Religion after Enlightenment

I have just begun Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age at the recommendation of John Schmalzbauer and Andre Snavely. This has to do with my research question, “How can religion take modernity seriously and also function in modern society?” Or, “What does religion look like in the aftermath of modernity?” There seem to be a few assumptions going on in this question. The first is that secularity, modernity, plurality, or whatever you want to call it is here and it is not going away. Secondly, and perhaps quite erroneously, it envisions an agreed upon vision of what modernity or “the Enlightenment” entails. Schmalzbauer and Snavely have been instrumental in highlighting that this is not the case, and that I will need to wrestle with multiple definitions of “modernity,” so modernities, Enlightenments. The third assumption seems to be that religions should take modernity seriously, maybe even more so than their historical traditions.

Names that have come up so far in the “secularity” discussion are Charles Taylor, Hans Joas, Jose Casanova, and Henry May. These are the first scholars that have come up, and I am sure they will not be the last. The struggle I am having is narrowing down what I understand as “modernity.” What is it? Is it as indicated above, a multifarious concept that I will need to parse before arriving at my own spin of it? Does it necessarily involve secularity (and this word can have at least three different nuances, as I have found already in Taylor’s work) and pluralism? Should I just focus on one secular context—my own American one—so as to keep my project doable?

These questions interest me. I do not know why they capture my imagination so, but they do. I have a concern, though. Will this put me in the realm of theology more than in that of my career goal of “modern religious thought?” Are those two even separable? I guess that concerns me because I surmise it would be far harder to find a position at a public university with a theological pedigree than with a religious studies one. Even though this is a concern, I will venture forward and keep the conversation alive with my professors, taking their counsel seriously.

So How about That Fall (not the season)?

I’ve been thinking about the Christian doctrine of “The Fall” off and on again since my post on the problem of evil. As I grew up, Jack Chick (remember those comic book style evangelistic tracts?) had a pretty big influence on my 10 year old budding theology. According to him, and many others, evil entered the world after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Through that act, the universally human propensity to sin, humanity’s total depravity from birth, the corruption of creation, the relational strife between all people, etc. came into being. I’d like to hone in on the corruption of creation. Maybe another question might help clear up this corruption nuance: why is “Mother” nature such a raging bitch?

For the sake of discussion, I’m laying out how I see my former Evangelicalism portraying the corruption of creation, and then list some questions I have for it. We are told in the Genesis account that there was no death before Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience. We are told that God saw his creation as good. Humankind, the apex of God’s creation and the last entity created, was called “very good.” Supposedly (this is never explicitly stated, but a pretty safe assumption based on what’s said in Genesis), every creature was vegetarian, because there was no death.

Now, once disobedience entered the world, evil did, too. Death and decay entered in the wake of perfection. The favorite verse of misogynists states that there would be pain for women in childbearing. Man was cursed to work the ground by the sweat of his brow (some have attempted to work out a theology of work pre-fall. You can look it up. I have no desire to spell that out here, and I find it terribly unconvincing). There would be gender wars, wars between family members, clothing had to be made by butchering animals (hehe, or fig leaves if you prefer). Now the following is never stated in the Genesis or other accounts, but I have heard it promulgated in enough places to consider it an Evangelical/Christian belief: all natural evil stems from the Fall. By natural evil, I mean natural disasters, sickness/disease, survival of the fittest among animals, and other unnecessary pain that is part of nature.

Here’s a bit of a detour. What is evil? I have heard it said by Augustine that evil is the privation of good. That probably applies most easily to moral evils. Theft would be the privation of the good of ownership. Murder would be the privation of the good of life. Dishonesty would be the privation of honesty. Allegedly, that makes evil a nonentity so that God is absolved from creating evil, given that he is the creator of all that exists. But what does that definition do to the very real entity of natural evil, like boiling hot magma enveloping the city of Pompeii? Let’s say God isn’t involved in every natural disaster that happened, but just lets it happen because that’s just the way things are after the Fall; does that indicate that he deprived his earlier creation of its intrinsic goodness? Or to put it another way, did tornados/earthquakes/volcanoes/floods/hurricanes/famines exist before or after the Fall? Did the very good creation contain those natural disasters intrinsically? Did God create these phenomena afterward to teach humanity a lesson, so that there were actually two creations, one very good and the other also very good, but good at being bad?

Some, like John Hick (soul-making theodicy [defense of God’s justice in the face of evil] here), have brought up the fact that gravity most certainly existed before the Fall. And if cliffs just happened to exist, and there was hard ground 200 feet below them, a tumble might take its toll on one’s self-actualization. The potentiality of toe-stubbing also probably existed pre-Fall, too (I don’t recall if these are his exact examples, but if not, booyah). But again, such instances have to do with someone’s clumsiness or obliviousness. Let’s say Adam and Eve built a shanty on the edge of the Nile. Would it be destroyed by the yearly flood cycles, or would floods simply not have existed yet in a perfect world?

What I’m aiming at is did God create natural evil (I guess before or after doesn’t really matter), or does the notion of natural “evil” tend to speak against the existence of God as we understand him—all powerful, knowledgeable, and benevolent? To put it ambiguously clearly, should we change “God” to “god”? Or a third option, does he put it there to test people? Or does he have some unstated purpose in this, and we just have to float through life making up meaning as we go? Or is he not all that benevolent? When I had a kid, I wanted to make the world the best I can for him. That world I speak of is limited to my sphere of influence, in that I can only do so much toward it, by providing an income, sagely advice (hehe, we’ll see how sagely I am when I have to deal with his probably hellion ways), loving acceptance, direction, and just being there. Enter my broken record: where’s the all powerful, wise, and good God in this world that extends beyond the one I control? Do I need to redefine things as they pertain to God? For that matter, is God even extra-linguistic, have an existence outside language games?

I discussed the existence of tornados with one of my friends, and asked him if they came from creation or after the fall. He said they aren’t really considered evil until human beings start getting (enter my putting words in his mouth) impaled by foreign objects. I’ll grant that. Let’s say all natural disasters existed before the Fall, floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, blizzards, tsunamis, what have you. Adam and Eve simply didn’t care because none of those (save maybe floods) would have touched their existence in the Ancient Near East. But what about the carnivorousness that seems intrinsic to lions, and the herbivoreness that seems intrinsic to gazelles; why were the poor latter created with nerve endings? It honestly serves no purpose than to give them horrendous feeling while they’re being eviscerated by the former. Did pain receptors only magically appear after said Fall? What about cognitive bias? What about the ability to drown? Were lions intrinsically motivated not to eat our only human parents alive at the time? In fact, if carnivorousness existed from creation, and God created all the species that exist now (which isn’t the case), how many species died per day after creation? Shouldn’t there have been a pretty quick mass extinction through food shortage? And why the hell were mosquitoes created? There’s no way they weren’t annoying everything in existence before the Fall. If God exists, at best he has a sense of humor at others’ expense. I’ll admit, it’s pretty funny to witness someone swatting at “nothing” as they walk through cobwebs and attempt to fling good Charlotte from her body, but why do such insidious beasts exist at all in a very good creation? Maybe evolution is a result of the fall, and that’s where all the annoying and terrible creatures came from!

There are a few possible answers to all of these questions. One of the possibilities would be adjusting our definitions of the Western concept of God from being all good, powerful, and wise, to not being all or some of those to the nth degree. Process theism has done this to some degree. Another option is that he exists, but chooses to hide very convincingly. Another option is that our senses and everything derived from them (i.e., science) are misleading. Another possibility could be admitting ignorance/agnosticism, and not engage in conjecture about things which are unseen from those that are. Perhaps God will, as Robert M. Price has stated it (I forgot if it was here or here), put on a seminar on the other side about how and why things really are, particularly for those curious jokerpantses like me.

As always, if you got something to say drop a line in the comments section or my email at ilostmyprayerhanky AT mail to the g DOT com. I like conversing. I don’t gots all the answers. You probably don’t either. If you do, I’ll save you some time: you’re a moron and there is no point in us shouting each other down, or each of us bending over to have a pooping contest to see who gets stained first. However, in dialogue, we get more than we had before. It’s like steak and beans, but better.