Review: Thinking Through Creation by Chris Watkin

Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique

by Christopher Watkin

I had heard of Christopher Watkin, professor of French though at Monash University, a few times through friends who work for AFES at Monash and those who go to his church. But it was only when I did an Open Learning course he was teaching, ‘Postmodernism and the Bible: Derrida and Foucault‘ that I became a fan. Christopher and I share the same desire of seeking to listen carefully to the ideas of others, and then interact with those ideas from a Christian point of view.

After completing the course, Christopher asked if I would like to receive free copies of some of his forthcoming books, in exchange for reviewing them online: I happily agreed — free things!

The first of these new books, Thinking Through Creation is a great read, and I hope it will quickly became a classic among those, like in AFES, who are seeking to equip Christians to think deeply and Christianly. This book is the first of a much larger work that Christopher intends to produce, doing similar stuff across the whole Bible: not just reading what the text of Scripture says, but unpacking the underlying ideas, and the values and actions which flow from these.

Chirstopher looks at the philosophical and ethical implications of the doctrine of the trinity, of creation, humanity, personhood work, Sabbath, power, functionalism, environment and much more. For those who have already read a bit in this, much of the content will be familiar, but it is great to have a one-stop-shop for all these ideas.

Likewise, Christopher is not the first writer to expose unsatisfactory dichotomies, by finding a more sophisticated middle way (his term for this is ‘diagonlisation’). But his contribution to this area of nuance and synthesising approach is a highlight of the book, as he uncovers so many of these false dichotomies:

  • Impersonal structure vs Unstructured personhood (tackling the Euthyphro Dilemma masterfully)
  • The one vs the many
  • Reality is transparent to language vs Language imposes an alien structure on reality
  • Functionality vs beauty
  • Fact vs value
  • Nature vs culture
  • Intellectual work vs manual labour
  • Sacred groves vs trees as facts (you’ll have to read it to see what on earth that means?! :-P)

A particular strength of the book is the way in which Christopher provides substantial quotes from and interaction with various philosophers and other theorists. This is more than the easy grab-quotes from an IVP apologetics book, but rather genuine contact points with different philosophical views. Reading the footnotes and supporting material gives you heaps of leads to explore further, both Christian and non-Christian thinking.

There were a few points where I raised an eyebrow or wanted more:

  • I am not convinced that love comes before power, as Christopher argues on page 35ff. Why not both? If power is seen as secondary, then, as it seems Christopher goes on to argue, we cannot form an ethic were the possession and use of power also has a place. Power is entirely subservient to love. While, love, service and personhood are fruitful paths to explore social ethics, I also think the just and proper use of (and restraint of) power is also a fruitful and ethical path to explore at the same time.
  • Some of the political and social applications left me wondering how this would work out ‘in the real world’ of globalised economic. Footnote 7 on page 57 points to The Jubilee Manifesto edited by Michael Schluter and John Ashcroft to explore further, so it’s great to have a good pointer. However, I would love to have a bit more meat on this occasionally, to stop this ethical reflections from seeming like thin idealism.
  • On page 94 he writes “Christ is the only normal human being to have ever lived, and his character defines perfect humanity”. And I am cautious about this statement. Is it a bit too Barthian/supralapsarian? The unfallen Adam was a normal human being… and defines perfect humanity, too, no?
  • I think there is more to the ethical caution against ‘playing God’ than Christopher gives credit on page 114. You know, Jurassic Park I, II, II, Jurassic World and now Jurassic World II.
  • I would have liked to hear an explanation for why, if the biblical worldview apparently solves to many problems, Christians have not historically been more consistent on all these matters. But then maybe this is for Volume 2: Genesis 3 and beyond?

The writing is clear and engaging, although there are extended quotes from philosophical sources and a decent smattering of technical terminology (‘basicity’ was one that particularly made me laugh). The text is broken up with simple diagrams and helpful headings which help you keep track of the argument.  Each chapter ends with a summary of basic ideas and rich tutorial-style questions for further reflection or discussion. There is also a glossary at the end of the book.

The book would be a great training text for uni students, MTS apprentices or theological students. It would also be enriching reading for the tertiary-educated Christian keen to keep thinking deeply. The would would serve preachers as a great companion book for sermon preparation, to help apply theological concepts to everyday life.

‘I’m Loved By God’ or ‘I’m In Christ’ is a hopelessly incomplete answer to the question of identity

It's super common to hear Christians say that 'What defines us is being in Christ' or 'What really matters for our identity is being loved by God'.

We say it a lot because it's true. And because this is a central and interpreting factor in our identity. The problem comes when this idea is over-stated and over-preached so as to actually erase our identity.

The issue is, 'I am in Christ' does not fully tell me who I in particular am. It doesn't tell me my identity, so as to identify me in distinction from you, him or the the apostle Paul. Yes being in Christ is a fundamental part of who I am. But what makes me Mikey-Lynch-in-Christ as opposed to Don-Carson-in-Christ? What makes me Me-In-Particular?

And this is where we need to own that all our other particularties are indeed parts of our identity. We are, in a sense the sum total of our all generalities and distinctives. I am human. An Australian citizen. Someone who sinned in these ways. Who was sinned against in those ways. Someone who has this patchwork of preferences of dislikes. A person who has been in these places and seen these things. I am someone who has these abilities and incapacities. All of these things go into making me me.

To deny these things play any part in my identity is not only oddly irrational, but also denies that all these things are also the work of God and of Christ. He is the creator. To be loved by God is to be loved as a particular creation he made and placed in a certain place in the time and space of his creation. 

So what does it mean to say that 'we are first of all loved by God', or 'the key thing that defines us is being in Christ'? What we properly mean is that these things are fundamental, central, defining and interpretive. I am MORE defined by being in Christ than by being in the lowest maths class. I am MORE defined by being loved by God than by being a sinner. Being a Christian is more important than being a member of my biological family.

Different types of discrimination have different boundaries

Not all discriminations are bad. There are legitimate and justifiable and legal forms of discrimination. Then there are illegitimate, oppressive, unjustified forms. We have cultural expectations and even laws to prevent illegitimate disriminiation. 

However, the kinds of differences for which people might be discriminated against are different, and so the points at which discrimination is legitimate are also different. Here is a slightly editing list from the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Irrelevant Medical Record
  • Gender Identity
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Sexual Practice
  • Relationship and Martial Status
  • Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
  • Religion Belief or Affiliation
  • Religious Practice
  • Political Belief or Affiliation
  • Political Activity
  • Disability
  • Association with Any of the Above

These are not all the same and so we should be careful in our thinking, laws, memes, rhetoric, preaching, moral outrage, Faceobooking etc from drawing total analogies between them. At the same time, it's worthwhile noting that there are some similarities: they are all things that someone could be unjustifiably excluded or criticised for. Many of them are things that are a significant part of a person's sense of self and experience of life.

 A bunch of reflections:

  • Everyone changes age, but it is much harder to see how a person can change race or disability.
  • There are legitimate contexts where one might legally discriminate based on these things:
    • age-based programs
    • certain restrictions for minors based upon age of consent
    • cultural groups for particularly ethnicities to preserve culture
    • religious and political groups for particular affiliations to further their cause
    • biological sex-restrictive groups/service and spaces for the particular issues relate to that sex
  • Some of these categories have more distinctives than others:
    • There are very few matters of significance that distinguish people of different races. And so there are very few justifiable grounds for discrimination.
    • There are some biological differences between the biological sexes that might allow for more forms of legitimate differentiation.
    • There are many ways that we can make more and more space for those with disabilities, but there are limits to this, and so at some point, there will be justifiable ground for discrimination. The category of irrelevant medical record recognises that there might be relevant health issues.
    • There are some significant developmental differences between age.
    • Relationship status, gender identity, sexual practice, religious belief and practice and political belief and practice are all in part exercises in human intellectual and moral choice.. As a result they are much more complex than inherited or acquired characteristics outside of our intellecutal and moral control.
  • Some forms of discrimination happen due to not making ways for people to be more fully involved — eg for disabilities or women having children or single people in a culture that is built around marriage couple and families. These are more 'sins of omission' rather than 'sins of commission'.
  • Affirmative action is a peculiar kind of positive disrimination to counteract historic negative discrimination and is a very complex minefield to be discussed another day
  • There is a distinction between religions affiliation and religious practice, just as there is between sexual orientation and sexual practice. It is possible for someone to identify as Anglican and never go to church, and likewise it is possible for someone to have a sexual orientation but not be (or want to be) sexually active.
  • We need to be careful about creating to simplistic a hierarchy of which things are foundational parts of someone's identity and which are incidental: is sexual orientation necesasrily more fundamental to a person's sense of self than their political affiliation? We must be careful to jump to conclusions on this.
  • On the other hand, it is possible that some of these things are a minute part of a person's sense of self. They are incidental to their identity and lived experience, and so their sense of frustration comes when they are excluded or discriminated against in some way that reduces them to this or that matter.

Mirrors 10th November 2017

  1. A silly article about a silly argument against the existence of God.
  2. How do you philosophically justify your hobbies?
  3. “No Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists or Anabaptists were harmed during the making of this episode.” Carl Trueman being interviewed on First Things about The Reformation.
  4. The Pyramid of Clarity for organisational leadership.
  5. Carl Trueman’s reservations about The Nashville Statement from 43:15-50:50
  6. If you’ve not heard John Sikkema’s story, maybe you could tune into this free webinar? 

What ‘We’ Have Gotten Wrong in Cultural Engagement… and Why It Wouldn’t Have Mattered

There's a lot of helpful stuff out there about how Christians and Christian organisations can interact more skillfully in a social setting where Christian ideas and institutions are not necessarily perceived as normal, acceptable and persuasive. Accepting this reality will stop Christians from coming across as rude, mean, oppressive or gospel-less. Becoming more thoughtful in this area might help us be more persuasive in general, and more distincitvely Christian.

I don't agree with everything that gets said on this topic. Sometimes the recommendations are bad. Sometimes they are overstated, reactionary, narrow, too morally and theologically soft.

But in this post there's two particulary things I want to touch on about this chatter. 

There's No Simple 'We'

The problem with some of this talk is that it speaks about a global Christian 'we': WE have done this that or the other. WE have failed in this or that way. Generalisations can of course be made. However generalisations are extremely clumsy tools for analysis. 

Generalisations also confuse and blur culpability and agency in all sorts of ways. The 'we' could be seen to be 'leading institutions'… or 'vocal Chrsitians in the media'… or 'patterns and tropes in preaching, book writing and Facebooking'. But these are not things that can easily be laid on the shoulders of the whole Christian community. Nor can they be easily fixed. Institutions have a stubborn and slow life of their own. Patterns of speaking and writing are perceived to endure and predominate even when they are in the minority or have been in decline for a long time. Vocal Christians in the media often don't fairly represent every other Christian.

Bold and universal declarations about what 'we' have done and what 'we' should do need to be toned done and balanced out.

It Wouldn't Have and Won't Matter Heaps Anyway

The strong implication in a lot of this talk is also that if 'we' had done things differently, then Chrsitian ideas and institutions would have been more persuasive or if 'we' do things differently now, we could in the future have a greater opporutnity to be persuasive.

There's some truth in this, for sure. But only some. 

Because the movement of culture ideas and practices are out of our control. The books on Christ and culture— like those by Don Carson, Andy Crouch and James Davison Hunter— all point out that the larger the cultural artefact or grouping, the less we can control or predict its effects. 

So in the case of Christianity's acceptance and influence in the West: I very much doubt that a few thousand more tactful John Dicksons would have change things much. A larger cultural mood and trajectory was and has been happening, and our masterfu, gentle, nuanced and gospel-centred cultural engagement can only ever have a minimal effect on it.

What then?

What's my point then? What should be I do?

  • Keep praying and preaching and living the godly life. We are ultimately not just passengers on a historical or sociological journey… we are servants of God in his soverign rule over history.
  • Much of the thoughtfulness and tact is still good and right… even if it won't guarantee a different outcome. So keep working at interacting with our soceity on all its different levels with reflection, love and a desire to bring glory to Jesus.
  • I need to also cultivate virtues that will serve me in decline of influence and rise of hostility: forgiveness, contentment, courage, integrity, peace, prayerfulnes.
  • It's very likely that the future of Christianity will continue to be in the Global South and in the East. So rather than trying to 'win' amongst the secular west, we need to also play our part in investing in a healthy and rich and mature church among different cultural groups. We can share what we have learned, and hopefully protect the true emerging church (as opposed to the so-called 'Emerging Church Movement') from becoming reactionary, jingoistic, fundamentalist, theologically eccentric and so on.

Mirrors 3rd November 2017

  1. @ArthurGDavis replies to my comments on his proposals for change to campus ministry 
  2. Final Pop-Up Blog Tour event for 2017 will be happening in Hobart on 21st November 
  3. Interesting podcast on the Reformation in this whole podcast, but last 4 minutes are intriguing: 1. Atheists must realise most people are religious and religion is a very powerful force   2. Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity, so it is going through its torments now 3. Islam doesn’t have the same distinction between church and state that Christianity has 4.  Don’t tell history in a bedtime story way, that reassures and whitewashes. History should disturb us
  4. The whole ‘generation’ thing is dumb. But I like the concept of Xennial. anyway 
  5. This event looks interesting: The Tasmanian Dilemma — Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
  6. What is slowing you down or making you mad that you should just replace?

“Your Identity Is Valid”… surely not a blanket statement, right?

This poster has been buzzing around in various forms. A friend of mine saw this poster at UTAS recently:

Why 'Valid'?

'Valid' is an interesting choice of word. What does it mean in this context? Cogent? Coherent? Legally legitimate? I think I get what it is aiming to say: there are many identities that people can hold, that if someone holds it, they should be treated respectfully according to their expressed identity.

But 'valid' is an especially telling choice. For my identity to be respected and accepted in kindness… it must be legally validated in some way. A person cannot be received and loved unless they are affirmed and legitimised. It's not enough to have freedom to discover and/or define your identity: what you discover and define must be declared legitimate. It's not enough for me to respect your chosen identity, I need to legitimise it.

Does ANYONE Really Want to Say All Identities Are Valid?

Now I may not entirely agree with that as intended by the poster-maker, on their own terms and limitations, on transgender issues. But more: not even the poster-maker seriously believes this is a blanket statement, right? Does anyone really want to say that absolutely all identities are valid without exception?

 

— What of the extremely and destructively delusion identity: I am Satan?

— What of an identity of deep self-hatred: I am ugly, worthless and no one would ever love me?

—What of an immoral or self-destructive identity: sub-cultures around extreme eating disorders or extreme sexual practices?

— What of a conservative religious identity: I am not my experienced sexual and gender experiene, but am instead a child of God and should live according to God's norms as revealed in the scriptures of my religion, and not according to my experience/inclination?

We all outline certain boundaries around which identities are valid and which are not. I expect that the poster maker, and those sympathetic to its declaration would argue that such boundaries are obvious and commonsense and universally understood. But this is an assertion disguised as a fact. Manifestly this has changed dramatically in our culture over the last 100 years, and is different from culture to culture. It is not as intuitive as it might seem.

What Word Is Left to Describe Respect and Acceptance without Legitimising and Approving?

We need to work hard at treating people with dignity and respect, listening to what they saying, and accepting and acknowledging what they are going through. But part of loving other is to not entirely agree with and approve of their interpreation in all situations. The give and take of friendship, leadership, medical care and government is to respect individuals while also upholding other values and standards which may be considered unhealthy or immoral or untrue in some way.

I think we all know what this is like, when we are dealing with people whom we recognise to be severely and destructively psychologically disturbed or criminally inclined. We want to humanise the person and listen carefully to the person, while not accepting their current interpretation of their experiences.

But to use the example of the criminal or the mentally ill is painful and clumsy and ineffective. It sounds like millitant, hateful, fighting words… are you saying that X other group are therefore criminals? Is that what you're saying? How dare you…

So there is a gulf between this sub-category and everyone else. And no rational way to discuss whether something sits on one side of the gulf or the other. And no allowance that some of the realities that apply in the extreme cases, might apply in more subtle cases of psychological instability or immoral action.

We have lost words to describe this respectful treatment without agreement. For 'respect' and 'accept' and 'acknowledge' are now all loaded up with concepts of 'approve' and 'celebrate'. We need new words. It's tricky huh?

About Xian Reflections

Xian Reflections is written by Mikey Lynch.

Mikey graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Arts in 2002. In 2000 he became one of the founding leaders of Crossroads Presbyterian Church where he was the lead pastor for 7 years from 2003.

Mikey now works as the Campus Director of the University Fellowship of Christians, University of Tasmania, Hobart. Mikey is the chairman of The Vision 100 Network (Tasmania) and a founding director of Geneva Push (national) – both church planting networks. He is also a chaplain at Jane Franklin Hall and the chairman of New Front Door: the Church IT Guild.