Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Creation, Marx and Freud)

This week’s selection (Genesis) is taken from the Bible and sandwiched between readings by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.  What did they think of the Bible?  Let them speak in their own words.  Marx wrote that “the gods are fundamentally not the cause but the product of confusions of human reason.”  Freud said “The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness… what the common man understands by his religion… assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life… the common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father.”  That’s a good sample of the way they think.  But how should “the common man” (i.e. Great Books readers) think about God and the universe?  What can we learn from reading Genesis? 

First we learn how time, space and matter came to be.  The Bible begins, literally, in the beginning.  “In the beginning (time) God created the heaven (space) and the earth (matter).”  That was the beginning of the universe.  It didn’t spring into existence by some random cosmic explosion caused by the blind forces of nature.  The universe was created, according to a set plan, by God; not by blind forces of nature, or by anthropomorphic gods (plural, polytheistic beings) but by one God (a single, monotheistic Being).  Before creation “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”  How can the human mind understand absolute nothingness?  Human experience is impossible without time, space and matter so there’s no way Genesis can penetrate the veil that covers what happened before “the beginning.”  But it does answer the question why is there something instead of nothing?

The second thing we learn is that there is order in the universe because, as Genesis puts it, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”  Hovering over a dark and impenetrable nothingness (the face of the waters) there is an intelligence at work (the Spirit of God).  This “Spirit” moves throughout the cosmos and brings things into existence.  It brings order out of chaos.  It lays down laws with mathematical precision.  Genesis presents us with a universe more like a mind than a physical substance, more like an idea than a thing, more like a Word than anything else we know.  God breaks the eternal silence.  He speaks and things start happening.  That sounds too mystical or superstitious for some readers.  For Marx it’s just one more example of human confusion about the nature of “gods” and the universe we actually live in. 

Other readers think Genesis is too simplistic, especially verses like “God said, Let there be light; and there was light.  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”  We’re shown how God works.  How he brings order out of chaos; not by uniting things that already exist (that would be transformation, not creation).  God brings new things into the light of creation out of primordial darkness and proclaims light is good.  So is the sky and the birds, the sun and the moon, stars, the earth and all plants and animals, the sea and fish of all kinds.  We’re surrounded by good things.  For Freud this is all nonsense, just one more example of “infantile helplessness” when encountering a cold universe that’s indifferent to human suffering.  But some Great Books authors (Augustine, Dante, and Kierkegaard, for example) don’t see Genesis as a misguided book for childish readers.  They see it as a guide for wisdom.  They fear most what Marx and Freud both preach, a universe without God.  They fear a return to the primordial chaos before creation.  Another Great Books author (Job, GB4) describes what that would look like: “A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness.”  That’s what a universe without God looks like.  


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