Thursday, October 31, 2013

Out of Eden

The Maori of New Zealand imagined the original man with his head planted firmly in the earth, an ocean issuing from his mouth, in his groin a gum tree, clouds on his feet. What are we to make of this upside-down Adam? No head-in-the-clouds this fellow. His tattooed noggin is fixed in the soil like a tuber. Arms spread like an ocean-going outrigger canoe. Heart and lungs smoldering in the hearth of his chest. Penis sprouting branches. Only the soles of his feet keeping the sky from crushing him out.

Looks good to me. Humankind as integral to nature. Earth, water, fire, air. The spindle on which the world is spun. Compare this to Adam in the Judeo-Christian myth, breathed into a world already formed, almost as if he were an afterthought. Lord and master of the whole affair. His dealings are with God alone.

Of course, no one who is at all cognizant of the last 400 years of science believes in a literal Adam, or a literal Maori man for that matter. The stories are interesting from an historical point of view, and they can serve a metaphorical purpose, but we don't take them seriously. We have our own creation myths, and some of us take them very seriously indeed.

Here is John Haught, a theologian I admire, in a recent issue of Commonweal, offering his own take on how it all came to be:
It is the presence and lure of infinite being, wisdom, truth, and goodness that grounds both the world's intelligibility and our own intelligent life. Through natural processes the inexhaustible love of God evokes an anticipatory restlessness that we call evolution and, in our newly emergent minds, an unrestricted desire to know. Such a theological vision not only makes the world a favorable place for scientific inquiry; it also provides good reasons for entrusting ourselves to the mind's spontaneous quest for understanding and truth.
Well, yes. Give Haught this: He doesn't dismiss science as a way of reliable knowing. And he espouses a faith that doesn't stand in stark opposition to science. But the story he proposes is no less a myth than Adam or the Maori man. For that matter, so is the myth of the scientific materialist, evoking chance and non-teleological emergence. At least the latter has Ockham's razor on its side.

We spend a lot of time contesting each other's myths, as if they had an objective foundation. We have a hard time saying, "I don't know."