Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, July 11, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Why Abram?)

The story of the Tower of Babel has several levels of meaning but one of its central themes is the role of language in human understanding.  Genesis emphasizes the importance of language when it notes that “the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”  God gave divine order to the world when He created natural law but Adam gave human order to the world when he started naming things.  Here’s a little thought experiment.  What if God had stopped creating and had rested after the third day?  That’s when the earth brought forth “grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree…”  What if the only living things in the world were plants?  Would words like truth, beauty and goodness have any meaning at all?  Can a tree know the difference between what is true and what is false?  Can a flower recognize its own beauty?   In a world where only plants lived can truth, beauty and goodness exist at all?  Genesis says yes.  God created light and divided the waters from heaven and earth.  But it wasn’t until plants started growing that “God saw that it was good.”  Isn’t light good?  Isn’t water good?  What’s different about plants?  This is how they’re different.  They’re alive.  Life is good because it brings animate objects into the universe.  Why is this important? 

Only animate creatures can discover what is true or good or beautiful.  It takes highly developed intelligence to follow a line of reasoning leading to that discovery.  When “God saw that it was good” we have a starting point to guide our thinking.  Can anything false be good?  Can anything good be ugly?  Can anything beautiful be bad?  By saying something is “good” God also lays the foundation for truth and beauty.  But to find them it’s crucial to use intelligence the right way.  That’s why Aristotle says “intelligence is the highest possession we have in us.” (On Happiness, GB1)  Using intelligence the wrong way leads men to sometimes claim that bad is good, false is true, and ugly is really beautiful.  That’s also the reason Kant says intelligence should be guided by conscience.  He believes “conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgment seat.  It weighs our dispositions and actions in the scales of a law which is holy and pure; we cannot deceive it and we cannot escape it because, like the divine omnipresence, it is always with us.”  (Conscience, GB1)Conscience keeps intelligence pointed in the right direction.

But what is holy and what is pure?  What is Kant talking about?  How can we understand words such as “God ended his work which he had made; and he rested”?  How can God “rest” from work?  How do we understand that kind of language?  This is where Abram enters the world stage.  Abram may not be the smartest guy in Ur but he knows the difference between good and bad, what’s true and what’s not and he knows his wife Sarai is beautiful.  God can work with that.  So God speaks to Abram and Abram not only listens, he does what God tells him to do.  This is God’s command: “the Lord said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.”  This is God’s promise: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing… in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”  Abram can’t fully understand what God is trying to do, at least not rationally.  But by experience he can dimly see what God wants from him.  And that’s enough.  Abram is not Aristotle and doesn’t try to reason his way to God.  He learns about God by living out the command and believing God will keep his promise.  This is not rational knowledge; it is understanding through faith and experience.  God didn’t choose Abram because of his high IQ.  Not everyone can follow Aristotle’s or Kant’s intellectual reasoning about God.  But anyone can follow Abram’s path to God by faith.

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