A necessary fear of chaos

by Anthony Paul Smith

Allow me a sentimental note to start with. I have been a part of INC from my final year as an undergraduate up through the completion of my PhD and I am excited that we now have this new platform to disseminate our ideas as well as to engage with one another. The quality of posts has been excellent and I hope to add to that. For now though I am going to post pieces brought about by occasions and perhaps in the future will start a series as Randy is going to do.

My doctoral work focused on creating a new theory of nature that could be called, with a bit of humor, a unified theory of philosophical theology and ecology. This work is informed by a historical survey of the way nature has been conceived through our philosophical and religious traditions. This historical approach has been the method I have tried out this year in a Religious Studies/Catholic Studies course, tracing the way contemporary naturalism seems to carry the same logic and form as theological forms of thinking we find in the Medieval Ages. But this year I added something new to the mix, something that I hadn’t really considered in my own research. At the suggestion of Fr. James Halsted, chair of the Department of Religious Studies, our class also looked at the different creation narratives that Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians developed their theologies in relation to. Now each of these faith communities, these Peoples of the Book, share the same creation story, the double narrative we find in the Book of Genesis.

That story is pretty well-known, it is a part of our culture and not just negatively as the banner under which anti-evolution Creationists march. And in fact many contemporary theologians of the various faith communities make a compelling argument for the radical nature of the Genesis story. For the Genesis narrative is a piece of resistance. A story written by an oppressed people against the underlying ideology of the oppressor. You may know that the narrative we find in Genesis draws on earlier creation myths, most notably the Babylonian creation myth we call the Enuma Elish. In the Enuma Elish we are given a story of the creation of the universe that underpins the political form of the Babylonian empire. The universe is forged out of violence, with a minor god, Marduk, disfigured and disembowelling his mother, the god Tiamat, who we are told is also chaos herself. And through the violence committed on the body of the mother, the subduing of chaos, order is brought and that order is world. The world is created through violence where order subdues violence. Marduk is given all power as a reward for his slaying chaos and he goes on to fashion human beings to serve as slaves for himself and the other gods. Now the radical nature of the Genesis narrative can be seen in the way that the authors of that narrative draw on elements of the Enuma Ellish while subverting them at the same time. And so we are not given a creation out of nothing in the original Genesis story, but instead we do find chaos, what Robert Alter translates as “welter and waste”, but this is a chaos ready to receive form. There is no antagonism between the God who creates and this chaos. And humanity here is not created to slave away for God, but instead is created to be a companion of God. The story the theologians tell us is compelling: in the Enuma Elish violence is written into the fabric of the universe and violence determines everything, while in the Genesis creation narrative there is a fundamental ontology of peace.

But something interesting happened in my class. A student challenged this narrative in a way that I think is very much worth wrestling with. He read the difference through the famous thesis of Lynn White, who made the claim that the monotheisms, specifically Christianity, created the ideological background for the actions that led to the environmental crisis. While many of the compelling theologians I mentioned above directly are targeting White in their reappraisal of Genesis, this student made the stunning suggestion that perhaps there is something in the Enuma Elish, that text of the oppressors, that can help us today. For underlying the Enuma Elish is a primal fear of chaos. One accepts the rule of the sovereign because he keeps chaos at bay. Under the monotheistic narrative chaos isn’t to be feared, it’s always open to receiving form. But what if, he said, the environmental crisis requires a bit more fear of chaos?

It was one of those moments that happen a great deal in teaching, more than I think we as educators talk about. A genuine insight, perhaps clumsily stumbled upon, but stumbled upon nonetheless! His point can be developed to show a certain flaw in our still theological (perhaps all-too-theological) forms of thinking about nature. I once heard another theologian, one less concerned with the oppressed, suggest that we shouldn’t worry about peak oil. Why is that? Well, he explained, to use that term loosely, when the oil runs out we will just find something else to use. For this theologian nature is eternal, it is infinite, and because it is the product of an unlimited creator it too shares in that unlimited character to a limited extent (the joys of apophatic thinking!). But what this kind of thinking misses is that, while nature, the cosmos itself, may be infinite, the species that exist in the world now are no more eternal than the billions of extinct species that existed in this same world. And what lines of connection, of exchange, between our bodies and the wider biosphere are not limitless, however vast they may yet be.

And so perhaps a bit of fear of chaos is necessary. Not fear of an absolute chaos (what might that even be?), but fear of the kind of relative chaos that we experience when something doesn’t accord with our bodies. The chaos that many peoples in the world experience everyday, living in less well-developed countries than our own. Perhaps we can even reclaim fear from the oppressor and turn it into a productive emotion akin to Jordan’s use of shame in The Sunflower Forest. Though let’s perhaps leave the solitary sovereign alone.

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4 Comments

Filed under Nature

4 responses to “A necessary fear of chaos

  1. Anthony,

    I like chaos as that which does not “accord with our bodies.” It reminds me of the thesis (LeDoux?) that consciousness of fear *follows* a bodily response, and a piece I read recently about bodily disocmfort being correlated with belief in climate change.

    Here it is:
    http://www.chicagobooth.edu/magazine/33/2/facultydigest/facultydigest1.aspx

  2. Randall Honold

    Your post made me think of Hesiod’s Theogony, where materiality (Gaia) arose from Chaos (with the behind-the-scenes help of Eros). I’d never thought of this in terms of fear, though. Were the Greeks articulating a need to value the material cosmos because it sheltered them from Chaos, the “yawning gap” in being? Maybe for them, and for us, bodies are all we really have to keep chaos at bay, and this is all the more reason to let this fragile materiality guide our environmental intuitions. We in the developed world know theoretically that environmental chaos is possible, perhaps likely; people who are forced to live in degraded environments know the chaos to be currently present and grasp this more directly, through their bodies.

  3. Christine Skolnik

    Randy,
    This is so rich. I’m falling in love with this theme. When’s the EC Ecology, Body, Chaos conference?

  4. newacademy

    Precisely! The peculiar thing about the account of creation in “Genesis” is that the world emerges through the Word, noiselessly and without trouble, as Joseph Campbell points out, in contrast with many other creation myths which entail, as Fred Turner points out, not just violence but, more fundamentally, a deeply shameful act. I have proposed that this is at least part of the “root of our environmental crisis,” providing a grounding for sentimentality and human exceptionalism: we begin with, as you say, Anthony, a peaceful origin (quite contrary to any kind of creation, including the most familiar ones, such as cooking dinner or building a house, not to mention creation per Darwin AND Enuma Elish, which always entails violence and the destruction of one good thing for the sake of another), and into this humans, apparently uniquely, introduce trouble.

    It is worth noting that creation stories often entail violence and even murder, a figure that invites the conflation of shame and guilt. This is understandable, since the two do often come together in experience (the killing that precedes dinner, for example). But not all do. In some Native American origin myths, for example, the trouble in creation is figured as the ineptitude of the creator or the pranks of a Trickster, revealing nature/creation not as morally bad, but as incompetent and amateurish, proceeding by happy accidents (Darwin again…).

    And yes, I think this is very much related to the “shame thing” we’ve talked about. In fact, there is some discussion of this in “Sunflower Forest”. I think this is important, and I look forward to pursuing the conversation…

    By the way, who is that insightful student who brought this up?

    Bill Jordan III

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