William T. Cavanaugh
"Creation's Final Law"
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
In Memoriam A.H.H. (1850)
Tennyson's famous words about nature reflected a growing Christian unease in the middle of the 19th century about the idea that God's love and nature's violence were irreconcilable:
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
Though written almost a decade before Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, Tennyson's poem responded to the idea that nature operated autonomously without God's intervention, an idea already promoted by Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844. After Darwin, Tennyson's phrase "red in tooth and claw" was used frequently to describe the new evolutionary view of nature, in which humans were of course included. The phrase became associated with social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer, who coined the expression "survival of the fittest," and it continues to be used today by popularizers of evolutionary science like Richard Dawkins. "I think 'nature red in tooth and claw' sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably," Dawkins writes in The Selfish Gene. "We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
How is a Christian to respond to the apparent contradiction between a loving, purposeful God and a cruel, random nature? One way is to deny that such a grim account of nature is accurate. Dawkins' idea of innate selfishness has been challenged by studies that show the evolutionary disadvantages of aggressive competition and the advantages of cooperation. Such findings have helped some evolutionary anthropologists to push back against the standard view of the depravity of nature.
Another response would be to accept this view of human and animal depravity and assimilate it to a Christian doctrine of Fall and original sin. Is that not the point of the story of the Fall and the notion of original sin, that we are born with a tendency toward selfishness, set loose into a cruel and remorseless world? Is not the notion of living in a fallen world simply an explanation in theological terms of what Dawkins and others tell us about the natural world and our place in it? Tennyson seems to have thought so. He regarded the violence of nature as a fact, accepting the contradiction between a loving God and a cruel creation, but opting to cling to his faith that God will somehow save us from a creation gone wrong":
No, like a child in doubt and fear:
But that blind clamour made me wise;
Then was I as a child that cries,
But, crying knows his father near;
Both of these responses turn on the question of how bad we are: is human nature really bad or not so bad? The Fall, however, is misunderstood if it is seen primarily as an account—whether historical or mythological—of how bad human beings are in their actual behavior. The Fall is better understood, I want to suggest, as a statement that is not simply actual—that is, about what humans are like today—but rather both ontological—that is, about the way things really are in their deepest being—and eschatological—that is, about the way things are meant to be and will be in the end. The account of the Fall in Genesis does not simply say, "Well, things are messed up and here's why." The biblical account of the Fall says, "The way things are is not the way things are meant to be, and not the way things really are in their deepest being."
The ancient Hebrews really did not differ much from other ancient Near Eastern peoples in their assessment of the way things are now. If we compare the first eleven chapters of Genesis with the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, for example, both texts seem to draw more or less the same conclusion about the state of the world: all is not right. There is envy and war and murder and deceit and subservience and struggles for power. In the Enuma Elish, the primordial gods Apsu and Tiamat find the new gods they have created too noisy, and Apsu plots to kill them. In the ensuing revolt, Apsu, Tiamat, and subsequently Tiamat's new consort Kingu are all slain. The earth and sky are formed from Tiamat's dead body, and humans are fashioned from Kingu's blood to be slaves of the now-triumphant rebel gods. We are more familiar with the havoc unleashed in Genesis, whose sixth chapter sums up the situation post-Fall in this way: "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth" (Gen. 6:11-12). Genesis is no more inclined than the Enuma Elish to see the glass half full. Both look out at the world and see that it is messed up.
The difference between the two accounts is not in their assessment of the actual situation but in their assessment of the ontological and eschatological realities. The accounts of Genesis and the Enuma Elish are often compared because the account in Genesis 1 especially is thought to have been influenced by the Israelites' extended exile in Babylon, which can't have left them with a very sunny view of the world. Since the recovery of the Enuma Elish in the 19th century, the similarities between the Babylonian account and Genesis—primordial chaos, water motifs, seven days/chapters, Sabbath rest, etc.—have been used to debunk the historicity of Genesis. To me, however, the differences are much more significant. It seems plausible that the creation accounts in Genesis were compiled in part as a polemic against the Babylonian theology that appears to grant no difference between the way the world appears to be and the way the world really is. In other words, the Babylonians seem to have offered the most economical answer to the question, "Why is the world messed up?" The answer is: that's just the way things are. The gods are violent, so nature and people are violent too. There is no originally good position from which to fall away.
The Fall in Genesis, in contrast, establishes a dual reality: the way things originally are and the way things are now. First, there was nothing but good, and then came evil. The Fall establishes the goodness of God, for the blame for evil is put on the human actors in the story. God is good, God has no rivals, God creates peaceably, not through war, and God sees that all creation is good. Evil, then, can only be a departure, a falling away, from the way things really are. The Genesis account of the Fall is a profound ontological statement: the way things really are in their deepest being as created by God is good. Evil can only be explained as a corruption, a privation of good, as Augustine explained. But corruption is proof that what is, is good, for there has to be some good to lose if there is corruption. Evil, Augustine reasons, has no independent existence; all that is, is good.
This ontological statement seems at first glance to contradict Genesis' recognition that the world is profoundly messed up. But as a statement about ontology and not the current state of affairs, the idea should not be misunderstood as an attempt to evade harsh reality, as if one were trying to say that Auschwitz didn't really happen or wasn't so bad. The Fall tells us instead that Auschwitz is not the way things were meant to be, that evil is not the most basic reality in the universe, that evil does not have the final word. And in that sense, the Fall is also a profound eschatological statement, establishing the hope that the way things are in actuality is not inevitable, and that the way things are meant to be will become reality in God's time.
When Isaiah pictures an eschaton in which the wolf lies down with the lamb and the baby plays with the viper (Isa. 11:6-8), he is not simply being naïve about the way things are. Isaiah need not deny that nature, including human nature, is red in tooth and claw. Isaiah knows better than to put snakes in cribs, and he can probably predict what will happen if the wolf lies down with the lamb. But Isaiah's eschatological vision is not simply a far-off future utopia, an escape from reality. It is based in an ontology of peace, confident that creation is essentially good and that evil is therefore not simply inevitable. And because the way things are is not the way things are meant to be, we are capable of behaving differently now, even while we take a sober look at a world red in tooth and claw. Eschatology is not just about the future; it affects the way we live in the world now. If we—like the Babylonians or the "realists" of our present age—think that violence is just the way it is, we will see no alternative to fighting fire with fire. If we take the Fall seriously, on the other hand, we will act as though violence is not simply inevitable, as if God makes a way even now to live into the Kingdom. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus, the second Adam, answers the Fall. By suffering violence rather than giving it out, Christ shows that love—not violence—is, in Tennyson's words, "Creation's final law."
1. A famous 2005 study showed that primates spend nine times more time being nice than being nasty: R.W. Sussman, Paul A. Garber, Jim M. Cheverud, "Importance of Cooperation and Affiliation in the Evolution of Primate Sociality," American Journal of Physical Anthropology (Sept. 2005).
William T. Cavanaugh is professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University. He is the author most recently of Field Hospital: The Church's Engagement with a Wounded World, published this year by Eerdmans.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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