Saturday, April 26, 2014

Creation and Meaning III

In the first post in this series, I reflected on the "meaning-making narrative" about the future that many of us tell ourselves - the narrative of the open frontier, of endless resources, available to human skill and ingenuity, that may be deployed for human good. (I say "human good" because I want to be clear that the implications of the "open future" narrative don't have to be simply selfish or greedy - they can equally include sincere and admirable work to secure human flourishing or eradicate poverty or disease.)

And I suggested that much of the passion with which we resist the idea that our planet's resources are limited (and contemporary climate science, in suggesting that our resources for absorbing carbon dioxide are limited, is simply the most salient such idea) comes from the threat that it poses to this narrative and to the sense of meaning thereby constituted.  Rather than being spiritual subjects, creators and tellers of stories, we have to get used to thinking of ourselves as physical objects whose ingestions and excretions tether us to a single, small planet.  There is no "elsewhere" whence our food comes and whither our wastes go.  Through the narrative of the open future we seem at times to be flying, freely, above the earth:  but then (to borrow some words of C.S.Lewis written in an entirely different context) we feel "the sudden twitch that reminds us we are really captive balloons".

Then in my second post I looked to Easter for the source of a different meaning-making narrative. It might seem though that the Easter story fits all to cosily into our original story, the story of the open frontier.  After all, isn't the "open frontier" story one of humanity transcending apparent physical limitations? And what physical limitation is more basic than death?  Isn't Jesus' resurrection some kind of guarantee of access to a new realm of reality, one where we are no longer "captive balloons" subject to physical constraints, where unlimited resources truly are available? And if so, doesn't Easter challenge us to focus our attention on that realm, whatever good (or bad) may be happening to this creaky old planet?

Well, no, I don't think so.  As Tom Wright puts it,

Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.  (Surprised by Hope)

But that will have to wait for another post. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Creation and Meaning, II

In last week's post I talked about how climate-change science seems to threaten a master meaning-making narrative of our society, the story of "opportunity" or "achievement", of the open frontier where wealth awaits the one bold enough to seize it.

The fact that this narrative is not working out so well at present (with the huge majority of economic gains being made by the already enormously wealthy) will not undermine the fervor with which it is believed by those already committed to it.  For those without prior commitments though - perhaps those who are just entering the workforce - the plausibility of this master narrative is already failing.

But no master narrative is abandoned simply because of its own internal inconsistencies.  When it falls, it will do so because someone else has a stronger story to tell - a story which yields a deeper insight, a greater truth.

At Easter time, I remember that the Church claims to be the custodian and messenger of such a story.

(To be continued)

Painting of the Resurrection by Raphael (file: Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Creation and Meaning

Philip Johnson's Reason in the Balance is a classic of neo-creationist or "intelligent design" literature. Having (at least according to the jacket blurb) "demolished... the scientific case for Darwinism" in an earlier book, he sets out in this one to explore its moral and social consequences.  "Darwinian evolution", he announces near the beginning of his first chapter, "is important not as a scientific theory but as a culturally dominant creation story."  And he continues, "If we want to know how to we ought to lead our lives and relate to our fellow creatures, the place to begin is with knowledge about how and why we came into existence."

Whether or not one agrees with the rest of his book, I think that Johnson is on to something here.  It is a huge misunderstanding to think of "creationists" as persons committed simply and inexplicably to a literalistic reading of Genesis (indeed, Johnson is no literalist). Rather, creationism's passion stems from a sense that meaning is under threat: that an elite group is at work undermining (whether knowingly or not) the narratives that make ordinary people's lives morally significant.

But the past ("how and why we came into existence") is not the only locus of these meaning-making narratives.  Like Gatsby's green light, the future also draws us on - opportunity, prosperity, success, achievement.  This narrative has long been especially potent in North America: Lord Dunmore wrote in 1774 that Americans "for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled...if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west."

I suggest that the fairest way to understand the antagonism generated by climate-change science is as a reaction to a similar perceived threat to the meaning-making narrative of the future. The IPCC can easily fit the perception of an out-of-touch elite whose dictates undermine the narratives by which ordinary people guide their lives.  Moreover, I doubt that any amount of calibration of climate models will change that: the science itself is not the threat, but its assumed ideological implications.  (Would such intensity be aroused by a discussion of the climate on Venus or Mars?  The question answers itself.)

To be continued...