation narratives from Genesis. They’ll say that since God made the woman to be the man’s companion, all women should have male partners and all men should have female partners, or be celibate.
As I’ve been reading Genesis today I’ve been reminded that this isn’t actually what happens in the story. The way this version of the story is told, God doesn’t design the man’s companion – if the first human should even be understood as a man. God thinks the first human should have a companion, but God presumes this companion will be chosen from among the animals.
The first person doesn’t find a suitable companion from among the other creatures, and that’s where God’s idea to make another human – but a different kind of human – comes from.
I think this story suggests a really different idea of God from the idea that says God doesn’t allow same-sex relationships. This story shows a kind of God who doesn’t stick bloody-mindedly to their own plan but listens to the preference of one of their creatures. In my opinion the idea of a god who can change their mind and collaborate with others sounds more like good news that a god who is unable to change their mind.
(Just to be clear, I don’t think this story is historical. I think it’s a folktale, and that its authority depends on the authority we assign to it as individuals and within our communities.)