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Creatio ex profundis, part II

Beginnings are always taking place. Beginnings do not mark a definitive newness. There is no single origin, just an infinite amount of creations. The cosmos is ‘beginningless’. Creation takes place in media res, in process.

The logic of creatio ex nihilo, on the other hand, “has reigned largely uncontested in the language of the church since the third century ACE” (Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, p. 4). Biblical chaos is treated as nothing; God created the cosmos not out of something but out of nihil. However, as Keller writes, the Genesis account of creation does not support this view. By her account, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is utterly ‘flimsy’. For theologians of this idiom, creation was zapped into being from nothing: the origin is not ambivalent but absolute. As deconstruction shows, on the contrary, the demolition of this founding certainty trembles and destabilizes itself ‘from the inside’. That is to say, ‘hermeneutical multiplicity’ is always already integral to orthodoxy.

As the second verse of Genesis shows, the narrative of creation is densely packed with a ‘mysterious tremor’ that unsettles our ‘ceremonious triumph’ of order, master and control: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Or, what is the same, chaos is always already there. From the perspective of the ‘colonizing episteme’, disorder and darkness is synonymous with disorder and anarchy. These are the ‘sins of darkness’ or ‘marks of chaos’ that the dominant discourse continues to repress.

For (male) theologians, chaos erodes meaning. In this way, the doctrine of creation that is ‘preceded by absolutely nothing’ ensures the ‘pure and simple presence of God the Creator’ without any monstrous remainder. But as Keller points out, this attempt to establish a ‘true origin’ is doomed from the start: in the beginning was ‘bottomlessness’, difference and multidimensionality. In other words, there is always already primal chaos, or, in the tradition of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, ‘thick darkness’:

The felicitous tehoms of Joycean language itself reveal…not nonsense but an excess of sense, in which every word of the book, like every unit of the universe, comes webbed in unpredictable, multiply allusive, interfluencies (p. 12)

All of this suggests that the primordial creation alluded to in the second verse of Genesis is nonpatriarchal. Rather than promoting dominology, lording over the world, or reaffirming gender stereotypes that men transcendentally create while women are the immanent passive procreators, the doctrine of creation from formless, preexistent salty stuff more than suggests a sexual economy of creation, a ‘chaosmos’ out of chaos and cosmos.

As mentioned above, scripture only knows “a formation of something new from something—else, something yet unthinged, unformed, some sort of marine chaos not identical with the literal sea but not separable from it” (p. 25). Augustine, in his Confessions, even admits to the hermeneutical complexity at the opening of Genesis. In fact, the flux and flood of Genesis splotches the whole landscape of scripture. The oceanic chaos of Genesis is depicted in monstrous sea terms elsewhere in the Bible, namely with Leviathan. The immense waters and monstrous sea-creature is typically considered evil, but there are certain psalms that praise Leviathan: “How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there” (Psalm 104:24-26). Keller furthermore notes,

To love the sea monster and their chaos-matrix is consonant with affirming their “goodness” within the context of the whole. It doesn’t make them safe of cute. They also get poetically “rebuked,” i.e. bounded, held back, so that the orders of creation may emerge; so that any creative work may be wrested, as it must be in all our creations, from chaos. But this tradition cannot be reconciled with the identification of chaos and its wild creatures as evil (p. 28).

Stated differently, creation and creativity emerges out of chaos and complexity. In contrast to the mythic lineage of Babylonian, Ugaritic and Caananite sources, creation emerges from procreation, not slaughter. More specifically, in contrast to the matricide of Babylon, the ‘oceanic all-mother’ of the Hebrew Bible denotes that to love is to bear with the chaos, the dark and the sea. Western civilization, on the other side, demonizes the deep and energizes myths of ‘mastering chaos’. But opposing this misogynist horizon of Western thought, reclaiming the creativity and beauty of feminine iconography has bolstered the resistance of women to the ideologies and images of male-centered history.

According to this ‘feminist’ tradition, order is generated not in opposition to the chaos but upon the face of an originary indeterminacy. However, it would be erroneous to conceive of this trajectory of ‘feminist’ thought as a ‘new tradition’. Rather, as Keller notes, “The proposed tehomism necessarily implicates us anew in ‘the tradition,’ that is, in the iteration of texts in which ‘she’ left hardly a trace” (p. 35). In this sense, the differences and multiplicities in interpretations, that is, the multidimensionality and ‘multilateral matrix of meaning’, is to be considered a gift rather than a heresy for the church. But as Keller correctly asserts, the church “has rarely learned to bear with its own chaos” (p. 39).


Creatio ex profundis

Creatio ex nihilo, the account of creation that says creation came from nothing, has reigned in Christian orthodoxy ever since the third century ACE, but it remains a flimsy doctrine and the book of Genesis does not support it according to Catherine Keller in her Face of the Deep . The alternative account of creation that she describes, equally based—if not more so—on exegetical scholarship, is creatio ex profundis. As the name implies, creation arises from out of the boundless and expanding depths of the chaosmos rather than being zapped into being from nothing. “The Beginning” does not mark a single absolute origin but a “beginning-in-process” that is both “unoriginated and endless.” Beginnings are always taking place and do not mark a definitive newness. Infinite creations open out from the formlessness, undifferentiated and bottomless abyss of primordial chaos. There is great depth and darkness to life, in other words, but we intentionally try to avoid recognizing this nonlinear, endless opening because we are trained to fear lack of closure. This fear has its beginnings in the doctrine of creation which western theology has taught us to “shun the depths of the creation” in favor of understanding it ex nihilo. The darksome deep is an ambivalent origin in contrast to a creation under the mechanism of control and mastery that ex nihilo offers. In the beginning, according to this alternative account of creatio ex profundis, is not no-thing or even no-thing-as-something but difference and multidimensionality. In the beginning is formless, primal chaos.

This account of creation, despite how it may at first appear to be iconoclastic, is fully supported by Christian scripture. The oceanic chaos of the Bible located in Genesis 1.2 is depicted in monstrous sea terms—Leviathan. These immense waters are generally considered evil, particularly in the lineage of Babylonian, Ugaritic and Caananite sources, but we find throughout the Bible that the watery depths are affirmed as part of creation, not in spite of it. Furthermore, in contrast to the background of Babylonian matricide of the oceanic female Genesis depicts creation by procreation. If anything, God merely shapes the preexistent dark, unformed murky depths into the order we know today.

This much can be asserted: Genesis 1 betrays no fear of the dark, no demonization of the deep, of the sea, its she and its dragons. No trace of divine warrior or cultural misogyny appears on the face of the text of the first chapter. Does the contrast to the Babylonian epic, which we read as mythological intertext of Genesis 1.2, not begin to appear dramatic, deliberate, almost parodic? (pp. 30-1)

In fact, the marine chaos of the second verse of Genesis echoes throughout the whole Biblical narrative, especially in certain psalms that praise Leviathan (see here for how it appears again in Job).This particularly stands in contrast to the myths of the ancient world that intoned ceremonious triumph in mastering chaos rather than bearing with it. “Scripture…knows only a formation of something new from something—else, something yet unthinged, unformed, some sort of marine chaos not identical with the literal sea but not separable from it” (p. 25). Even Augustine in his Confessions admits that the flux and flood in the opening of Genesis does not grant a singular interpretation. What Keller discovers is that “Augustine exegetes tehom as God’s first creation, the creation of that matter from which both the heaven and earth would be then secondarily created” (p. 36). However, Augustine oscillates on what this might fully mean. From early on the church had a difficult time tolerating the sort of constraint that an unformed primal chaos would have on the imagery of a masterful and dominating lordship. The result is that Augustine began to understand chaos and complexity as an outcome of sin and a lack of order. So while Augustine may have been a potential advocate of tehomic theology at one point he ends up retreating “into a tidy neo-classicism.” Instead of affirming a theologically indeterminate origin that would understand order as coming from something unformed Augustine comes to think of an “unchanging order” as the only way to “save us from a chaotic nihil of meaning” (p. 38). In his early years he considered the multidimensional deep as a gift but later focused on single meanings to combat heresy. His influence on Radical Orthodoxy is undeniable.

To offer clarity between the distinctive theologies of creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex profundis allow me to post a couple quotes that summarize this dramatic shift from the first to the latter.

Theologies have tried to draw the line at “God,” to say that, whenever the creation starts, it is preceded by absolutely nothing—nothing but the pure and simple presence of God the Creator. Certainly this “nothing but” of a nonnegotiable starting-line lends a useful sense of foundation… Admittedly that tehomic alterity which has been relegated to the outer darkness threatens to flow back monstrously: the flux, repressed, returns as the flood. I am arguing that the genuine threat that chaos poses is no better reason to patch up the failing foundations, than to tear them down with nihilistic abandon. (p. 10)

Until the late second century, Jewish and Christian interpreters seem to have assumed that the Creator formed the creation from some depersonalized version of this primordial stuff… What Christianity first presumed was the idea not of the ex nihilo but of a Creator effecting “in the beginning” irreducibly new and contingent reality. The idea of a creation from nothing rather than a formation from formlessness [preexistent material] only gradually ensconced itself in Christian common sense. Along with it settled the dogmas of omnipotence: not just of the biblical lord of great if somewhat unpredictable power, but an immutable, unilateral All-Power clothed in the attributes of a single male Person (or two; or…) (pp. 15-6)

Chaos erodes meaning; therefore, it is ubiquitously sublimated and suppressed in Christian theology. Radical Orthodoxy for one has gone to great lengths in distinguishing the nihil from the ex nihilo. The fear is that without this stable foundation chaos, flux, “nothing” and atheism will erode the solidity of order and meaning. Rabbinic midrash has always affirmed the “multiplicity of meanings” but theologies in the tradition of the ex nihilo doctrine rarely learn to bear with chaos.

These doctrines of creation also have some practical implications. The order of creation that is upheld in Eurocentric theologies is not similarly received in a positive tone in Latin America because it tends to mask hierarchy, domination and oppression. From the colonizing perspective, evil is synonymous with disorder rather than injustice. Chaos is treated as darkness and the voices of hermeneutical complexity are muted by the dominant discourse of order. After all, the colonizer relies on powerful interventions and what better model to follow than God’s singular act of an instantaneous and permanent creation. In addition to a tehomic theology benefiting the struggle of postcolonial resistance to the colonizing episteme a doctrine of creatio ex profundis also aids in the deconstructionist’s task of destabilizing and protesting “founding certainties” by way of illuminating the deep flux beneath all of reality. In other words, complexity and chaos always arise from within rather than from without. Therefore, the transcendent-in-the-immanent will always shatter our finite and fixed meanings. Perhaps in this case we would be wise to borrow the tehomic ethic: “to love is to bear with chaos.”

From here I think I can address Matt Martin’s comments more thoroughly. Doubtless, turning a “no-thing” into a “something as nothing” is a shifty move. Perhaps Badiou, Deleuze and Žižek pull this stunt–I cannot say–but in my estimation they come closer to this creatio ex profundis ideal type than they do to a bogus nihilism. A chief motive of Keller’s, after all, is to provide ample evidence in support of a third position beyond the dualism between nihilism and ex nihilo–she specifically references Radical Orthodoxy. In an email correspondence with Peter Hallward back in November I posed this question to him in relation to this topic. His response follows.

…instead of creatio ex nihilo would it be possible to substitute instead creatio ex profundis if we are to remain faithful to Badiou? It appears as though inconsistent multiplicity parallels a plural foundation of becoming–as you identify in the closing chapters–rather than an empty void qua nihil.

Up to a point I’d go along with this, with a caveat. True, ‘void’ isn’t just ‘nothing’, no more than zero is.  (There’s a difference between e.g. ‘scoring’ zero goals in a soccer match, and there not being a match at all; void is always what counts for nothing according to a situation, e.g. here a situation that counts goals). But Badiou’s whole effort is to avoid any neo-Romantic reference to depth, and to insist instead on the fully rational analysis of presentation, which in its most generic sense, equates ‘that which is presented’ with presenting in the zero degree, so to speak.  This is an important question, I hope you pursue it more.  I tried to deal with it a little more here, but there’s still a lot more to done with it.

To add a little more to this discussion let me put another quote from Keller past the reader to illuminate a position that is concurrent with at least Deleuze in my opinion.

All theological interpretation (at least that which recognizes itself as interpretation rather than revelation) today exposes itself to an incalculable multiplicity of influences–movements, powers, protests, doubts, cultures, desperations, expectations. One pursues hermeneutical complexity. But one always risks chaos (p. 5)

The reason I added this to the mix is to find an affinity with actor-network theory. (I haven’t read any texts on it myself so a wik article must suffice). The point is to show that truth–call it a new objectivism–is an “incalculable multiplicity.” I hardly take this as a no-thing-as-some-thing.

A Canonical Reading of Ephesians 5:21-33

Having historically been thought to be a unified text, the Bible underwent critical attack during the eighteenth century via the historical-critical method which sought to isolate passages and focus specifically on the original intention and context of its genesis. Thus, difficult passages were no longer read in light of the whole canon and were interpreted independent of how the church had traditionally received and used them. In addition to this turn of events, biblical hermeneutics has increasingly recognized the subtle ways in which our present context influences how we understand a text. It also means that particular passage, such as Ephesians 5:21-33 which raises a great deal of difficultly and controversy, must be proved credible for every contemporary audience. Neither solely a corrupted verse in conformity to Greco-Roman patriarchy nor an uncontaminated passage in the plain sense, we must ask how this canonized passage bears witness to the good news of Christ and in what way it is fruitful for the church.

In comparison to 1 Cor. 11:2-6 and 1 Tim. 2:9-15, only Eph. 5:21-33 is developed in christological terms. The point being, if any form of human hierarchy is binding, specifically relating to gender in this case, it would have to be warranted by Christ himself. Read in reference to how the New Testament as a whole gives witness to the proper form of interpersonal relationships, this passage is immediately in tension with the consistent challenging of hierarchy portrayed in the Gospels. Even Ephesians regularly speaks of “mutual submission” in Christ, an affirmation that seems inconsistent with the subordination of wives to husbands. Granted, since all human beings are different, subordination might look drastically different and uneven from one person to the next when lived out practically. Given that hierarchy in some form is inevitable, it is plausible that this passage speaks to how all persons are to behave submissively in their respective place. But the broader passage exhorts all to service of one another. The fact that wives are singled out is a particular oddity and a serious problem.

Even the analogy between husbands and wives to Christ and the church is a fuzzy parallel. In what sense is the husband a “savior” or “sanctifier” of his wife in the same way Christ is of the church? The author concludes that such logic is faulty theological grounds for deeming husbands the head of their wives. It would be less troubling of course if both parties were exemplified to be mutually subordinate, but in this instance husbands are encouraged to display love whereas wives are told to be unilaterally obedient. Furthermore, Jesus was never preferential in who he called to mutual love and service. His commands were equally binding for all his followers. There was no longer any justification for hierarchal relations. As a result, set within a broader canonical context, this passage is theologically unstable.

So in what way is this passage profitable in any canonical sense? It seems clear that the writer of Ephesians was attempting to articulate the lordship of Christ in concrete terms but undermines this agenda in the process. As mentioned above, there are real practical difficulties in trying to apply what it means to be “mutually submissive.” Eventually certain people are provisionally elevated above others when subordination occurs. Even Jesus seems to suggest that it is not always pertinent to be subordinate in every situation but, at times, to challenge and even claim authority. Since it is not possible for everyone to be subordinate in the same way all the time it must be admitted that there is a great deal of ambivalence and fluidity to living out mutual service. Hence it is not reducible to a sole definition abstracted outside of context but must be worked out in time. Furthermore, this understanding of service is in agreement with the provisional responsibility Christians have towards political systems of society. As Jesus’ examples suggest, are relationship to authority will often leave the powers that be perplexed and enraged.

As follows, Ephesians 5 is not the final word or the end of the discussion to this matter but rather the beginning. This passage bears witness to the reality and difficulty of trying to hear God in the midst of life and figuring out what it means to be a disciple of Christ in every given situation.

*This has been a summary of Ian McFarlands “A Canonical Reading of Ephesians 5:21-33: Theological Gleanings” in Theology Today (Oct 2000)

Contradiction in the book of Proverbs

Peter T.H. Hatton in his new book Contradiction in the Book of Proverbs takes an interest in the (banal) wisdom literature of Proverbs, among a minority to be sure, and refreshingly avoids many of the inconsistencies and unreasonableness found in other studies of Proverbs. In fact, Hatton embraces and develops the inconsistent nature of Proverbs. He argues that the flat contradictions and inconsistencies among the “cobbled-together miscellany of material form a variety of sources” is the deliberate intention of the highly-skilled author. His thesis is that this ‘heteroglossaic text’, to steal a term from Bakhtin, reveals the difficulty besetting humanity to pin down wisdom.

…the Book of Proverbs intentionally causes its reader to blink, to stumble, to acknowledge the limits of humanly produced literature to capture the mysteries of the cosmos and man’s place within it… Proverbs…is far from the settled, self-satisfied text that many scholars have taken it to be