Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 6

Metanexus: Views 2002.01.04 2428 words

Technology may first be understood as 'imitating nature', doing thingswhich nature does as well. At some point, we move on to 'improving nature',doing some things better than they would be without us, claims Dutchtheologian Willem Drees. He then adds, 'Better' is, of course, anevaluation - and thus invites the question what the standard is by whichthis is judged. In what sense is our wheat after millennia of humanselection 'better' than the natural varieties? Well, it is better for ourpurposes - for producing bread, feeding the hungry. In some contexts we mayeven consider ourselves to be correcting nature, doing things differently,averting problematic consequences of nature.

But is this attempt at correcting nature a matter of wisdom or a matter ofhubris? Something to be avoided or something to be embraced? Or is thereperhaps a third option? Something more than being cautious stewards? Isthere a possibility of being co-creators with god? And, if this is a viablepossibility, then, as co-creators, is part of our role the taking of risksin a way similar to god's own risk-taking activity vis-a-vis creation? Arewe engaged in a similar struggle of will versus indeterminacy?

These are truly the most metaphysical of questions, since they deal withthat moment in which the non-physical (thought, will, desire) impinges upon,affects, and changes the physical (matter, material). And it is from withinthis moment, this juncture, this nexus, that Willem Drees addresses theissue of our human attempts at playing, imagining, and imitating god.

Willem B. Drees is professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at LeidenUniversity, the Netherlands. He has an advanced degree in theoreticalphysics (Utrecht, 1977) and doctorates in theology (Groningen, 1989) andphilosophy (Amsterdam, 1994). And today's column is the fifth in a six partseries of excerpts from Drees' book Creation: From Nothing Until Now(Paperback or Library Binding; ISBN: 0-4152-5653-4; Routledge; December2001, 128pp.). Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 were posted to Metanexus:Views on(2001.12.17), (2001.12.18), (2001.12.27), (2001.12.28), and (2002.01.03)respectively.

--Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 6From: Willem B. DreesEmail: <>


We are creatures, produced by a long history 'from nothing until now', ofwhich we have barely begun to scratch the surface in the preceding pages.However, we are not only products but also producers. We are creativecreatures; we are also looking forward, where to go 'from now on'. Thiscreativity has a material and an intellectual form: we modify our world andourselves, and we create our images, our understanding, both in the sciencesand in religious life. In both senses, we work with our historical heritagebut we are not restricted to it. We can 'play God', create new visions andnew realities.

Our calling to play god

We are not only thinking beings. We are also creative creatures, beings whoshape their environment. With modern technology, this has risen tounprecedented heights. Benjamin Disraeli compared in 1844 various cities tovarious human endeavors. Rome would represent conquest, the building ofempires. Jerusalem stands for faith; Athens invokes our intellectualheritage. These are the traditional examples. However, he added to thisMajor League of human cities Manchester.

He did not add Manchester for its soccer team. Athens and Manchester standfor two different styles of human intellect, for two different styles oflife, for two different dimensions of science. Astronomy is a good exampleof a particular kind of science, which would fit the Athenian archetype.Observations, models and theories culminate together in an understanding ofmany phenomena in the sky, and even in some understanding of the wholeobservable universe. Science is the attempt to explain, to understandreality as it is.

Manchester stands for another side of science, for the birth of chemistryand the rise of technology. This city is an archetype of the IndustrialRevolution. This is science that not only seeks to understand nature, butalso to create things that had not been before - a science that is notrestricted to the natural but brings forth the artificial. In our days, thisactive, creative side of science has become enormously significant. Think ofthe creation of new materials with a wide variety of properties, thecreation of electronics that gave rise to information and communicationtechnologies, and of biotechnologies with major consequences for foodproduction and medicine. Science offers more than understanding; it providesus with tools to change our world.

Technology may first be understood as 'imitating nature', doing things whichnature does as well. At some point, we move on to 'improving nature', doingsome things better than they would be without us. 'Better' is, of course, anevaluation - and thus invites the question what the standard is by whichthis is judged. In what sense is our wheat after millennia of humanselection 'better' than the natural varieties? Well, it is better for ourpurposes - for producing bread, feeding the hungry. In some contexts we mayeven consider ourselves to be correcting nature, doing things differently,averting problematic consequences of nature.

Humans are concerned about the consequences of those technologies. Forphysics, the archetype of responsibility has become the nuclear bomb.Chemistry is associated with pollution. Every science seems to have itsparticular experiences of sin, of causing problems that may be beyond itspowers to solve. It is, of course, questionable whether it is science itselfthat is to blame, or whether one should rather blame our ways of living, ourpolitical and economic decisions. But science is involved, and this hasconsequences for the perception of science.

Could we and should we have done without this side of science,restricting ourselves to the noble goal of understanding? I doubt it. Theactive attitude is deeply rooted in human nature; we are as much homo faberas homo sapiens, and we will need both our skills and our wisdom to surviveour powers, which too are in the combination of skill and intellect. Shouldwe wish we had done without this active side, without the inventions thathave changed our world? I doubt whether a moral person really can sustainsuch a desire. There is, of course, the mythical image of paradise, of aneffortless pastoral life with fruit in abundance. But if one is morerealistic, we realize that we need our technology - and we need it also formorally lofty purposes, to feed the hungry, to cloth the naked, to care forthose who are ill.

The lightning rod may serve as an example. In his book A History of theWarfare of Science and Theology in Christendom of over a hundred years ago(1897), Andrew White dwells extensively on the resistance of churchwardensand ministers to setting up lightning rods - a resistance which not only wasstupid, but immoral as it led to an unnecessarily early death of many.Frederick Ferre writes in a book titled Hellfire and Lightning Rods on theexperiences among Swedish immigrants in Minnesota in 1922. A preachercondemned in his sermon the lightning rods, which sought to deflect thewrath of God. A young, sensitive man wondered:

Could God's will truly be foiled by a steel rod and a grounding wire? Was itreally wrong to try to protect family and livestock from the storms thatswept in from the prairies with such seemingly undiscriminating force? WasGod really directing the thunderbolts? Should he believe that the God Jesuscalled our 'Father in heaven' really would punish the farmers for takingwhatever meager technological precautions might be available?

The churches have accepted the lightning rod, perhaps a few odd cornersexcepted. But objections to technology surface again and again, and with itthe warning that 'we should not play God' - not with medical technology, notin biotechnology. The warning against 'playing God' often indicatesinsecurity due to shifting boundaries between that which is given (and thuswould be God's domain) and that which is in our hands to play with. Aside ofthe warning not 'to play God', there are also other religious images invokedin discussions on the way we humans change our world. Some invoke the notionof stewardship to express a limited, conserving range of acceptable humanaction. Should we limit ourselves to the role of stewards, or rather reachout as co-creators?

In the Christian tradition, the bible is the place to look. Let me thereforeoffer a summary of the bible, in a single sentence. The bible begins onhigh, with paradise, which is followed by a long journey through history,with the expectation of final salvation. The combination of past and futurereturns in the liturgy in the emphasis on memory and hope. The Sabbathrecalls the creation and the exodus and is a foretaste of fulfillment. Thisoverarching U-profile in the Christian tradition implies that images of thegood are there as images of the past (paradise) and as images of the future,of a City of God, a new heaven and a new earth, the Kingdom to come. Ifhumans are considered stewards, one looks back in time, to a good situationthat has to be kept and preserved. But humans are also addressed as workerswho have their eyes on the Kingdom, on that which might come.

In relation to the use of human knowledge and power, some other stories maybe illuminating as well. In the synagogue Jesus meets someone with awithered hand. Will he heal on the Sabbath? Then Jesus asks: 'Is it lawfulon the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?' Thepriority is clear. In this story of healing, from Mark 3, as in many otherstories, a human is freed of the burdens of his past. A tax collector and aprostitute are again on the way of life, the possessed relax and the deafhear. The social dimension that can also be found in the stories on theprophets, is also found in the parables. Especially those who have been lesswell off, get new chances; they are seen in a new light. Discipleship asserving the poor and needy has often been forgotten in Christian history,but it has resurfaced again and again. This resulted in particular in thecare for orphans, widows and people who were seriously ill.

One parable explicitly speaks of stewardship (Mathew 25: 14-30). A landlordis to leave and entrusts his property to three servants. One received fivetalents, one two and the third only one talent, 'to each according to hisability'. The one with five talents made another five; the one with twotalents made two, but the one with only one talent buried it and returned itto his master. In the end, the landlord commands to cast the worthlessservant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

Of this brief tour of biblical texts and images I retain that in biblicallanguage the good is not only in the past but as well in the future, thathumans - even when considered as stewards - can be active and even ought tobe active although the initiative is with God, and that this activity isnormatively determined as care for the weak and needy. Humans may not beco-creators in the sense in which God is a creator, but they are certainlycreative creatures, or created creators. We are beings who genuinely act increation, and thereby change the world and ourselves.

Stewardship has become prominent in reflection upon the ecologicaldamage that we have done. In that context, stewardship has the connotationof nature conservation. It evokes reticence rather than the intention tochange nature. But human activity is not only a threat to Gods goodcreation. Human culture, including human technology, may also be appreciatedas taking up the work God entrusted to us to work for the good. Humancreativity does not diminish God. To the contrary, the more someone developsone's creativity, the more one surpasses current limitations, the more Godbecomes God. We cannot shift the burden of responsibility to God; we areresponsible. Our task becomes to make God present in the world, or, asIsabel Carter Heyward says it with a remarkable verb, our task might be 'togod the world'. The issue is that the religious sensibility not only has todo with the appreciation of beauty and goodness, but also reflectsengagement with justice, with love. Transformation is a central theologicaltheme.

Transformation as personal conversion or social change is an importanttheme in many theologies, especially in evangelical and politicaltheologies. Natural theologies arising out of experiences with the naturalworld mostly lack this; they tend to overemphasize the way things are as onedeserving wonder. However, a religiously adequate view should, in myopinion, also attempt to disclose the possibilities for transformation ofthe natural order. In the dialogue with the sciences, all aspects ofreligious faith are involved - not merely creation, but also redemption, notonly 'what is' but also 'what should be'. Perhaps a complementary book toFrom Nothing until Now should be From Now On.

Returning to the metaphors discussed, such as stewardship andco-creator, I would stress that neither the past (images of paradise) northe future (a new heaven and a new earth) is acceptable as the sole point ofreference. It seems to me to be far more fruitful to listen to the parablesand pick up the sensibility that can be found there for those in need. Thequestion of creativity and responsibility is not whether one acts, whetherone gets involved, but how - and in what way, and thus who will benefit. Inthat context it becomes important to be realistic about matters of power andpolitics, of limited knowledge and unanticipated consequences, ofinequalities among humans and the even greater asymmetry between humans andother living beings. We can serve God and our neighbor with all our heart,with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind - and hencealso with science and technology. But we may be reminded that this greatcommandment is immediately followed (Luke 10) with the story of the GoodSamaritan - thus warning us against too limited a sense of who our neighborsmight be.

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