Friday, July 16, 2010

The Serpent's Academy

Have you ever noticed how Genesis 3 reports the founding of the two oldest faculties of the University?  

The first is theology.  The serpent asks the question: "did God actually say..?"  And, I imagine without substantial reflection and without consideration of the consequences, Eve joins in a conversation about God - the first such conversation.  It does not end well.  There is an inherent risk in the pursuit of theology, and a monumental danger.  Talking about God in the absence of God, which is the nature of the conversation in the garden and is the nature of most academic theology today, leads with tragic inevitability to the assertion of my own opinions about God and his nature (I have in mind here the subtle failure of Eve to accurately quote God), which are no match for the enemy's counter-opinions (the serpent's assertion that God is a liar).  My opinions about God may be good, in so far as they go, but unless they are based squarely on God's word - and may I suggest, not God's word as a remembered entity now absent (for the danger of misquoting is too great), but God's word as a present experience - they leave my understanding of God vulnerable to heretical distortion.

The second is ethics.  The serpent suggests that eating from the tree will make human beings "like God, knowing good and evil".  As has often been remarked, this does not mean that Adam and Eve are imagined as having no knowledge of the meaning of these terms; if that were so, the temptation could hardly be appealing.  Rather, the temptation is that they could become like God in being able to discern what is good and what is evil.  And of course, being able to discern this very quickly becomes being able to decide what is good and what is evil.  Here is the launch of ethics as the pursuit of autonomous human beings.  Rather than accepting God's word on the subject - "he has told you, O man, what is good" - human beings seek to work ethics out (and later, to impose their preferences under the cloak of ethics) in God's absence.

What a dangerous place to be the university is!

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