Symposium Introduction

Andrew Lewis

Response

O Wasp, Where is Thy Sting?

I read Ronald Osborn’s book Death Before the Fall while camping on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia’s Straight of Georgia, northwest of the Puget Sound. On multiple occasions I heard the area where we were camping described as “edenic,” “paradise,” “what I imagine heaven to be like,” etc. From my campsite I saw a pod of dolphins and a pod of orcas swimming in the water, a family of deer bounding through the forest, a bald eagle fishing for salmon, all framed by majestic Douglas firs, elegant arbutus trees, and gnarly Garry oaks. I camp at this spot every summer with my family, but Osborn’s book made me see it a little differently this year, for this Eden exists not outside of reality of death but because of it. Obviously, dolphins, orcas, and eagles populate the area because their food is plentiful and their food is other living animals. As Osborn spells out memorably with his own memories of observing the wildlife in Africa, the necessity of predation to the animal world is active here.

But it goes beyond this: the deer came so close to my tent because the island is free of their natural predators. As a result, they are pests; they ate other campers’ food right off their picnic tables. We had to shoo them away from ours as if they were wasps. Speaking of wasps, the park rangers were spraying for them in some campsites, but they did so reluctantly because wasps help control the caterpillar population, which doesn’t seem like a problem until you have to spray for caterpillars. Beyond these animal issues, the reason Douglas firs and Garry oaks frame the landscape on this part of Salt Spring is that there was likely a forest fire some time ago, since Douglas firs only release their seeds in extremely hot temperatures and Garry oaks are found in areas once cleared by fire. Garry oaks are now a threatened species because of forest fire suppression. That is, this Eden would not have existed without death and the destruction of habitat, and I’m not sure the reality of death and destruction to our lives and livelihood has been discussed in relation to how we envision Eden and heaven or the resurrection until now.

All these facts of nature show the extent to which this issue of death in the ecosystem is right before our eyes and remains unexplored, willfully ignored, or explained away by young earth creationists, those who practice creation science, and other biblical literalists. Osborn writes:

Simply stated, the trouble is this: Animals, as far as we know, do not have the capacity for anything approaching human moral reasoning and will never be able to comprehend their own suffering in metaphysical or theological terms that might give that suffering meaning for them. (14)

Biblical literalists, according to Osborn, would presumably respond by arguing that

the natural world . . . was radically altered as a result of Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit. The blame for all death and all suffering in nature thus fell squarely upon rebellious humans . . . All mortality and all predation in the animal kingdom were the result of a divine punishment or “curse.” (16)

I thank Osborn for broaching this topic in such an interesting way; to my knowledge, no other book successfully deals with these issues in this way regarding young earth creationist’s perspectives, and I would be interested in reading a biblical literalist’s response to Osborn’s book. Most admirably, Osborn is able to apply a wide variety of tools to assemble his argument, including philosophy, theology, biology, history, and biblical studies. He pulls from a wide variety of thinkers to show the logical problems facing much biblical literalism, especially concerning young earth creationism and creation science and their progenitors’ strategies of defense. I will let those trained in philosophy and theology respond to Osborn’s arguments in his middle chapters. As a biblical scholar and Hebrew teacher, I’m going to focus my attention mainly on chapters 1 and 12 of Osborn’s book—what Osborn wrote on Genesis—and some problems that arose in my readings of those chapters. I’ll conclude with a request to respond further to a comment Osborn makes regarding eschatology—a topic that goes beyond the scope of his book, but which he raises nonetheless.

Osborn begins his book with “a plain reading” of the Creation narrative(s) in Genesis. Why do I put the “s” of “narrative(s)” in parentheses? Because I’m truly not sure whether it should be narrative or narratives based on Osborn’s reading. In fact, I’m not sure why the first chapter of Osborn’s book exists in the way it does, unless the whole purpose of his plain reading of Genesis 1 (and 2?) is to show the absurdity of a plain reading of the creation narrative(s). He hints that absurdity is his modus operandi in the penultimate paragraph of the chapter when he writes that Genesis “is a theological text concerned with theological meanings, and it has conveyed these meanings in a form that must be grasped in terms of the prescientific worldview of its original hearers rather than our own modern one” (37–38). Thus, he gives a plain reading to show how strange it must be, but his plain reading is unlike any I have read before and would certainly not correspond with those he sets out to critique in the first place.

Osborn does not merely offer a plain reading from the perspective of a modern literal creationist or its original hearers or any one perspective. For instance, in his retelling of the first week of creation in Genesis 1, just after offering a sophisticated Thomist exegesis of the relationship between creator and creature, he introduces “Adam,” who in every English translation I know of, does not actually enter the scene until chapter 2. Granted, the Hebrew for “Man” or “man” or “humankind” as told in Gen 1:26 is the noun ’ādām, which is the same word as the proper noun in Gen 3:17, but is clearly (plainly!) used as a collective common noun meaning humanity in Gen 1:26–28 since the imperatives “be fruitful and multiply” and “fill” and “subdue” are in the plural and ’ādām is the agent. Also, in 1:27 God creates “the human” in his image (with the article) and elaborates on the human by describing it as “male and female.” It is very difficult to argue that this “human” is the same person as “the human” in Genesis 2, which is, I suppose, part of Osborn’s point, but again, it is not clear. He bounces back and forth between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, identifying Hebrew terms here and there, introducing Jewish midrash1 on the creation narrative at one point, and describing the serpent’s curse in Gen 3:14 as “clearly metaphorical and symbolic language not to be taken literally” (35). I don’t want to overstate my case. Much of Osborn’s “plain reading” of Creation is informative, instructive, and insightful, but I am just not so sure it is “plain” in the sense the word “plain” is normally used.

There is a point to the chapter, though, which relates to the problem of subduing in Gen 1:28 and the question of whether there was death in Eden. The thesis of the book as a whole is how difficult it is to sustain a literal reading of Creation when accounting for the reality of interspecies cruelty between animals. Osborn then, following Wendell Berry, entertains the possibility that things like predatory animals and annoyances like wasps might be in God’s plan after all (151). Our anthropocentric theology, following Gen 1:26–28, is dutifully checked by God’s answer from the whirlwind in the book of Job. Osborn is right to bring in Job in chapter 12 of his book, for the book of Job ends in a long meditation on creation and its overall mystery to us humans. After a lengthy debate between Job and his friends, where Job demands an answer to his sufferings from God more adequate than his friends’ weak ones, God changes the question. God’s answer is to recreate the world after its destruction in the first three chapters, but instead of creating humans as the centerpiece of the work, they are almost an afterthought. The rhetorical effect in the book of Job, then, is that there are mysteries of which we will never have answered. Indeed, one commentator surmises that Job never even hears that God commends his speech in 42:7!2

Unfortunately, Osborn also has apparently not heard that Yhwh has commended Job’s speech, for at times, he sounds like Job’s friends. In Osborn’s words, Job is not merely myopic but nihilistic (152). He describes Job’s words in chapter 3 as Job cursing all of creation when the text never suggests this. Job does invoke the language of Genesis 1 when he says “let there be darkness” (Job 3:4), but that follows the antecedent, “That day.” That is, “on the day I was born, let there be darkness.” He curses only one day, not all of creation. I don’t think it makes me a lamented literalist for making a point out of this. At the very least, the presumption that Job curses all of creation is unfair to Job, who is, after having lost all of his children and livelihood, expressing his true pain. Furthermore, it is not Job that initiates “decreation” language, but the narrator in describing Job’s fate in chapters 1 and 2.3 Osborn’s interpretation of Job seems also to ignore the rest of Job’s speeches, which display a man at a loss of understanding how the world works but not at all one who wants the world to cease. When Osborn compares Job to Ivan Karamazov, who “accepts the reality of God’s existence but. . . . respectfully ‘returns the ticket,’” (152) he ignores the rest of the book Job. Am I wrong to think such a reading is akin to those who argue that God created the plants of the field on the third day and humans on the sixth day according to Genesis 1 and neglect to explain why in Genesis 2 the male human is created before trees, which are created before the female human?

Maybe I am making too big a deal out of Osborn’s interpretation of Job’s first speech since it may not affect his thesis in any horribly debilitating way. On the other hand, it would seem an important consideration for him rhetorically to make accurate statements about the biblical texts he is using to justify his thesis, especially considering much of what he writes is necessitated by improper readings of the biblical text in the first place. Deriding so-called literalism for its unjustifiable interpretations of key texts is a worthwhile cause, but it does not give license to interpret one’s own key texts willy-nilly for the sake of a thesis. In chapter 6, Osborn writes:

One can only be true to the principle of sola scriptura, I am suggesting, if one is also committed to the principle that the biblical narratives—preciely because they are narratives as opposed to rationalistic syllogisms—draw us into a continuous dialogue that must always strive for the greatest possible inclusion of voices among those who continue to desire to be part of the conversation. (84)

I agree with the assessment, but we must at least try to read the same narratives. Is the Job of whom Osborn speaks the same Job the rest of us are reading?

The major problem with Osborn’s free reading of Job 3 is that despite making some very important points—not the least of which is that the creation narratives of Job are no less scriptural than those of Genesis—Osborn leaves himself open to criticism—maybe even outright dismissal—by the very people he intends to critique in the first place. Going back to my earlier criticism on Osborn’s Genesis, how much does it matter that Osborn’s exegesis contains some flaws? Well, I think it matters because the basis of his criticism is not really that literalists cling too tightly to the text, but that they are not honest readers of the text. They ignore problems raised by the text if the problems do not conform to the readers’ predetermined theses. So my concerns are not merely nitpicky observations of someone immersed in a specialty. These are potentially serious problems to a major component to Osborn’s thesis. How much can we trust of his argument if his own response to flawed exegesis is more flawed exegesis?

I want to be clear that as a professional Old Testament scholar with broad amateur interests I found the rest of Osborn’s book compelling and largely convincing. But I am suspicious of my understanding based on these two chapters and the way he engages in my area of expertise. Can I be fully confident of his conclusions in other areas like philosophy and theology? I’ll leave my criticism there and give Osborn the chance to explain what I may be missing.

I do want to bring up one other idea that crossed my mind in the course of reading Osborn’s book. In the chapter on Job, Osborn brings up the behemoth as a sympathetic creature in God’s creation. Osborn could also have brought up Jonah in this regard. In Jonah, the titular character has compassion on a plant, but God has compassion on a city that has many people who “do not know their right from their left and also many behemoth.” That is, the existence of all those animals, who are not described by God as having a sense of morality like the people (it does not seem to matter that they do or do not “know their right from their left”—a phrase that seems to describe the “evil” of Nineveh) seems to be a reason not to destroy the city. But my question is, what about that plant on which Jonah had compassion? And what about the wasps? Osborn discusses the implausibility of literal readings of Genesis, which I have noted somewhat above. He, however, only hints at apocalyptic visions of the eschaton, which introduce related problems. On page 154, he writes:

The God of Job is not a God who glories in defanged lions, which is to say, unlions. Isaiah 11:1–9, by contrast, envisions a future peaceable kingdom in which “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD” and “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid . . . and the lion shall east straw like the ox.” But the Isaiah passage, unlike Job 38–42, contains no parallel language, allusions or references to the Genesis creation. Its orientation is strictly apocalyptic, anticipating a final transformation of the creation without providing any commentary on its origins. (154, emphasis mine)

I wish that Osborn said more about this since it is related to creation. It is no accident that the final chapter of Revelation describes the eschaton with a river and the Tree of Life—a call back to the Garden of Eden. Therefore, even if eschatology goes beyond the scope of the book, I think it is warranted to ask Osborn to discuss the topic here. Also, I’m just curious about it since I’ve spent much of the past year reading several books on trees.

Tree behavior can be no less amazing and mysterious than animal behavior, especially when it comes to the fig tree. The fig tree, the leaves of which Adam and Eve covered themselves and to which Micah refers as a sign of the day of the Lord (4:4), have an amazing symbiotic relationship to wasps that evokes images of eros and thanatos more than paradise. Before a fig becomes a fruit, it is an inflorescence. That is, it is an inverted flower that needs a very specialized pollinator to transform into a seed-bearing fruit. That pollinator comes in the form of a female wasp covered in pollen, which enters the end of the fig through a hole so tiny that it severs its wings and legs in the process. Once inside the fig, the wasp lays eggs in the flowers that line the inside of the fig, pollinating them in the process, and then she dies. Once the eggs mature, the males hatch first and find the female eggs, impregnating the female wasps (their unborn sisters) before they hatch. The males then die without ever leaving the fig. The females eventually hatch, pregnant and covered in the pollen from their flowers, and leave the fig in order to find another fig on another tree and start the process over again. The remaining fig, meanwhile, digests the male carcasses, produces its own seed, and becomes the fruit that Micah envisioned would sustain the ones returning from exile. Those inflorescent figs that never receive a pollinating wasp never transform into fruit but fall from the tree. It’s an amazing process but raises all sorts of unpredicted questions that pertain to issues similar to those that Osborn raises. For instance, when the “final transformation of the creation” occurs, does that obviate the need for fig wasps? Will fig trees produce fruit asexually just as the lion learns to eat straw like an ox? Or will they continue to act as fig trees, those most benign-appearing dominatrixes of the natural world, offering wasps a cradle, bed, and casket all in one tasty sarcophagus. And what of the wasps? Are they allowed a place in the resurrection?

I’m not one to expend too much energy on questions like what will happen exactly at the resurrection. I am guessing that I am more like Osborn in this regard. The theological truths of God as creator concerns me less on how exactly God went about creating the world and more on how I will then act now that I know that God created the world, and all the mysteries we may never solve, including the morality of wasps and wasp killing. On the other hand, there remains no shortage of people who consider the issues of young earth creationism and exact details of the eschaton extremely important to the life of faith. Upon my return from Salt Spring Island, I reluctantly reentered the world of social media to witness a mini-firestorm concerning a Christian band who “Rattles Christian World With Revelation That They Don’t Believe the Bible Literally.” Specifically, they do not believe Genesis 1–3 should be read literally. Various sites describe the band as “drifting away from biblical orthodoxy” or even putting their own salvation at risk, all because a singer doubted what Osborn explains is a fundamentally flawed reading of the text in the first place. The band is not alone in their trials within the church, as we in the academic world know all too well. Therefore, it is important that this conversation continue. Besides that, I am curious enough about it to wonder how Osborn might respond to questions regarding wasps, wasp killing, and the strange sexual lives of fig trees.


  1. Midrash is, by its very intention, not a plain reading.

  2. Terrence W. Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1991), 98–102. Tilley’s reading takes the idea of a plain reading pretty far. He assumes that Eliphaz and his two friends hear God’s condemnation of their speech and God’s praise of Job’s speech, but that Job neither overhears the commendation of his speech, nor that Eliphaz and the others explain why YHWH has asked them to ask Job to sacrifice for them and pray for them.

  3. See Sam Meier, “Job I–II: A Reflection of Genesis I–III,” VT 39 (1989): 183–93; Phillippe Guillaume, “Job le nudiste ou la genèse de la sagesse,” BN 88 (1997): 19–26.

  • Ron Osborn

    Ron Osborn

    Reply

    A Response to Andrew Lewis

    I am grateful to Andrew Lewis, Ryan McLaughlin, Christina Busman, and Grace Y. Kao for their generous comments, provocative questions, and stimulating critiques of my book, Death Before the Fall. Andrew and Ryan have both posed exegetical challenges, particularly with regard to my reading of the Book of Job, while Christina and Grace have both expressed an interest in my somewhat peculiar heritage as a Seventh-day Adventist who is a dissenter when it comes to a number of problematic aspects of the Adventist tradition. I will address each of my dialogue partners personally (mindful of the fact that the original symposiums were drinking parties among friends!) beginning with some of Andrew’s more critical statements.

    *   *   *

    Andrew, you write that you are not sure whether I think of the Creation in Genesis as a “narrative or narratives,” singular or plural. I am surprised that there was any doubt in your mind since I refer to the creation “narratives” or “stories” (plural) repeatedly throughout the book (see pages 26, 34, 35, 52, 73, 74, 76, 85, 96, 108, 133, 168). You are nevertheless right that I have at times “bounced back and forth between Genesis 1 and 2,” and I can see how this might invite confusion. If Genesis 1 and 2 are very different narratives, as I argue, how is that I have also treated them in certain ways as unfolding a single “story” or theology of creation?

    As a “lay theologian” who is heavily indebted to scholars such as yourself with expertise in biblical studies, I understand Scripture as a whole—both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—to display a remarkable theological and literary unity, yet to also contain a rich plurality of voices that are often in considerable tension if not outright disagreement with each other on matters both trivial and not so trivial. The notion of verbal inerrancy is one I reject, and I accept the scholarly consensus that Genesis was compiled by a redactor (or redactors) from earlier source material and oral traditions. Rather than ignoring or attempting to smooth over narrative differences within and across books, I argue that we must learn to hear God speaking in the complex unity as well as plurality of the biblical witness.

    At least one (though by no means the “whole”) purpose of my “plain” reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is therefore to show (as you have written) the “absurdity of a plain reading”—but only in the sense rigid biblical literalism and “scientific creationism” demand. Fundamentalists steeped in thoroughly modernist and scientific ideas about what does and does not count as truth have burdened Scripture with what I refer to in chapter 3 of the book as unwholesome complexity. There is nothing “plain,” for example, in the various apologetic moves that young earth creationists make in an attempt to show that Genesis 1 and 2 can be perfectly harmonized on scientific as opposed to theological grounds. You write that you are “not so sure [my reading] is ‘plain’ in the sense the word ‘plain’ is normally used.” I sincerely hope it is not! An authentically plain or literal reading, I want my readers to see, would open us to the enigmatic, mysterious, and endlessly evocative poetry of the Creation narratives in ways the hyper-rationalism of fundamentalist-style “scientific” approaches do not.

    You proceed to lay a much more serious charge, asserting that when it comes to the book of Job I have interpreted my “own key texts willy-nilly for the sake of a thesis.” You express doubts about the trustworthiness of my project as whole—including even those parts you say you find convincing—on the basis of our differing interpretations of a single verse, Job 3:4. “How much can we trust of his argument,” you write, “if his own response to flawed exegesis is more flawed exegesis?” I am puzzled why you would make such a statement considering that the overall thrust of my argument in Death Before the Fall by no means hinges upon my reading of Job, as well as the fact that (as I state in my introduction) the book is offered in an open-ended and exploratory spirit, not as a work of dogmatic or systematic theology. You are right, however, to insist upon a careful exegesis of the text. I am therefore happy to say more about how I interpret Job’s protest against God.

    In your reading, as I understand it, there is nothing in Job’s cursing the day of his birth that raises profoundly disturbing questions about the order of creation as a whole. There is no reason to think that Job might be figuring in the poem, precisely in the extremity of his torment, as a spokesperson for Everyperson. But note how baffling God’s reply to Job from out of the whirlwind is if we theologically quarantine Job in this way. A person cries out for an answer to his sufferings—and God, in your view, simply “changes the question”? You say that my reading “ignores the rest of the book Job.” But I am struggling to see how your own reading provides any kind of satisfying or coherent explanation for the rest of the book.

    If Job has not in any way called into question the goodness and meaning of a universe in which the innocent—and not humans alone—suffer, why does God respond to Job’s personal suffering with a blast of fiercely defensive language that takes us back to the birth of the cosmos and the stupendous wonder of existence? I read Job’s curse in chapter 3 as a nihilistic reversal of the creation precisely because of the rest of the book. God simultaneously praises and rebuks Job, I point out, and this calls for some attempt at an explanation beyond the question of Job’s personal suffering. God “changes the question” is to my mind no explanation at all. Your alternative leaves us with a picture of God as a blustering, evasive, and finally inscrutable deity incapable of attending to the issue at hand: the pain of a human being that he himself is in no small part responsible for (through his dark wager with the testing or accuser angel, ha-satan). If your reading of the text is correct, I would have to agree with Elie Wiesel when he writes, “Job’s resignation as a man was an insult to man. He should not have given in so easily.”

    If this is not reason enough to interpret Job’s words—“That day, let it be darkness” (3:4)—as having a broader significance as decreation or anticreation language, effectively reversing the divine “Let there be light,” consider the following additional evidence from the text (I will refer to Robert Alter’s translation and commentary):

    1. Job summons the “day-cursers . . . those ready to rouse Leviathan” (3:8), i.e., those sorcerers whose spells awaken the primordial sea-monster of Canaanite mythology that signifies not order but a return to chaos.
    2. Job calls not only for “darkness” and “death’s shadow” to fall upon his day of birth (3:5), he also declares, “Let its twilight stars go dark” (3:9)—an extinguishing of the heavenly bodies ruled over in orderly fashion in Genesis by the divinely appointed “lesser light”.
    3. Job expands his protest against the day/light in the role of spokesman for all who suffer. Better to be “like babes who never saw light” (3:16). “Why give light to the wretched and life to the deeply embittered”? (v.20).
    4. Suffering is the condition not only of Job or a few other unfortunate ones but in fact of humankind in its entirety. “Like a slave he [man] pants for shade, like a hired worker he waits for his pay” (7:2). “Man born of woman, scant of days and sated with trouble . . .” (14:1). “What is man that You make him great and that You pay head to him?” (7:17). These words of Job, Alter notes, might at first sound like pious praise for humankind’s Creator but they are in fact “a sardonic citation—and reversal—of Psalm 8:5–6.”
    5. Job’s protest against God moves from the realm of human suffering into an extended commentary upon the terrifying moral inscrutability of the non-human world. God “uproots mountains” and “makes earth shake in its setting” (9:5–6). He “bids the sun not to rise,” “stretches the heavens,” and “performs great things without limit and wonders without number” (v.7-10). There is thus little that God says of himself in the final chapters of the poem that Job has not already anticipated. But instead of redounding to God’s glory as in traditional doxology, all that Job’s recitation of the Creator’s sheer power serves to prove is the injustice if not absurdity of his ways: “If it is strength—He is staunch, and if it’s justice—who can arraign Him? . . . He mocks the innocent’s plight” (9:19, 23). Power and justice are not the same thing. What we detect here, Alter writes, is the “fundamental idea that will lead to Kafka’s The Trial.”
    6. Job’s scornful commentary on the creation continues. God “lays bare depths from the darkness” (12:22)—a reversal, Alter again helpfully points out, of the creation account in Genesis in which God calls forth light from darkness. What is more, God “stuns the minds of the people’s leaders, makes them wander in trackless wastes—they grope in darkness without light, He makes them wander like drunken men” (v.24–25). The “wastes” or tohu in this verse, according to Alter, is “the same term used for the primordial void in Genesis 1. Job continues the boldly heretical idea that God, far from being a beneficent Creator establishing order, uses His violent power perversely to mislead humankind.”

    I wish I could claim great originality in detecting an essentially nihilistic strain in what Carol Newsom refers to as “Job’s anti-creation imagery,” but I cannot. As George Steiner writes in Grammars of Creation (with reference to Karl Barth, Martin Buber, and Rudolf Otto):

    If the Maker is such as his motiveless torment of his loving servant suggests, then creation itself is in question. Then God is guilty of having created. In strict logic, Job would, at the start of chapter 3, undo Genesis. “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.” The pereat echoes exactly that in Jeremiah 20, 14–18: “Cursed be the day wherein I was born . . .” But in Job it is no individual, it is the cosmos which is cursed. The day is to be made darkness, “Let the stars of the twilight thereof be dark,” let light go out undoing, uncreating God’s primordial fiat.

    Much more might clearly be said about the book of Job as a narrative concerned not simply with one individual’s personal crisis but also with the meaning and goodness of creation in its entirety. I would also enjoy discussing with you the similarities between Job’s protest and Ivan’s in The Brothers Karamazov, which I think will be apparent to anyone who has made a serious study of Dostoevsky’s novel. And we have not even touched upon “the strange sexual lives of fig trees,” although I take you at your word that they are very strange indeed! In the interest of space, however, I will end here. Even if you are not fully won over by my reading of Job I hope you might now allow that it is a serious one with no small amount of textual evidence in its favor.

     

    References

    Alter, Rober. The Wisdom Books: A Translation with Commentary. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).

    Newsom, Carol A. The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imagination. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

    Steiner, George. Grammars of Creation. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

    Wiesel, Elie. Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends. (New York: Touchstone Books, 1985).

    • Andrew Lewis

      Andrew Lewis

      Reply

      A Reply to Ronald Osborn

      Ronald,
      First of all, thanks for responding so thoroughly to my essay. Also, thanks for clearing things up regarding your first chapter. I don’t want to belabor the point, but, you write “At least one (though by no means the “whole”) purpose of my “plain” reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is therefore to show (as you have written) the “absurdity of a plain reading…” If you don’t mind, what are the other purposes of your plain reading of Genesis 1 and 2? My concerns came as I was reading the first chapter of your book and found myself consistently wondering about the purpose as I was reading. The purpose, perhaps, becomes clearer in the subsequent chapters, but it wasn’t evident to me. I may have missed it, though.

      Regarding your thesis on Job: I am fully aware of the language used by Job, but still don’t see how he could be considered a “nihilist.” Perhaps I’m relying too much on “The Big Lebowski”(http://youtu.be/Y5J_kao6mwA) on how nihilist is defined. Does Job believe in nothing? Or does he even, in your terms, have a “will to nothingness”? You make a case for it in your extended argument above, but there are a number of issues I must address.

      First, as I alluded to above, Job does not begin the decreation language in the book of Job. That begins in chapter 1 when Job, the very epitome of the man in Genesis 1:26-27 (who has been fruitful and multiplied and who has much livestock which has also been fruitful) loses everything in a few short strokes that culminate in a “mighty wind” (1:19). A mighty wind is reminiscent (especially seen in tandem with “the fire of God” [1:16]) of the “wind of God hovering over the waters” in Genesis 1:1. Except this time the mighty wind is destroying and not creating. There are plenty of other hints that what is going on in Job 1 and 2 is reversing what happened in Genesis 1 and 2 but on a small scale.

      As to your individual points, I stand by my earlier comment that Job only curses one day. A nihilist (in my mind) would have fallen for his wife’s temptation (at the behest of a devilish creature) and “cursed God and died” (2:9). When Job finally does open his mouth, the narrator explains it is to curse “his day.” And even though there may be logical problems with cursing one day and wishing it never existed, Job never explicitly strays from that description. All the examples you give from chapter 3 are in the singular. Job 3:8 would read literally, “May they curse it, cursers of a day.” And again, it is logically problematic that one curse a particular day’s morning stars (as Job does in 3:9), but the sentiment is there—he is concerned about his own life and its origins, not all of creation.

      You mention several other passages in Job that point to Job as, at the very least, concerned that the world as a whole is inscrutable, and I agree with you there. The story begins describing a morally upright man who is seemingly blessed for his uprightness. When he loses everything, his whole worldview is challenged and we see that played out in his dialogues with his friends. You mention Barth’s reading of Job, and Barth does say that Job is wrong, but he says that Job is wrong in a way that is right. Barth also bases his interpretation on the wager on whether or not Job fears God for nought or nothing. If Job fears God for nothing, then he believes in something. If Job does not fear God for nothing but for the sake of rewards and then loses those rewards for nothing then Job might as well believe in nothing. But if Job believes in nothing, thus proving he does not fear God for nothing, then the Satan wins the wager. Thus, I have a difficult time thinking of Job as a nihilist.

      Furthermore, though Job is definitely bewildered by the disruption of his worldview, his words are commended at the end of the book by God. What, then, does Job say that is right? I contend that Job always has his focus on something, namely the God he fears. In fact, that is the big difference between Job and his friends—not so much what they say, but to whom they say it. In every one of Job’s speeches, he eventually directs his speech to God (something his friends never do). Yes, Job parodies Psalm 8, but the parody works because both the psalmist and Job see God as concerned with humanity. The psalmist sees that as a good thing and Job seems to view God as tyrant. But still, Job continues to fear God and knows, somehow, that he is right to do so. Thus, after all of the quotes you provide are stated, Job says, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth [lit. “dust”]. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (19:25, 26). This is pretty surprising talk from a nihilist.

      You write above, “I read Job’s curse in chapter 3 as a nihilistic reversal of the creation precisely because of the rest of the book. God simultaneously praises and rebukes Job, I point out, and this calls for some attempt at an explanation beyond the question of Job’s personal suffering.” Ironically, I read Job’s curse in chapter 3 not as a nihilistic reversal of all of creation because of the rest of the book. Yes, God rebukes Job, and I admit I spoke words without knowledge when I flippantly wrote that God merely changes the question. I will acknowledge that God’s recreation language in 38-41 is in response to Job’s initial complaint in chapter 3, since the book as whole seems chiastically arranged as such. And Job admits to speaking words without knowledge, but I would suggest that his wrongness is due to his narcissism, not nihilism. At worst, it is an accidental nihilism in that his cursing of a single day would have implications for the rest of creation (the morning star would be out indefinitely if it is out for one day, etc.). For if God simultaneously praises and rebukes Job, how does one explain the praise? Job speaks words without knowledge, yes. He sees himself lamentably as the center of the universe (7:17), but he does not abandon God. He maintains trust in the Creator even if he doesn’t understand creation.

    • Ron Osborn

      Ron Osborn

      Reply

      A Reply to Andrew Lewis

      Andrew, we are in agreement that Job is saying something very different than Uli, Dieter, and Franz in “The Big Lebowski”! I concede that describing Job as “nihilistic” may have been needlessly provocative, although in truth I am unrepentant for having done so. As I wrote in response to Ryan, in one sense Job’s protest is the very antithesis of nihilism. He retains a powerful sense of justice, injustice, and his own virtue, which no one can convince him out of. He calls God to account from a place of unshakable conviction not only that he has done no wrong but also that he has been wronged. It is God, not Job, who is acting beyond good and evil. It is God who is the true moral nihilist in the story—at least if we listen carefully to Job’s testimony. In chapter 19, for example, the statement “I know that my redeemer lives” (v.25) is not a declaration of unflagging trust in God. The redeemer in ancient Jewish context refers to a family member who comes to one’s defense in a legal setting—and the legal setting before us is God on trial, with Job in the role of accusing victim.

      Job’s flayed skin (v.26), Alter writes, is like that of the condemned man in Kafka’s story “The Penal Colony”, whose crimes are painfully etched on his body by a terrible machine. In Job, however, we know from the prologue that the etchings are being carved into the body of a sinless man as part of a disturbing heavenly experiment on an involuntary human subject, without any Institutional Review Board. Job’s lacerated flesh serves as exhibit A in his indictment of his divine tormentor, who he claims the right to confront face to face in a court made for human measures. “From my flesh I shall behold God” is a bitter charge—not a pious benediction!

      When I refer in my book to Job’s decreation or anticreation language as “nihilistic”, then, I do not mean to suggest that he is a kind of Nietzschean moral relativist. His nihilistic impulse, as I am calling it, is that of someone who has concluded, on highly moral grounds, that nonexistence or nothingness would be better than a seemingly morally indifferent creation filled with unjust and unjustifiable sufferings. The parallels to Ivan Karamazov should be clear. In answer to your question of why God simultaneously praises and rebukes Job, I can therefore do no better than to refer you back to what I wrote inDeath Before the Fall: “Job is right to cry out in protest against his own sufferings; yet in turning his personal experience of suffering into an indictment against the creation in its entirety—against the injustice of existence—he goes too far. This is why, it seems to me, God both praises and rebukes Job when at last he speaks from out of the whirlwind” (152).

    • Andrew Lewis

      Andrew Lewis

      Reply

      A Reply to Ronald Osborn

      Ronald,

      Sorry for the late response. I have a few more questions, I think. Firstly, some clarifications. When I used Job 19 to suggest that Job had a belief in God, I didn’t mean to imply that the go’el was God, just that in the end Job will see God; that should be enough. Yes Job is angry at God and the system he perceives has been short circuited through his unjust suffering. That being said, as Wilhelm Vischer writes, echoing Nietzsche, “Job does not want goods, or The Good, but the goodness of God that is beyond good and evil.” Not that Job doesn’t modify his view of God and how God works, but he seeks God nonetheless.

      Otherwise, I think you present a somewhat convincing case regarding Job’s complaint. Job is right to complain, but he takes it too far when he thinks it would be better that the world not exist. One question that nags at me about this explanation is where the friends come in? That is, when God commends Job’s speech, he also condemns Job’s friends’ words. Not only that, but he does it twice. In fact, Job’s friends are so wrong that Job, the one you say is so bitter that he wants the world to end, is called to pray for them in 42:8. So my question is this: How are Job’s friends so wrong and Job so right?

      If one suggests that Job has repented in his responses to the voice from the whirlwind and the friends did not, the friends did not even get that opportunity. God was not speaking to Eliphaz from the whirlwind. He asks Job specifically to respond and never gives the friends a chance.

      If one suggests that the friends spoke wrongly about the system of retributive justice and Job did not, I believe you show that this is not the case. Both Job and the friends understand the world working the same way at first, but the friends maintain that belief while Job throws his hands up at the injustice of it all since his life has proven the system not to be the case.

      It seems to me that there are two more likely explanations (unless you have another). The first is that the epilogue, starting with Job 42:7 is written by a different author than the dialogues and that the redactor was somewhat careless in his editing the compiled version. This is unsatisfactory to me and it doesn’t sound as if you would agree with that, either.

      The other explanation is that Job is not commended for what he says, but how he says it and to whom he says it. If you go to the phrase itself, it reads:
      42:7c and 42:8c
      כִּ֠י לֹ֣א דִבַּרְתֶּ֥ם אֵלַ֛י נְכֹונָ֖ה כְּעַבְדִּ֥י אִיֹּֽוב׃
      lōʾ dibbartem ʾēlay nəḵônāh …
      Any first year Hebrew student will translate the phrase:
      “You have not spoken to me what is right”
      Most commentators spend little time on this problem (Gray emends the preposition to: ʿalay “You have not spoken about me what is right,” which seems to be what most translations assume.)

      As I wrote in my last response, “in every one of Job’s speeches, he eventually directs his speech to God (something his friends never do).” This seems to me a plausible explanation for what the friends do wrong. (Fun fact: I asked Robert Alter about this phrase at a public lecture a few years ago and he, for lack of a better phrase, blew me off. However, Jens Fokkelman’s subsequently published commentary corroborates my translation. I’m nowhere near a theological library right now so I can’t give you the page numbers, but it’s on the last two pages of text.)

      If you were to look up all the times דבר אל are used in conjunction in the Hebrew Bible and how they were translated in English texts, you would find somewhere around 200 examples of דבר אל in the Hebrew Bible. Of those 200 examples, Isaiah 32:6 is unambiguously not “speak to” but either “to speak in error *concerning* the LORD” or “to preach disloyalty *against* the LORD”. Every other example is either definitely “speak to” or could be “speak to.” Thus, the burden of proof should be on the conventional translation of the preposition (“to”) since 99% of the time does this combination of words mean “speaking to”. And since the context of the book of Job as a whole justifies this reading, I think it is a plausible interpretation of the text, and one we should entertain.

      What did Job’s friends say that was wrong, then? Job’s friends not only never spoke to God, but they even attempted to keep Job from talking to God and just accept that he deserved what he got. Job isn’t just speaking right by protesting his sufferings, he sees God as a person while his friends see God as a system.

      In his book on Job called Deconstructing Theodicy (2008), David Burrell writes: “Job is commended in the end because he dared to address the creatior-God; his interlocutors are castigated for purporting to speak knowingly about that One. Speaking about something veers toward explaining, while speaking to someone can engage both in a relationship of exchange open to yet other forms of understanding.” (124)

      Again, sorry for the late response. I know you’re now busy with Stina’s and Grace’s essays.

    • Ron Osborn

      Ron Osborn

      Reply

      A Reply to Andrew Lewis

      Andrew, I love the distinction you are making between Job’s insistence upon speaking to God vs. his friends’ impulse to speak about God. I have no tools for analyzing the Hebrew but I find what you are arguing compelling. Does this make Job’s friends the original ontotheologians? Thanks again for your willingness to critically engage with my book. I’ve enjoyed and learned from the dialogue.

Ryan McLaughlin

Response

God’s Good Monsters?

Ronald Osborn has done a great service in writing this book. The prose is extremely easy to digest but sacrifices little in intellectual rigor. In addition, Osborn’s wit makes the read quite enjoyable. Style aside, there is much commendable about this work. Osborn raises important methodological and epistemological criticisms of both biblical literalism and fundamentalism. He also highlights the severity of the issue of animal suffering for any Christian theodicy, not excluding paradigms of theistic evolution.

While I thoroughly appreciate (and agree with) much of what Osborne states—not the least of which is his challenge to biblical literalism and fundamentalism and his recognition of the severity of the problem of animal suffering for any Christian theodicy—I have many questions about some of his insights and arguments. Happily, one of the best aspects of Osborn’s work is that he welcomes disagreement, provided it occurs respectfully and dialogically. He does not present his position with absolute certitude—such would be a violation of his epistemology and method. Rather, he asks questions and offers insights in order to further an ongoing conversation. In this review, I take his invitation to dialogue seriously, which leads me to emphasize mainly my point of contention with his work: the argumentation concerning animal suffering is at times exegetically problematic and more self-contradictory than dialectical.

Regarding exegesis, Osborn makes a number of claims that strain biblical texts. Some are seemingly minor, such as when he reads the negative connotation of the Hebrew kabash as an expression of humanity’s military task vis-à-vis the entire creation (28) when the author of Genesis 1 uses the term to refer only to the earth, not animals (Gen 1:28).

Other claims are more problematic, such as Osborn’s suggestion that Genesis presents predation (as opposed to simply death) as existing from the beginning and as being part of the “very good” creation. Even in the beginning, when creation is “very good,” Osborn argues that there are “formidable predators,” appealing to the “sea monsters” of Gen 1:21 and, cross-textually, the Behemoth and Leviathan of Job (I address the problematic reference to the Behemoth below). Drawing again on the notion of kabash as military conquest, Osborn writes, “Adam and Eve must wrestle with this side of the created world and bring it more completely under God’s dominion without overriding or exploiting its freedom.” Adam and Eve, for Osborn, are sent into battle to take on the role of both caretaker and redeemer (32–33).

There are two difficulties here. First, as Osborn himself notes, “The strongest argument against such a reading is Gen 1:30, in which animals are given ‘every green herb for meat.’” His response: “We must note that while this verse hints against predation being willed by God, it does not resolve the question of whether the ‘great sea monsters’ or other wild and creeping creatures might not at their first appearing in fact be predatory.” In other words, “It remains an entirely open question whether very good creatures lacking in moral awareness but possessing creaturely freedom or agency might not take that which they have not been given” (33). Thus, the image appears to be that Adam and Eve must conquer predation, which is the result of creaturely freedom gone awry.

This image leads to the second problem. In his criticism of literalism, Osborn acknowledges, “The natural world is filled with creatures that are anatomically ‘designed’—in their internal organs, their instincts and practically every fiber of their physical structures—to exist by consuming other creatures.” Such creatures are “irreducibly predatory” (134). How then did these creatures arise? Osborn is well aware of the question; his answer seems to be the free-process defense (I address this point below). The problem is not this appeal, but rather his claim that creatures may have used their “creaturely freedom of agency” to “take that which they have not been given.” If such creatures are, in fact, predatory by nature, then they are not choosing to take. They are driven by biological necessity to do so. Said differently, given the irreducibly predatory nature of some animals, how can their participation in predation be a choice they exercise within the freedom that God allots them? One might just as well argue that a human chooses to sweat on a hot day.

The greatest exegetical issues, however, surface in Osborn’s reflection on Job. He begins his discussion, quite problematically in my view, with chapter 3, in which Job curses the day of his birth. Osborn reads this text cosmically, arguing that Job is cursing not the day of his birth, but all creaturely existence. He offers as evidence for this view only verse 9 in which Job calls for the day of his birth to be consumed in darkness, which reverses the creation of light in Genesis 1 (151). “Rather than accept a suffering creation and his own suffering within it as ‘very good,’ Job calls for the creation in its entirety to be undone” (151). This claim strikes me as a radical textual leap with deeply insufficient evidence. In chapter 3, Job’s focus is his suffering, the day of his birth. Thus, it is far from established that Job turns “his personal experience of suffering into an indictment against the creation in its entirety—against the injustice of existence” (152).

More importantly, Job’s focus is not simply suffering, but innocent or unjust suffering (hence his focus on his suffering). The Deuteronomic theology of blessings and curses suggests that obedience yields blessing while wickedness yields cursing (Deut 28), a theology Eliphaz and Bildad promulgate in the narrative. God describes Job as follows: “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8). In chapter 6, Job laments, “O that my vexation were weighed, and all my calamity laid in the balances. . . . O that I might have my request, and that God would grant my desire; that it would please God to crush me, that he would let loose his hand and cut me off! This would be my consolation; I would even exult [Hebrew root, sld] in unrelenting pain; for I have not denied the words of the Holy One” (Job 6:8–10).

The point here is that Job is not opposed to suffering and death, per se. Indeed, he welcomes both! His issue is that his suffering is unjust, for he has “not denied the words of the Holy One,” a claim that God corroborates. This reading strikes against Osborn’s interpretation and his resulting claim that Job’s complaint is one of nihilism or that “the costs of creaturely existence are too high” (152). To put Job’s lament into modern parlance (and in keeping with the themes of Osborn’s text), he protests the aimless and random suffering of “ultra-Darwinianism,” not the presence of just suffering in the form of judgment.

Osborn’s reading of Job continues to be problematic. He maintains that the text offers no rational answer to the question of why suffering occurs. “If one comes to the book of Job expecting or demanding such an answer, God’s words from out of the whirlwind will appear as little more than the tirade of a bullying tyrant” (152). However, Osborn’s emphasis on the absence of reason for Job’s suffering does not survive the canonical text itself. It is true that in the final chapters, God offers no clear answer. Rather, the divine response is “nothing other than the creation itself in all of its stupendous, intricate, frightening, free and often incomprehensible forms” (152). Osborn suggests that such a response is at once “not an answer” and “the only answer possible.”

Yet, the canonical text itself offers another answer. Indeed, the first chapter explains exactly why Job is suffering: God is attempting to prove his point to the satan, the accuser within the divine court. Oddly—and again I am here speaking only canonically, acknowledging that Job may be the compilation of multiple source traditions—God never admits this reason to Job. That is, in the divine expression of flashy anger, God withholds the one piece of information that Job seeks and that the reader knows God has: why Job has suffered.

We may speculate as to why no admittance is made; but that Osborn sidesteps this strand of the text altogether is quite problematic, especially because it challenges his claims about how the text functions vis-à-vis the presence of suffering in creation. That is, while Osborn seems quite willing to embrace the answerless (perhaps we can say unreasonable) divine exposition at the close of the text as a fine response to cosmic suffering, I wonder if he would be as accepting of the notion that all cosmic suffering results from a divine desire to prove a point. I certainly would not accept such a position, but it is nonetheless part of the canonical text and thus cannot be ignored when interpreting the narrative.

Perhaps the most egregious misstep of this chapter, however, comes with Osborn’s discussion of the great predators God cites in the divine diatribe. The text does indeed state that God provides predators with their food. However, it is an extrapolation to suggest that such provision implies that God either created or fully approves of predation. That point aside, a greater issue arises with Osborn’s discussion of the Behemoth. He cites the New English Bible, which describes the Behemoth as “the chief of beasts, the crocodile, who devours cattle as if they were grass” and who God “made to be a tyrant over his peers; for he takes the cattle of the hills for his prey and in his jaws he crunches all wild beasts” (153). God’s admiration of the Behemoth, the great predator, does lend credence to Osborn’s understanding of Job as a positive evaluation of predation at large. The problem is that Osborn has chosen a translation of the text that contrasts sharply with virtually every other translation. Consider the following comparison:

 

Verse NEB NRSV KJV
15 Consider the chief of the beasts, the crocodile, who devours cattle as if they were grass: Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you; it eats grass like an ox. Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
19 He is the chief of God’s works, made to be a tyrant over his peers; It is the first of the great acts of God—only its Maker can approach it with the sword. He is the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him.
20 for he takes the cattle of the hills for his prey and in his jaws he crunches all wild beasts. For the mountains yield food for it where all the wild animals play. Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.

 

The difference is stark. The NRSV and KJV (as well as in the ASV, NIV, ESV, NASB, and the CJB) translate the Hebrew (חָצִיר כַּבָּקָר יֺאכֵל) as the Behemoth eats grass as an ox. The NEB translates it that he “devours cattle as if they were grass.” In the NRSV and KJV, the Behemoth eats of the fruit of the mountain where other animals play. In the NEB he “takes the cattle of the hills for his prey and in his jaws he crunches all wild beasts.”

It would be difficult to imagine two more disparate renditions of the text. In all but the NEB the Behemoth is a non-predator. In the NEB he is the predator par excellence. Admittedly, a majority of voices does not a flawless translation make. But it is odd that Osborn makes no acknowledgement that virtually every other translation of the Hebrew favors the opposite conclusion of his thesis; namely, that “the Creator takes full responsibility for animal predation, and there is no hint that it is anything other than very good” (154). In most translations, God is most impressed with this great creature, the Behemoth, who does not participate in predation. Indeed, the Behemoth bears similarities to Isaiah’s eschatological lion, which shall “eat straw like the ox” (כַּבָּקָר יֺאכֵל-תֶּבֶן).

This final point—the correlation between the Behemoth and Isaiah’s eschatological lion—strikes forcefully against Osborn’s conclusion: “The God of Job is not a God who glorifies in defanged lions, which is to say, unlions. Isa 11:1–9, by contrast, envisions a future peaceable kingdom in which . . . “the lion shall eat straw like an ox.” But the Isaiah passage, unlike Job 38–42, contains parallel language, allusions or references to the Genesis creation” (154). However, given the thoroughly dominant translation of verse 15, God does in fact glorify in non-predators. The Behemoth is, after all, “the first of the great acts of God.” Furthermore, Osborn’s claim about the lack of parallel between Isaiah and Genesis is tenuous, given that Genesis does, by Osborn’s own account, present the divine desire for a creation absent of predation (see Gen 1:29–30).

The ultimate point of Osborn’s engagement with Job is to present a biblical challenge to both literalists who decry predation as a perversion of God’s good creation and Darwinians who describe evolution as cruel (155). The aforementioned problematics of this chapter notwithstanding, it is also worth noting that the term “good” (Hebrew tov) never appears in the text of Job with reference to the created order and does not appear at all in the final four chapters of the text. Said differently, God never argues that the creation is “good” in the book of Job. God simply presents the created order before Job; and God does so in the context of a canonical narrative in which God permits the satan to prey upon Job—God indeed does provide the predator with prey!

My exegetical discontents with Osborn’s work stand aside what I perceive to be a confusing line of argument. As one example, it remains unclear to me if, in a final analysis, Osborn accepts predation as good. On the one hand, he appears to refer to predation as part of the “dark powers” at work in creation (150). On the other hand, he suggests that calling predation not good may represent “ingratitude if not contempt for God’s good creation and the earthiness of material existence” (37, 140–41). On the one hand, he writes, “There are things under heaven and in earth that we should not be at peace with, and the jaws of the Behemoth, I would submit, are one” (157). On the other hand, he maintains, “the Creator takes full responsibility for animal predation, and there is no hint that it is anything other than very good” (154). On the one hand, Osborn affirms that we intuitively sense creation is fallen in the suffering among animals (142–43, 157–58). On the other hand, he questions whether such evaluations are in fact baseless projections of human morality (141).

This lack of clarity affects the potency of Osborn’s favored answer to the issue of animal suffering: the free-process defense. Osborn maintains that creation is an ongoing process in which God invites other creatures and realities to play a part (37, 162). This form of creation, Osborn maintains, requires a form of divine kenosis in which God gives creation its own space to develop (161–62). This position reflects closely many of my own theological commitments; but its delineation falls short of any kind of systematic explanation. The issue is not that it relies on mystery (surely all theodicies must do this!). Rather, the issue is that it remains unclear in exactly what it is saying.

First, the lack of clarity is evident in Osborn’s claim: “In the same way we speak of moral evil as resulting from human free will, we should now somewhat analogously speak of natural evil and animal suffering as emerging from free or indeterminate processes” (161). Note the distinction between “natural evil” and “animal suffering.” Does this separation suggest that animal suffering is not a natural evil? What then is natural evil—only those things that negatively affect humans? Or, is this syntax meant to imply that animal suffering is part of natural evil? Osborn’s claim that, for Christianity, death is the final enemy coupled with his belief that “it is only through the kenosis of Christ [i.e., his death] . . . that our eyes have at last been opened to the real nature of good and evil for the first time” (165) seem to suggest the latter—that suffering, death, and predation in the nonhuman world is an evil. Yet, if such is the case, it is unclear how such a claim squares with his arguments that applying such words as “evil” to evolution and predation are human projections that do not necessarily cohere with the biblical witness (as he maintains is the case in the book of Job).

Second, Osborn’s appeal to free process does not yet clearly explain how the shadowy sides of creation burgeon out of creation’s integrity, bought at God’s kenosis. He maintains that God fine-tunes the creation in its ongoing processes; but these processes themselves are the result of and follow cosmic law. Did God make these laws? If so, are not suffering, death, and (it may be argued) predation foregone conclusions if life emerges within a cosmos in which the laws of thermodynamics reign?

Put as simply as possible, Osborn’s solution has neither clearly committed to whether or not suffering, death, and predation are evils nor offered a vision of how the divine will relates to the cosmic laws that render these aspects of biological existence necessary. It does sound helpful to state the creation is not a “design” so much as a “drama” and that “the creation is best seen as an improvisational theater or musical performance in which the director invites the actors—and not human actors alone—to join in writing the script, with all of the danger and all of the possibility that this implies” (162). Yet, as helpful as these claims sound, they have not yet addressed the most troubling question: Do the parameters God sets for cosmic improvisation (i.e., cosmic law) render suffering, death, and predation inevitable in the event that biological life arises? If not, how do these laws come to be? If so, then God does not so much permit the possibility of such “natural evils” and “animal suffering” as much as God renders them a certainty within a set of lesser uncertainties (e.g., what kind of biodiversity will arise within evolution’s mechanisms?).

Let me conclude by reiterating my appreciation for Osborn’s work. Space limitations keep me from sharing the many positive attributes I find in it. If I am here mainly critical, that criticism should only reflect my humble desire to engage Osborn as a knowledgeable dialogue partner in this important conversation. Also, my criticisms are based on my readings of the text, which may or may not always reflect Osborn’s intentions. At any rate, I would without equivocation recommend this text to anyone interested in the issues of both biblical literalism and animal suffering. My discontents notwithstanding, Osborn’s text raises wonderful questions that help move both conversations in positive directions. For that fact I express only gratitude.

  • Ron Osborn

    Ron Osborn

    Reply

    A Reponse to Ryan McLaughlin

    Ryan, I am glad that you grasped my intention of furthering conversation rather than nailing down once-and-for-all meanings. In the spirit of ongoing dialogue and spirited debate, I would offer the following observations for your consideration.

    You object to my reading of Genesis 1:28 (as describing a difficult and even martial task for humanity vis-à-vis the rest of the creation) on the grounds that “conquer” (kabash) in the verse refers “only to the earth, not animals.” Yet the text explicitly speaks of animals. Here is Robert Alter’s translation of God’s instructions to the human pair: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth” (1:28). Do you think it is theologically or textually necessary to draw a distinction between the divine command to “conquer” (kabash) the earth on the one hand and to “hold sway over” (radah) the animals on the other? Radah, Alter points out, is in fact an amplification of the language of fierce struggle, not a contrast to it: “The verb radah is not the normal Hebrew verb for ‘rule’ (the latter is reflected in ‘dominion’ of verse 16), and in most of the contexts in which it occurs it seems to suggest an absolute or even fierce exercise of mastery.” Beyond this, “earth” throughout scripture clearly refers to more than merely soil! When the Genesis writer says, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array” (2:1), are we to think that the “earth” here does not include plants, animals, and humans? When we read in Exodus, “the earth is the Lord’s” (9:29), can we not assume that the writer implicitly means the earth and everything in it? You are right that this is a very minor quibble that should not detain us. However, this was the first piece of evidence you offered in support of your statement that my handling of scripture is at times “more self-contradictory than dialectical.” I am not sure why you found what I wrote at all controversial.

    You go on to challenge what you describe as my “suggestion that Genesis presents predation (as opposed to simply death) as existing from the beginning and as being part of the ‘very good’ creation.” Our readers should know that nowhere do I argue that Genesis unambiguously presents a picture of either mortality or predation from the beginning. What I do argue is that the narratives—by any close reading that admits the multivalent and highly enigmatic nature of the texts—are silent on these questions. Following even the most “plain” or literalistic hermeneutic, we must wrestle with the clear distinctions drawn in Genesis between domestic and wild animals (including the great sea monsters that we learn more about in the book of Job), as well as between the world inside and the world outside the Garden of Eden. I hope the final takeaway for my readers after my first chapter is not that Genesis supports evolutionary biology or a picture of “very good” predation. It is, rather, that “The creation narratives in Genesis are filled with lacunae and unanswerable riddles that should prevent careful readers from making very many dogmatic statements of any kind” (34–35).

    Along these lines, I think Christians might entertain C. S. Lewis’s cautious speculation in The Problem of Pain that “it may have been one of man’s functions to restore peace to the animal world, and if he had not joined the enemy he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable.” Note that while this is one possibility that I am open to and that I think can be supported from the text, it is not one that I am committed to defending. I describe Lewis’s approach as being valuable “as a way of helping to mediate at least some of the disagreements” between literalists and non-literalists (147), but in the final analysis I am also critical of Lewis’s cosmic conflict theodicy (150). I argue instead—simply as the path that I believe offers the most promising theological as well as scientific way forward—for the value of an evolutionary understanding of the creation that sees animal predation and suffering in terms of principles of freedom and indeterminacy rather than notions of a post-fall “curse” that supernaturally transforms placid vegetarians into ferocious predators.

    Whether such an argument (which I owe primarily to John Polkinghorne) proves satisfying to readers will in the end depend, I suspect, in large part on what they understand the word “freedom” to mean. Creaturely or non-human freedom, I try to make clear, is only like human freedom “somewhat analogously” (162). When lions devour impalas, they are not guilty of “interspecies murder”; they are “simply doing what lions do” (130). I agree with you that whatever “freedom” might mean in the realm of non-human biological existence, it does not mean highly developed moral “choice.” A lion, it goes without saying, has no choice in the matter of whether it will be a predator or not. But neither do humans have any choice in the matter of whether they will be humans or not (as opposed to, say, gods or amphibians or automobiles). Human freedom—which is also a kind of animal freedom—involves biological, genetic, and other limitations. Freedom of any kind is always exercised within a field of constraints. This does not render our language of freedom meaningless, even if every appeal to freedom must in the end amount to a very partial grasping toward a great mystery. Surely you would agree that lions in the wild are free in ways that lions in cages are not (and I do hope the theme song to the film Born Free is now playing in your head). Surely you would agree that even a lion in a cage is freer than a lump of coal. Surely you would allow that there are non-human creatures that possess sentience, agency, wildness, and even forms of consciousness that are very like our own. If you do not agree, I would be interested to know your alternative. Should we be Cartesians who see all non-human creatures as nothing more than complex machines?

    Turning to the book of Job, I would refer you to my response to Andrew in which I argue against restricting Job’s curse to what you describe, with emphasis, as “his suffering” alone. No. Job’s curse in chapter 3 is theologically significant precisely because it is not merely the protest of one person in an agitated emotional state in a situation of extremity. Job’s protest against God is a cry that raises fundamental questions about the goodness of creation and the ultimate nature of reality. Is life absurd and arbitrary? Is God capricious and indifferent? Is there a moral order to the universe? I am not alone in thinking that Job’s reply to these questions throughout the poem amounts to a radical, furious, and systematic subversion of all received pieties. He undermines our confidence in the goodness of the created order and, by extension, its Creator. He reverses the Hebrew prophetic tradition (in which God arraigns Israel in legal terms for breaking the covenant), demanding his own day in court to face off against the Almighty—even though he knows he can never win his case since power is not on his side. And he shatters the Deuteronomist’s comforting theology of distributive justice or “just suffering.” I think that Elie Wiesel’s “reading” of the book of Job in the form of his play, The Trial of God, gets close to the heart of what the book of Job is saying, and I am struck by how the Jewish scholars I have read seem far more deeply—and honestly—attuned to the subversive, disturbing, and quasi-blasphemous elements of the story in contrast to many devout Christian readers.

    The tension between the poetic center of the book and its folktale prologue and conclusion must be noted. Job receives back his wealth “twofold” (42:11), as well as replacement sons and daughters. But it would be a grave mistake to think that these bookends to the poem are what the poem is most profoundly about. Nor will any morally sensitive person accept this as a satisfying or tidy end to the tale. Job is not a moral nihilist, for he insists upon holding on to his own inner sense of virtue and justice throughout the body of the poem. But it is a justice seemingly over and against the world that God has actually created. Job thus prefers nothingness over existence in a cosmos that is hostile to his humanity. Better, he asserts, that he—and by implication all who suffer with him—had never existed at all. The problem of his existence forces us to face the problem of our own existence (just as Ivan’s litany of children suffering in the chapter “Rebellion” in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov cannot be minimized with the observation that these are their sufferings). As George Steiner writes, “The universe could not have been: a benediction in comparison with the world of injustice, of unendurable pain, of arbitrary homicide as Job experiences it. . . . By what histrionic vanity could God pronounce ‘very good’ His artifact?”

    The answer to this question, Steiner concludes (drawing inspiration from Martin Buber and Rudolf Otto), lies not in the direction you have proposed (i.e., in our superior knowledge in comparison to Job of God’s wager with the accuser angel, ha-satan). Rather, Steiner argues, the conclusion to the poem must be grasped in essentially aesthetic terms:

    Beyond good and evil, beyond reason and social-ethical accountability, rages the drive to create, to engender form. Comeliness, proportionality are not essential criteria. Behemoth and Leviathan incarnate the naked pulse of creation even more faithfully than do the lilies of the field. In the aesthetics of God’s non-answering answer to Job, “Art for Art” or, more exactly, “Creation for Creation” displays its enormity, its festive impertinence to humanity. The refusal of creation to justify or explain itself, the refusal of the potter to hold himself accountable to the clay, is implicit in the tautology of the Burning Bush: “I am what I am,” or “I am/I am.” It explodes in Job. God the artist could not contain even within His boundlessness the pressures of creativity. There “is” instead of there being nothing because He is in excess of His solitary being.

    If God’s reply at the end of the poem is the only possible reply to the challenge of what we might call Job’s metaphysics of creation eis nihilo—his reversal of creation back into nothing, implicit as well as explicit in many of his statements—I by no means suggest as you claim that God’s words are a “fine response to cosmic suffering.” Why is it better that there should be a creation with suffering included rather than nothing at all? The only possible reply is creation itself—not some utilitarian calculus of what the creation might be instrumentally or secondarily good for. But this is not the same thing as a “fine response to cosmic suffering.” In fact, what I write in Death Before the Fall is this: I find most answers to the problem of animal suffering to be “morally repellent” and I take the challenges to be “insoluble this side of the parousia (and quite possibly the other side of the parousia as well)” (20); God’s reply from out of the whirlwind “is not an answer to the problem of suffering at all—certainly not Job’s personal sufferings” (152); and “there remains a deep scandal in death and suffering in nature that we must not allow the inspired poetics of the book of Job to cause us to forget or to become comfortably adjusted to” (157).

    Surprisingly, it is not this theologically important question that causes you the greatest concern. You write, “Perhaps the most egregious misstep of this chapter” lies in my reflections on predatory animals in the book (despite my best efforts not to overstate what the text says). You continue, “a greater issue arises with Osborn’s discussion of the Behemoth.” I appreciate the care with which you have developed your argument and I accept your basic point: A majority of translators do not interpret the Behemoth as a crocodile the way the New English Bible does, and there are some compelling (even if not definitive) arguments against this rendition. Of course, reading Behemoth as a creature “like an ox” runs into problems of its own. Oxen are not known for their mighty tails that stand like cedars—perhaps a euphemism for another part of Behemoth’s anatomy, which Stephen Mitchell does not hesitate to name in his translation. Any depiction of Behemoth as a placid, non-ferocious creature also begs the question: Why does God himself approach Behemoth armed with a sword? (Job 40:19). But I think you are right that the controlling imagery is not that of a crocodile. The hippopotamus would perhaps be a better candidate. To clarify, I do not think of either Behemoth or Leviathan as existing animals, past or present. I describe them several times in the book as the “great sea monsters” of Genesis (33–34, 155). I chose to use the NEB translation because of the theological and poetic points it makes, and I think these points remain, your criticisms notwithstanding. As numerous biblical scholars point out, Behemoth and Leviathan are mythical creatures that incorporate highly ambiguous and allusive images from several creatures, real and unreal, potentially including buffalos, bulls, oxen, crocodiles, hippos, dragons, and serpents. Even if we do not see the Behemoth as a fierce predator, we are left with Leviathan and his “teeth of terror” (Job 41:6). Curiously, you nowhere mention Leviathan—and yet God names him “king over all proud beasts” (v. 26). The text, Alter points out, is even ambiguous enough to allow that verse 4 refers to the Leviathan himself: “I would not keep silent about him, about his heroic acts and surpassing grace.”

    We have only touched the surface of the questions you raise but I have already exceeded my allotted word length and I do not want to strain the surpassing grace of our long-suffering editors!

    References

    Alter, Robert. Genesis: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).
    ———. The Wisdom Books: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).
    Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1940).
    Mitchell, Stephen. The Book of Job (San Francisco: HarperPerennial, 1979).
    Steiner, George. Grammars of Creation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
    Wiesel, Elie. The Trial of God (New York: Schocken Books, 1995).

    • Ryan McLaughlin

      Ryan McLaughlin

      Reply

      A Reply to Ronald Osborn

      I am grateful for your response, Ronald. You have clarified some important points and drawn out some of my less than careful readings of your text. In a few areas, I believe you have misread my comments.

      First, I would like acknowledge where your response to me has been helpful in correcting my reading of your text. The reiteration of your desire to avoid dogmatic claims is a helpful reminder, and one that I may have lost sight of in some of my responses. Additionally, the reminder to readers that you do not (and I should add nor do I) consider Behemoth or Leviathan as historical creatures is important. Lastly, I think the added points regarding your reading of Job (both in your response to Andrew and above) significantly increase the weight of the interpretation you offer. While I am not yet convinced Job is calling for the dissolution of all creation, I can certainly acknowledge the strength of your reading. For all these clarifications, I thank you.

      Second, I would like to point out a few places where I think you misread my comments (some are minor and I only point them out for the sake of clarity and shoring up our dialogue). I never stated that your reading of scripture was “more self-contradictory than dialectical.” That comment was reserved for parts of the argumentation of your thesis (a point I will discuss below). Second, my comment on freedom and its limitations was not intended to suggest that animals have no freedom. My point is significant though, and I will address it in detail below. Here, I simply want to acknowledge that I accept nonhumans have freedom and agency in the manner you describe in your response (I certainly don’t embrace a Cartesian view of animals!). Thirdly, I did not mean to suggest that the answer to the question of “How could God call this creation good” lies in the prologue to Job. Rather, I simply wanted to note that, in the face of the question “Why is Job, who is righteous and innocent, suffering?” the canonical text provides an answer: God is accepting the challenge of ha-satan. I don’t like that answer (and would be inclined in the face of it to, like Ivan, hasten to return my ticket); but it’s there in the canonical text nonetheless. There is an answer in the book of Job—just not a good one.

      Third, I should like to, in response to your response, summarize what I perceive to be our central difference. (And I should note that we are in agreement far more often than not). My central discontent with your argument boils down to what I perceive to be an interpretation of Genesis 1 that lacks strength and leads to a logically inconsistent position.
      (As a methodological point, I think much of our disagreement will come down not to which interpretation of a text or texts is “right”—I’m not interested in arguing for a “correct reading” of a text. Rather, our discussion will likely concern which interpretation bears the weight of particular text or texts better. In terms of argumentation, we’re ultimately dealing with the strength of a position, measured by criteria of textual analysis.)

      You rightly point out that you do not claim with certainty that predation is part of the very good creation. This point should not be lost on readers. To clarify, though, when I wrote that you “suggest” such is the case, I was following the line of reasoning you explore in Chapter 1. You do write that God refers to creation as “very good” and that at this stage in creation there are (not “might be”) “formidable predators” (32). Such creatures are “not at all safe or domesticated.” You do not claim, as far as I can tell, that this untamed creation (wild creation perhaps outside of Eden) is not part of (or some distortion of) the very good creation. Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable for a reader to infer that you are suggesting that predation is part of the very good creation. Indeed, your position does not come off as silence here, but rather pointing to textual evidence that creation is wrought with untamed predators from the off and that God still refers to this creation (not in its potentiality but in its actuality) as “very good.” That said, perhaps I should have been more cautious, given your desire to avoid dogmatic formulations in the face of the mysterious dimensions of the text, and stated that you suggest the possibility that predation is part of the very good creation. As you state, the idea that “creation was originally neither immortal nor placid but very good, mortal, finite, and free” “does not conflict with any clear verse in Genesis or the rest of Hebrew Scripture” (33).

      I disagree, mainly because I do not feel you have sufficiently dealt with Genesis 1:30. And it is here that my claim about “freedom” (which I fear I did not convey with sufficient clarity) is key. Let me pull this thought together with a few points:

      (1) Genesis 1:30 clearly breaks the divide between wild and domesticated animals in including “everything that has the breath of life in it” in the purview of its dietary allowances (i.e., plant life).

      (2) On page 33, you acknowledge that Genesis 1:30 “hints against predation being willed by God” but that some creatures, in “creaturely freedom and agency” may have taken “that which they have not been given” (i.e., engaged in predatory activity).

      (3) In your response to my original essay you write that all creaturely freedom has limitations (a point with which I heartily agree).

      (4) You write elsewhere, in your section on the “Divine Curse Dilemma”: “The natural world is filled with creatures that are anatomically ‘designed’…to exist by consuming other creatures” (134). Such creatures as “irreducibly predatory.”

      (5) On account of this position, you are inclined to reject “notions of a post-fall ‘curse’ that supernaturally transforms placid vegetarians into ferocious predators” (I agree with you on this position).

      Based on these points, I think your reading of Genesis 1:30 is faced with a “Free Process Dilemma.” (By the way, I am myself a great fan of the free-process defense of Polkinghorne and Haught. I just think it needs revision to be coherent). The dilemma is as follows:

      (1) Genesis 1:30 strongly indicates (I would say more than “hints”) that God desires a predation-free creation, including both domesticated and wild animals (from points 1 and 2 above).

      (2) Predation results from the freedom and agency that God gives creatures, not from a supernatural altering of their natures (from points 2 and 5 above).

      (3) All creaturely freedom is limited freedom, freedom within parameters (point 3 above).

      (4) The freedom of some creatures is limited in a manner such that they are “irreducibly predator”—that is, they cannot be other than predatory. Said differently, some creatures are not free to be other than predators (from points 3 and 4 above).

      (5) However, these claims contradict one another. Predation cannot have originated out of freedom and agency if some creatures are irreducibly predatory such that they are not free to do otherwise than engage in predation.

      The point to be made is this: In what sense is it logical to claim that God wills a predation-free creation but that predation burgeons out of freedom and agency if some of God’s creatures are “irreducibly predatory”? If we acknowledge that (1) some creatures are irreducibly predatory (and adding to this claim the laws of nature that dictate predation in a biological existence such as ours); and (2) God has created these creatures and cosmic laws as such; then (3) your reading of 1:30 does not hold because it makes little sense to argue that God wills a predation-free creation while at once creating creatures who are irreducibly predatory within a set of cosmic laws that render predation inevitable.

      To summarize: I think the reading you offer of Genesis 1:30 lacks strength because it results in an illogical position. It is therefore, I might argue, better to accept that verses 29 and 30 suggest what Israel believed about the kind of creation God would create (one in which God’s goodness is evinced). This kind of creation is not simply ordered nor simply free. It is peaceful. The points about radah and kabash and the tananim are all trumped, as I see it, by this simple point. Indeed, nowhere does the text explicitly state the dragons (or any creatures) are violent. Indeed, as J. Richard Middleton argues, Genesis 1 is so absent of chaoskampf that even these dragons are “part of God’s peaceable kingdom.” Furthermore, the claim that the terms radah and kabash (even if both apply to animals) imply these creatures are violent because they have, in their free agency, rejected God’s desire for them, does not hold up to logical scrutiny, as I pointed out above. That is, such a reading, I would argue, renders Genesis 1 internally incoherent.

      Once your reading of Genesis 1:30 (from a free process perspective) is thus challenged, your claim that “creation was originally neither immortal nor placid but very good, mortal, finite, and free” “does not conflict with any clear verse in Genesis or the rest of Hebrew Scripture” loses its weight. It seems a stronger reading of Genesis 1:30 that it presents the kind of world Elohim would create. This of course does leave us with the rather complicated question of how to square such a text with evolutionary biology. I don’t think this task is easy. And, while the free-process defense may be the best path forward, I don’t think it quite get us there in the form you (or Polkinghorne or Haught) present.

      All of that to say: I don’t think your reading of Genesis 1 (in which there are “formidable predators” lurking about because they have, in their freedom and agency, not followed God’s desire for the cosmos) bears either the weight of the text (especially verse 30) or the logical conundrum it arouses. In my view, this is the heart of where I disagree with your text (which I attempted to summarize in the paragraph starting with “Put as simply as possible, Osborn’s solution has neither clearly committed to whether or not suffering, death, and predation are evils nor offered a vision of how the divine will relates to the cosmic laws that render these aspects of biological existence necessary”). As I am currently working on a book on this very issue (that is, how the free process defense might be adjusted to make sense of the irreducibly predatory nature of some creatures in the context of cosmic law), I would be most interested to hear your response.

      Sources
      J. Richard Middleton, “Created in the Image of Violent God? The Ethical Problem of the Conquest of Chaos in Biblical Creation Narratives,” in Interpretation 58/4 (October 2004): 341–355.

    • Ron Osborn

      Ron Osborn

      Reply

      A Reply to Ryan McLaughlin

      Ryan, thanks for your further comments. There is a basic error in logic in the syllogism you have presented that I will try to make clear by way of analogy.

      You write, “Predation cannot have originated out of freedom and agency if some creatures are irreducibly predatory such that they are not free to do otherwise than engage in predation.” But surely you would not apply the same reasoning when it comes to questions of human nature. “Fallen” human beings have no choice other than to be “fallen,” and Christian theology has long maintained that our present state is the result of Adam and Eve’s free choice. One of the things that freedom within constraints creates, in other words, is new forms of freedom but also new forms of constraint. There is no contradiction, logical or theological, in the idea that animal suffering and predation in the present arose from principles of freedom or indeterminacy that are vastly older than humanity and are themselves part of the very good but still imperfect world that God created and is creating.

      This leads to a second basic point. “Fallen” human beings are not any less created by God, and not any less made in theimago Dei, for being fallen. As David Hart points out in The Experience of God, even “scientific creationists” or fundamentalists are well aware that God is the Creator not only of Adam and Eve but of every human life. Infants who we rightly say are made both by God and in God’s image are at one and the same time produced by spermatozoon, ovum, and human choices, bearing the image of their natural parents as well. God’s activity as Creator—which is to say, as the sustainer and ground of all of existence—is not in competitive rivalry with processes of “natural” procreation and conception. We do not say that to believe in God as the Creator of human lives negates the agency of all other created beings or their participatory role in the unfolding drama of the divine creation process/event. If I may press the analogy one step further, to say that God is the Creator of every life is to say that God is the Creator of children conceived by teenagers in the back seats of cars. We should apply similar theological understandings of who God is to questions of creation and evolution, animal suffering and animal predation.

      It is not special pleading in the face of new scientific evidence but simply ancient Christian orthodoxy to say that God is fully present in the midst of very imperfect realities, which he may not actively will but which he still blesses and works through and in for his final redemptive purposes. Ultimately, I argue, we must rethink the entire meaning of creation in the light of the kenosis or self-emptying of Christ revealed on the cross. We must let our theological imaginations be formed (or reformed) not by the hermeneutics and anxieties of fundamentalist biblical literalism but by the picture of God revealed in the person of Christ, who does not actively cause or desire suffering for the sake of some higher ideal (like a cosmic Grand Utilitarian) but who instead redeems the groaning of creation in its entirety by entering into it.

    • Ryan McLaughlin

      Ryan McLaughlin

      Reply

      A Reply to Ronald Osborn

      Thank you for your response, Ronald. If you’ll permit me, I’ll offer one more response in turn (and look to you for a closing thought if your schedule permits one).

      The notion of fallen humanity is often (though not always) in Christianity predicated upon some notion of original sin or sinful nature. That is, somehow the disobedience of Adam and Eve changes the nature of humans. As you say, “‘Fallen’ human beings have no choice other than to be ‘fallen.’” However, if I read you correctly, you also reject (as do I) the notion that animal nature is changed by a fall. Thus, it may strain logic to suggest that irreducibly predatory animals are analogical to fallen humans. Humans are sinful (so the theology goes) because they are born sinful, which beckons back to the abuse of freedom of Adam and Eve and the resulting change in human nature. Why are irreducibly predatory animals are born irreducibly predatory? We agree it cannot be because of a human fall. If they are so born—which is to say if animal nature is changed overtime—because of creation’s indeterminacy, at what point do irreducibly predatory creatures arrive on the cosmic scene? And, more importantly, is there arrival inevitable given the boundaries of cosmic law?

      This last question leads to my second point. Free process thinkers (of which you and I are a flavor) maintain that creation is both indeterminacy and cosmic law (e.g., those of thermodynamics). Many such thinkers argue that cosmic law is structured as it is by God. However, the structure of cosmic law makes death inevitable if life arises; suffering inevitable if sentience arises; and predation inevitable if a biodiversity of complexity arises. All of this to say (along with creation spiritualists like Matthew Fox and Thomas Berry) that violence is in the “DNA” of the cosmos, evident from its very beginnings. Violence is part of cosmic law. This “DNA” is evinced in biological life from at least very early on with predation among microorganisms. If such is the case, in what way are elements of biological existence such as death, suffering, and predation the result of chance or indeterminacy? The only way there could be no death is if there were no life. The only way there could be no suffering is if there were no sentience. Lastly, the only way there could be no predation is if there were no biodiversity of complex life forms.

      Combining these two ideas, I would suggest that you still have not adequately explained (1) the relationship between indeterminacy (which God permits in the cosmos) to cosmic law (which I assume you believe God establishes in the cosmos) and (2) how the existence of irreducibly predatory creatures can be considered a result of cosmic indeterminacy if elements of existence such as death, suffering, and predation are inevitable with biodiversity of complex life forms given the set of cosmic laws God has created.

      To clarify my query, allow me to ask two questions:

      1. Do you maintain that God ordained the laws of the cosmos?
      2. If yes to (1), do you think it is possible that, given the laws of the cosmos, life could have developed to the complexity and diversity of even 600 million years ago without predation (or 300 million years ago without suffering)?

      If you answer “yes” and “no” respectively, it seems to me that the real indeterminacy is not whether or not there is suffering and predation, but rather whether or not there is life (and especially complex life) at all. If there is the latter, there will be (not might be) the former. It is in this sense that I’m not yet convinced that, given the laws of the cosmos, predation can be thought to result from indeterminacy. For, if God fine tunes the universe toward complex life and biodiversity, suffering, death, and predation will be the result given the parameters God has chosen to set for the cosmic drama.

      What do you think?

      PS: I realize I may now be asking more of your book than you could possibly have written. Still, I am very much appreciating your perspective and think these questions are essential to conversation in which your book participates.

    • Ron Osborn

      Ron Osborn

      Reply

      A Reply to Ryan McLaughlin

      Ryan, these are excellent questions. I have no confident answers. One thing I think Christians must firmly reject, however, is any kind of theology or metaphysic that inscribes violence and protracted suffering at the very heart of existence as an ontological necessity. God does not desire, ordain, or destine the misery of innocent creatures in order to achieve some sort of higher good. Death may be an inevitable reality of life as we know it. In this sense I agree with you that mortality is somehow part of the “DNA of the cosmos.” But the idea that suffering, violence, and predation are the intended outcomes of God’s “fine-tuning” of the universe I cannot accept. As David Hart writes in The Doors of Sea: “Christians should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply ‘nature’ but ‘creation,’ an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence.” There are ways of taking the biblical language of the fall with utmost seriousness without falling into the calamity of fundamentalist-style creationism.

      We are entering into perilous territory but if physicists are allowed to entertain fantastic speculations about multiverses before the birth of time (or spacetime), perhaps theologians (or lay theologians, as the case may be) should also be permitted occasional imaginative cosmological speculations. I think we must distinguish between mortality on the one hand and predation that involves horrific suffering and agony on the other. It is not difficult to imagine the former without the latter since even in our present state we encounter forms of death that fit the euphemism of peaceful “passing.” The concept of “very good” mortality is therefore one we should have no difficulty accepting. I am inclined to think that natural evil only truly arises with the appearance of a kind of second-order death that involves higher forms of consciousness as well as prolonged and intensified experiences of pain. These might very well be the outcomes of freedom or indeterminacy.

      We might, then, see the cosmos in its entirety as having in some sense come violently detached or separated from the fullness of life in God, by God’s allowance although not by his willing. Or perhaps in a universe of freedom continuous creation always implies a kind of continuous fall. The controlling images in this case would not be those of “design”, mastery, or “fine-tuning,” but rather of divine restraint, self-limitation, and solidarity in suffering. As I wrote in Death Before the Fall, seeing the creation in the light of Christ’s kenosis should lead us to a picture of God creating as he redeems and redeeming as he creates. But in theological perspective, we cannot simply allow “nature” to instruct us as to what is and is not “natural” or God’s “laws of the cosmos”.

      If God is capable of “breathing” life, sentience, and consciousness into mindless matter (as the endlessly evocative and mysterious language of Genesis declares), there is no reason why God’s “breath” could not be a continuous one that sustains not only humans but other creatures as well. Life in such a pure gift economy would be ordered and nourished by the outpouring of divine grace as its “food,” in contrast to the economy of nature as we now know it, with its ironclad laws of competitive rivalry for scarce resources in an entropic universe that is ultimately tending toward either a hot or cold death. I do not think that such a pure gift economy has ever existed in the history of our planet, but this is the eschatological horizon that we must continue to hope for if we are to remain faithful to our calling as followers of the risen Christ. The vision of the New Testament denies us any stoical pact or peace with the harsh realities of death.

    • Ryan McLaughlin

      Ryan McLaughlin

      Reply

      A Reply to Ronald Osborn

      Beautiful and thoughtful sentiments, Ronald. Thank you for sharing them and for your fine book. I hope we find ourselves in other dialogue situations in the future.

    • Ron Osborn

      Ron Osborn

      Reply

      A Reply to Ryan McLaughlin

      Thank for for taking the time to engage with what I wrote at such length. I have learned a great deal from you as well as the other respondents and am sure our paths will cross at some point in the future. It would be fun if all five of us could try get together at an AAR meeting.

Stina Busman Jost

Response

A Sabbath Incomplete?

Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall is a compelling addition to contemporary theological literature. More specifically, I suspect and hope it will be a helpful interlocutor in the renewed conversation surrounding science and theology—especially as the conversation transpires in evangelical circles. And this, after all, is one of Osborn’s intentions with the text. In the introductory material, he notes, “My goal is not to exhaust possibilities but to provoke honest even if unsettling conversations as one member in the body of Christ addressing others. . . . I want to demonstrate to literalists that one can be a thoroughly orthodox Christian and embrace evolutionary concepts without contradiction” (20).

While the book read somewhat unevenly to me—with more time dedicated to the literalist problem and less time dedicated to the questions of evolution and animal suffering than I had hoped—it must be understood that Osborn crafts the work from a particular paradigm for a specific audience. The time spent on matters of biblical literalism seems intended to poise a more conservative audience to receive the heart of his argument.

Thus, perhaps what I appreciate most about Osborn’s work here is his willingness to showcase his own grappling with the Seventh-day Adventist world from which he hails. In many ways, we are given a window into how one wrestles with yet remains in one’s home tradition. Certainly there are others who find different spiritual homes than the ones of their origin (with the movement from evangelical to post-evangelical being both well documented and discussed). Yet Osborn is one who at this juncture has chosen to remain in the denomination of his youth.

Osborn’s opening lines reveal the deep influence of this inherited faith tradition. He begins, “As a child growing up to missionary parents in Zimbabwe not long after its independence from the apartheid regime of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, death in nature was something I had been exposed to from an early age, albeit not in everyday life” (11). Now, some might contend this is simply a popular way to draw a reader in (i.e., with personal narrative). Yet, as Mark Taylor contends, something essentially theological is happening when one acknowledges the context from which one is writing. Taylor notes, “Putting autobiographical elements into theology is one way to redress the often-lamented distance of theology from peoples’ religious, cultural, and political experiences.”1 This is what Osborn is doing. Thus, Osborn’s introduction is commendable—not simply because it is a step of vulnerability; it is commendable because, I submit, it is responsible scholarship. As Taylor further indicates, “[P]resent North American social and institutional practices feature a thoroughgoing, albeit often well disguised, “abstraction” from material conditions, an abstraction that wreaks abuse and oppression on humanity and on nature; an abstraction that is turning away from, often an abhorrence and fear of, concrete existence. The fault is not abstract thinking; rather it is thinking and practice turned away from the sources of human and natural life: matter, bodies, mothers, darkness.”2 Osborn does not turn away from these sources of human and natural life; for him they stand as the backdrop of the text itself.

Oddly then, it is Osborn’s failure to more fully engage the theological tradition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church that is, for me, a great shortcoming of the text. This is evidenced in one of the final chapters, which focuses on Sabbath ethics. While much could be said about Osborn’s approach to C. S. Lewis’s descriptions of theodicy, Osborn’s reading of Job, and his depiction of divine kenosis, I want to spend the remainder of my time in this review focusing on what Osborn sees as the practical, ethical imperative to his work—that is, attention to the rhythm and meanings of Sabbath.

In my estimation, while there is a renewal of contemporary interest in Sabbath in the Christian tradition, a theological backbone in many of these proposals is not as robust as it should be. In recent history, one can winnow out at least four different Christian approaches to Sabbath practices—with Seventh-day Adventists advocating strongly for one of these positions. In many ways, Seventh-day Adventists have been one of the only Christian communities to consistently and uniquely uphold and practice the Sabbath, yet Osborn only touches on (but does not draw upon) this tradition. In light of the argument in the first half of his book, it would be interesting to see Osborn engage the Seventh-day Adventist traditions of Sabbath. Admittedly, perhaps Osborn does not take this route because he wants to appeal to a more general theological (or evangelical) audience. Nevertheless, I submit something is lost without the specificity of a strong theological rationale for appealing to the Sabbath. Undeniably, Osborn gets much of the history right concerning Sabbath and the Christian tradition. Moreover, he highlights a key dimension of the meaning of Sabbath—that is, extending rest and mercy to other humans, sentient beings, and the rest of creation. In general, I agree wholeheartedly with Osborn that an appeal to embrace Sabbath is important here. Yet, it would have been helpful to have time dedicated to a more precise theological argument for why Christians should embrace an ethics grounded in Sabbath.


  1. Mark Taylor, Remembering Esperanza:A Cultural-political Theology for North American Praxis (Mayknoll, NY: Orbis), 2.

  2. Ibid., xv.

  • Ron Osborn

    Ron Osborn

    Reply

    A Response to Grace Y. Kao and Stina Busman Jost

    Stina and Grace, if you don’t mind I would like to limit my response to your essays to the questions you have both raised concerning the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, which I forthrightly claim in Death Before the Fall albeit as a dissenter when it comes to a number of deeply problematic aspects of official Adventist theology. Grace, we can perhaps return to your questions about voluntarism, process theology, etc., at a later time.

    Most people in the United States, I think it can safely be said, do not know anything at all about Adventism, despite the fact that it is one of the world’s fastest growing Christian denominations (with approaching 20 million members worldwide, mostly in Africa and Latin America). Perceptions of Adventists in the larger Christian as well as non-Christian world are often shaped by two jarringly different expressions of Adventist identity: the church’s large network of hospitals and clinics providing excellent medical care to the public; and the evangelistic pamphlets mass distributed by some self-supporting Adventist lay ministries, which often feature lurid imagery of the beasts of Revelation and dire warnings of impending global catastrophe (intermingled with cheerful nutritional advice!). There have been a number of excellent scholarly studies in recent years of Adventist sociology, history, and theology that shed light on these disparate phenomena.[ref]See especially Malcom Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, 2nd edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); and Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001).[/ref] There is also a new edited volume from Oxford University Press on the denomination’s nineteenth-century founding female visionary, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, that will hopefully lead to increased awareness of, and interest in, the Adventist story. Still, Adventism remains largely unexplored in academia. As such, it might have the allure to some outside researchers of an exotic theological “tribe” begging for deeper analysis across a range of topics (apocalypticism, the intersection of health and religion, female charismatic religious leaders, and so on).

    One of the things that anyone paying careful attention to the Adventist experience will quickly discover, however, is that Adventism is by no means a monolithic social or religious group. There is no single way of either defining or making sense of what it means to be Adventist. In this light, I want to critically examine an assumption that seems (even if unconsciously) to underlie both of your reflections, namely, the idea that thinking theologically as an Adventist ought to entail staking out a “uniquely” Adventist approach to the kinds of dilemmas raised in my book.

    Stina, you allude to a singular Adventist understanding of the Sabbath and lament the fact that I did not directly engage with it or speak from out of it. You conclude that the reason I did not do so was because I wanted “to appeal to a more general theological (or evangelical) audience.” Still, you “submit something is lost without the specificity of a strong theological rationale for appealing to the Sabbath.” I am curious, though, why you did not accept the account of the Sabbath I presented as precisely what Sabbath-keeping might mean for at least one Adventist in contrast to more dominant narratives rooted in eschatological claims about the church’s “remnant” status and a preoccupation with commandment-keeping as the path to salvation. Admittedly, I did not attempt anything like a systematic theology of the Sabbath (a task I will leave to the systematic theologians; you might also refer to Adventist New Testament scholar Sigve Tonstad’s excellent book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day). But I do think there were more than a few hints in my final chapter about what the Sabbath means theologically from this particular Adventist’s perspective: participation in a mystical and sacramental drama that might “reenchant the world and mend the frayed strands of existence” (167); symbolic remembrance of continuous creation and an eschatological intimation of eternity (168); a spiritual discipline that reawakens us to God’s compassion, justice, and mercy in our daily living; a reminder of the Jewishness of Christ and an act of repentance for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism (172); and a testament of hope for believers still situated in the liminal time or “shadowlands” between Christ’s cross and the parousia (168). Were these somehow not “Adventist” enough ways of speaking about the meaning of the Sabbath? Was the fact that I was speaking about the Sabbath at all not evidence enough of a somewhat uniquely (although not exclusively) Adventist sensibility?

    Grace, you similarly write that I “neglect to draw upon several tradition-specific practices and arguments” that “would have held special meaning (and thus rhetorical power) for Seventh-Day Adventists” (which, unlike Stina, you take to be my actual primary audience). In particular, you wonder why I did not appeal to widespread Adventist adherence (at least in North America) to a vegetarian diet as well as to White’s words against animal cruelty in my final chapter on caring for creation. These are valid questions. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder about what is implicitly assumed about Adventists in the asking of them. Would, for example, a self-identifying Catholic scholar be as likely to face the question: Why didn’t you write about St. Aquinas? Or are some Christians expected and desired to be more “tradition-specific” than others?

    It is, of course, Adventists themselves who have most frequently emphasized what makes them “tradition specific.” Death Before the Fall grew out of a series of articles I published on the progressive Adventist blog site of Spectrum Magazine, and some readers on that site immediately dismissed my arguments not by carefully attending to my logic or my evidence but instead by way of appeal to the authority of the Adventist tradition itself: Haven’t we always been young earth creationists? Isn’t this what it means to be an Adventist by definition? Why should we care about what St. Augustine, or Calvin, or Barth, or Maimonides has to say about Genesis when we have our own authoritative interpreter of Scripture, Ellen White? One of the purposes of my book, I will candidly share, was to model to the Adventist community a way of being more forthrightly Adventist in conversation with other Christians while at the same time being less tradition-specific, which is to say, less sectarian. Stina, you are therefore only partially correct when you guess that Adventism featured less prominently in the book than it might have because I was writing for a broader Christian audience. Paradoxically, Death Before the Fall attempts to speak to Adventists precisely by refusing to speak about them in the self-referential way many Adventists are accustomed to hearing and reflexively demand.

    To do otherwise, Grace, would unfortunately be fraught with difficulties you may not be aware of when you ask why I did not appeal to statements by Ellen White in my chapter on animal ethics. It is true that White did make several commendable statements of concern for animals near the end of her life. In 1905, she wrote: “Think of the cruelty to animals that meat-eating involves, and its effects on those who inflict and those who behold it. How it destroys the tenderness with which we should regard those creatures of God! The intelligence displayed by many dumb animals approaches so closely to human intelligence that it is a mystery. The animals see and hear and love and fear and suffer.” This statement, which I agree should be celebrated, can be found on the website of a non-profit organization and network for peacemaking and social justice which I helped to co-found in 2001, the Adventist Peace Fellowship (www.adventistpeace.org). There are certainly some rich resources and inspiring examples from within the Adventist tradition for environmental ethics. The most compelling example of an Adventist who has translated White’s words about animal welfare into concrete ethical action is, without question, the Dutch lawyer and environmentalist Marianne Thieme, who in 2002 founded the Party for Animals—the world’s first political party dedicated to defending the rights and interests of non-humans, which now holds several seats in Holland’s national parliament and is the fastest growing party in the country.

    Unfortunately, any celebration of White in a book engaging with questions of theodicy, creationism, evolution, and the origins of animal predation could not simply end with a few inspirational quotations extracted from her corpus. These statements by White are, if we are honest, very few in number, which is why the overwhelming majority of Adventists are completely unaware of them and continue to explain their vegetarianism purely as a matter of bodily health, without any reference to animal rights or animal suffering. By contrast, White spoke repeatedly about the age of the earth being approximately 6,000 years, and she described those who believed otherwise as having succumbed to the atheistic teachings of “infidel geologists.” These harsh words go far to explain why the overwhelming majority of Adventists are today young earth creationists inclined toward strictly literal readings of the creation narratives. It is an uncomfortable fact that one of the things White most clearly left to Adventism is a rigid adherence among many members to strict literalism on Genesis. The Adventist tradition is today in many ways trapped in what a friend of mine astutely refers to as a “double hermeneutical bind”: fundamentalist readings of the Bible are reinforced by the fact that White herself was a highly literalistic reader of Scripture, with any challenge to one being seen as synonymous with an attack on the other.

    I hope these observations help to clarify why I adopted the approach I did in the book.

Grace Kao

Response

Responding Theologically to Animal Ferocity and Suffering

I suspect that many readers will approach Osborn’s Death Before the Fall within the framework of the creation versus evolution debate that has long exercised churches and classrooms across the globe. Indeed, Osborn devotes more than half of his book to describing how the biblical literalism with which he was raised leads to scientifically incredible claims of a young earth and a prelapsarian deathless natural world, among other difficulties. While I affirm the importance of these and other “religion and science” discussions, my review will proceed in a different direction. In focusing on “Part II: On Animal Suffering,” I largely neglect what Osborn himself has described as “prolegomena” (his “Part I: On Literalism”) and turn to “what [he] want[s] to say about the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering and mortality” (19).1

The dilemma upon which Osborn asks us to meditate is this:

Animals, as far we know, do not have the capacity for anything approaching human moral reasoning and will never be able to comprehend their own suffering in metaphysical or theological terms that might give that suffering meaning for them. Why, then, would a just a loving God . . . the undivided and good Creator God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—require or permit such a world to exist? This world is one in which the harrowing suffering of innocent creatures through the violence of other creatures appears at once fraught with terrible savageness and at the same time part of an order that is delicately balanced, achingly beautiful and finely tuned to sustain tremendous diversity of life. If there is a rationally discernible “intelligent design” to the natural world . . . should we not conclude that the design reveals a pitilessly indifferent if not malevolent intelligence? (14)

If we put aside the many places where Osborn either impresses upon his readers the gravity of the problem or humbly acknowledges that there are in the final analysis “no easy answers,” we can read him as providing three discrete responses to the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering (178). The first emerges from his reflections on the final four chapters in the book of Job—“Jewish Scripture’s clearest answer to the problem not only human but also of animal suffering” (151). The second moves Christologically and eschatologically beyond what a “devout Jew or Muslim could . . . affirm” in its claim that neither Genesis nor natural history can be properly understood if we do not begin with a “radically Christocentric understanding of the character of God and the governance of God as revealed in the Jesus of history who is the crucified Savior of the world” (158, 160–61). The third asks Christians to adopt not so much a particular conception of God (theology), but a distinctive set of dispositions and practices (ethics) to live more fully into a vision of “Sabbath rest.” In what follows, I shall raise a few questions about these responses, including how we might sort out the relationships among them.

I. God of the Whirlwind and Divine Command Theory

Osborn turns to the book of Job not only because it provides the “most extended commentary on . . . creation . . . in the biblical canon outside of Genesis itself,” but also to supply counter-evidence to the popular literalist belief that “the biblical writers conceived of all animal suffering as a marker of ‘sin’ or demonic corruption of the material forms of creation” (151). Osborn reads Job as not only challenging God on the grounds of “distributive justice: why do the innocent suffer?” but also on “the problem of nihilism: why is it better that there should be a suffering creation rather than no creation at all?” (151). Osborn’s retrieval of Job for the purposes of theodicy, however, is at best ambivalent: he acknowledges that Job’s existential “case against God’s created order” is “strictly speaking . . . unanswerable in any purely rationalistic or moralistic terms,” admits that God’s response appears as “little more than the tirade of a bullying tyrant” from anyone who comes to the book “expecting or demanding such an answer” (readers of both Job and Osborn’s Death Before the Fall be warned!), and describes God’s answer to Job’s question of nihilism, which points to “nothing other than the creation itself in all of its stupendous, intricate, frightening, free and often incomprehensible forms,” as in one sense being “not an answer to the problem of suffering at all” and in another sense the “only answer possible” (152).

What Osborn finds significant in God’s reply to Job is that God “seemingly delights” in the “wildness and even ferocity of the animal kingdom” and accordingly takes “full responsibility for animal predation” in such a way that leaves no “hint that it is anything other than very good” (153–54). We may be “perplexed and dismayed” by the portrait of God that emerges, but Osborn suggests that the “radical non-anthropocentricity”2 of the book and its “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” verse (Job 40:2) following the poem’s “description of eagles feeding their young the blood of other animals” are essentially conversation-stoppers (154). “Darwinian theorists” or “creationists” who inadvertently mimic Job in supposing that the “natural world . . . is too wild, too finite and too ferocious to be God’s very good creation” are likewise to be chastised for “faultfinding and contending with the Almighty” in their unwillingness to accept the “forces of chaos” in God’s creation that shield neither humans nor other animals from danger (156).

Thus, in affirming that “creation, with its suffering and death included, is very good because it is God’s creation,” Osborn effectively casts his lot in this first response with theological voluntarism. There is “incommensurability between human notions of right and wrong and the structure of reality” as per Osborn’s quotation from renowned Hebrew literature and Jewish Studies scholar Robert Alter, which is to say that creation is good because it is the work of God—not that creation, with its attendant pains and suffering, is good for reasons independent of God’s handiwork or will (to invoke the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma) (156).3 Such a view may preserve God’s sovereignty, but it does so at the expense of removing God as an object of moral admiration. As Leibniz astutely observed in the late seventeenth century, “in saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but sheerly by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise Him for what He has done if He would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary?”4

II. Kenosis, Theosis, and Divergence from Classical Theism?

As if the afore-mentioned ambivalent retrieval of Job were not enough, Osborn essentially begins the next chapter by undermining the gains of the former. Christians are cautioned from permitting the “inspired poetics of the book of Job” to inure us to the “scandal in death and suffering,” because our faith “whose central event is the brutal execution of . . . God on a Roman cross” precludes us from forming any “stoical pact with the cruelties of death as divinely fated necessities of life” (157–58). What Osborn offers as the “most constructive” approach to problem of animal suffering, then, is one that retrieves “Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying on the cross, and the ancient patristic understanding of theosis. . . . [wherein] the journey of creation and pilgrimage of humanity . . . end[s] in our final adoption as coheirs of God’s kingdom and ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (159).

In insisting that we understand the doctrines of creation and redemption together, Osborn is keen to emphasize that the “promis[e] . . . of nothing less than a great transformation of all creaturely existence” should not be thought of as a return to any prelapsarian state of perfection (146). In other words, the “destiny of humankind is not simply a recapitulation or recurrence, paradise lost, paradise restored;” instead, the “end is greater than the beginning—and was always meant to be so” (159). Thus when Isa 11:1–9 speaks of a peaceable kingdom wherein “the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid . . . and the lion shall eat straw like the ox,” Osborn insists upon the passage’s “strictly apocalyptic” orientation: it “anticipate[s] a final transformation of the creation without providing any commentary on its origins” (154).

It is Osborn’s fleshing out of kenosis that leads me to ponder where he remains within, and strays from, “highly traditional . . . orthodox Christian[ity]” (20). His kenotic theology is not limited to the incarnation as per Phil 2:6–8, as suggested by his approving quotation of John Polkinghorne’s account of God’s “willing[ness] to share with creatures, to be vulnerable to creatures, to an extent not anticipated by classical theology’s picture of the God who, through primary causality, is always in total control” (161). In further noting that this 2002 Templeton prize-winner’s description runs counter to both a view of “God’s omnipotence entail[ing] his absolute predestination of all events, including even human choices” that is common in “conservative wings of the Reformed tradition” and Barthian beliefs about the “unbridgeable chasm between God and his creation,” Osborn concludes that he has “no stake in defending such pictures of God.” In his words:

Whatever its difficulties, the only position that makes any moral, religious or rational sense of human moral evil to my mind is the one that declares the divine will wills human freedom, and is both powerful enough and self-giving enough to create beings with the capacity to make meaningful, self-defining choices that are morally and spiritually significant. (161)

So is Osborn’s characterization of God as “powerful enough” his quiet way of rejecting the divine omnipotence doctrine of classical theism as, say, process theologians have done?5 Osborn does reference the work of Alfred North Whitehead in his book, albeit to make a different point (97). And does the distance he creates from the traditional Reformed view of God’s “predestination of all events” suggest that he has greater sympathy with the ideas of “open theism” instead?

To be clear, God’s self-emptying for Osborn not only preserves the sphere of human freedom, but also that of other elements of creation. Osborn writes of “natural and animal suffering as emerging from free or indeterminate processes, which God does not override and which are inherent possibilities in a creation in which the Creator allows the other to be truly other” (161–62). While acknowledging that there are “real dangers . . . of sliding into a sheer dualism, Gnosticism or Manichaeism,” Osborn references the “clear sense throughout the New Testament” that God has “permitted parts of his creation—and not humans alone—the autonomy of radical freedom and even defiance, which God himself must now in some sense struggle against” (144). In short, Osborn’s “kenotic Creator” is not one who “utterly dominates animals,” but who, like a director “invites the actors—and not human actors alone—to join in the writing of the script, with all of the danger and all of the possibility that this implies” (162). This is to say that Osborn has not abandoned the idea of a “fallen” natural world (as his reflections on Job might suggest); he believes that the world we inhabit now is a “dim reflection of God’s original creative intent and final redemptive purpose,” but that the groans and travails of creation appeared well before humans arrived on the scene (143, 146).

While Osborn’s first response to the problem of animal suffering led me to think in terms of divine command theory, Osborn’s second evokes in me, as alluded to earlier, some central claims of process theology. How do Osborn’s views compare to what Jay McDaniel has recognized as process theology’s three-pronged way of responding to the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering: (1) “God’s power is, and always has been persuasive or invitation rather than coercive,” (2) “the natural world has creativity that is independent of God’s creativity” and (3) “by virtue of nature’s creativity, patterns of behavior can emerge in the evolutionary process that even God could not and cannot prevent if there is to be life at all”?6 When we additionally consider that Osborn believes in both creation “by divine fiat” and that “God does not only create ex nihilo,” as “the earth itself . . . participates . . . in the creation process/event” in a way that discloses “God’s way of creating . . . [as] organic, dynamic, complex and ongoing rather than merely a sequence of staccato punctuation marks by verbal decree,” we might also query how close Osborn comes to Jay McDaniel’s defense of “relational panentheism”(25–26).7 To be sure, I offer these questions neither in the spirit of rooting out heresy, nor in defense of process theodicies against their alternatives, but only because I happen to work at the epicenter of process theology (Claremont School of Theology) and thus have gradually been primed—especially by my own students—to think in these ways.

III. Sabbath Rest and the Relationship between Theology and Ethics

If Osborn’s first two responses to the problem of animal suffering provide ways to understand the dilemma intellectually, his third provides guidance on how to respond to the matter practically. Readers discover in his final chapter that what counts ultimately for Osborn is not “detached theologizing,” but “concrete and ethical action that brings Sabbath peace to our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom” (175).

After recalling his own familial traditions of Sabbath-keeping and situating the meaning of Sabbath in Hebrew Scripture as oriented more “toward the future rather than the past or even the present,” Osborn reminds us of the many ways in which the “radical generosity” and “Sabbath economics” of the sabbath day, sabbath year, and “sabbath year of years, the Jubilee” also reflect “profound ecological concern” (167, 169–70). To illustrate, he uses the extension of Sabbath hospitality to nonhumans and even the land in Exod 23:11 (in periodically requiring the land to lie fallow and in permitting the wild animals to eat what the poor do not themselves harvest) to make two points. The first may have implications for agriculture, conservation, and wildlife management in his underscoring of the ways that biblical Sabbath regulations link “productivity and fruitfulness of the earth . . . to human noninterference in the natural world as a regular corrective to human subduing” (170). The second suggests that we do no violence to the text when we translate the biblical concern for animal welfare into the language of rights (“This command of free trespass may be the earliest law of wild animal rights in human history, closely following on the commandment in the Decalogue that domesticated animals shall not be made to work on the Sabbath (Ex. 2010)” (171). Other portions of Scripture that Osborn highlights for animal ethics include the rabbinic teaching, which Jesus himself references, that Sabbath laws can be broken to alleviate the suffering of animals (Matt 12:11–12) and biblical and other Jewish traditions that condemn hunting for sport (171).

This all I can affirm, as I have written elsewhere about the ways in which Christians can take action in their own lives and in public policy on their convictions regarding the intrinsic value of all creation of which the Sabbath traditions in the biblical texts profess.8 In addition, I share Osborn’s encouragement for Christians to focus on the “moral dimensions of the Sabbath,” am likewise aghast at the slaughterhouse realities of “nine billion animals butchered annually in the United States—the cattle routinely dismembered alive, the hogs plunged still conscious into vats of boiling water, the birds packed so tightly into cages to be trucked thousands of miles that they often arrive crushed and suffocated on delivery,” and am intrigued by his apparent Matt 25: 31–46-inspired reading of who “true” creationists may turn out to be—Jane Goodall, among others, over George McCready Price for having “fought to protect the lives of animals when others who loudly claimed to be God’s chief spokespersons viewed the task of actually caring for the creation with reluctance, nonchalance, or outright disdain” (173–74).

Nonetheless, two aspects of his final chapter on animal ethics caught me by surprise. The first was a series of theology-ethics connections wherein Osborn implied that those who interpret Genesis literally are less likely to respond compassionately to animal suffering than those who do not. The second was Osborn’s neglect to draw upon several tradition-specific practices and arguments that I as an outsider thought would have held special meaning (and thus rhetorical power) for Seventh-day Adventists—the primary audience to which the book is addressed as an “open letter” (18).

Taking these in turn, I remain puzzled by Osborn’s implications that biblical literalism leads to apathy about animal suffering, that beliefs that animals are “cursed” after the fall undermine the ability or willingness to “care about the abuse inflicted every second of every day upon sentient creatures in slaughterhouses,” and that those who suppose that animals will ultimately be destroyed by God won’t invest time and energy in alleviating their pains on this side of the eschaton, among other claims (173–74). While Osborn does concede that there is no “inevitable link between biblical literalism and indifference to animal suffering,” he still greatly overstates the relationship (174).9 Ethical views about appropriate human-nonhuman animals, in my view, are much more “freestanding” than he suggests—they are underdetermined by theology.

How so? For one, the notion that the time and resources activists spend on improving the lives of other animals should in many cases be redirected to needy humans is not peculiar to young earth creationists, but widely shared by many Christians of all stripes and by non-Christians as well.10 Second, one can readily provide several counter-examples to Osborn’s notions of causality or even correspondence. Aquinas famously held that the “nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs,” but his rejection of a literalist reading of Genesis on that score didn’t prevent him from reaffirming traditional views (from Aristotle and Augustine) that “their life and death are subject to our use.”11 And no less than Ellen G. White, a pioneer and recognized prophet of Seventh-day Adventism, believed that Genesis 1–11 was “divinely intended to be interpreted historically, and not only theologically” and accordingly affirmed beliefs in “six, literal, empirical, historical 24-hour days of creation, culminating with a literal 24-hour Sabbath day of rest.”12 Still, she not only urged Adventists toward vegetarianism for reasons of health, but also in light of the “cruelty to animals that meat eating involves.”13 Osborn’s attribution of indifference to animal cruelty to the holding of certain theological beliefs thus stands as one of the book’s weakest claims. He is much more successful, however, in placing the blame on sin that need not be peculiar to any denomination or type of Christian (let alone person): “manic human greed,” the infliction of “pain and death upon other sentient creatures for the sake of their own pleasure or profit” (172, 175).

The case of Ellen G. White brings me to the second surprising element of Osborn’s chapter. Why didn’t Osborn commend, much less acknowledge, the Adventist church’s well-known institutional support for, and practices of, vegetarianism? Recall Osborn’s deep concern about anthropogenic “planetary destruction” and the prospect that humans will “devour the earth” in such a way where it is “no longer clear that other species will survive” (174–75). Even if the roughly 30 percent of Adventists who follow recommended church teaching about eating a plant-based diet do so primarily out of beliefs about its health benefits, they would still be (inadvertently) acting in stewardly ways. For a widely-cited UN study on the global livestock sector found that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (a bigger share than that of transport), that the livestock sector is single largest anthropogenic user of land, that the industrial processes involved in rearing animals for food heavily impacts the world’s water supply and poses a threat to the earth’s biodiversity.14 Osborn might accordingly have invoked the Adventist church’s well-known advocacy for vegetarianism, explained the ways in which eating no or less meat contributes to planetary (not just personal) health, and then demonstrated how its co-founder Ellen G. White herself concluded that the “moral evils of a flesh diet are not less marked than are the physical ills” in “destroy[ing] the tenderness with which we should regard these creatures of God.”15

 


  1. I adopt this approach for two reasons. The first is that as someone who is neither a Seventh-day Adventist, nor a member of another “troubled” Christian community that is similarly “committed to a highly literalistic way of reading the creation story in the first chapters of Genesis,” I am not driven the way Osborn is to helping fellow Christians see that “one can be a thoroughly orthodox Christian and embrace evolutionary concepts without contradiction” (17–18, 20). The second is that as an ethicist, I am ultimately drawn more to practical issues than theoretical ones (though of course appreciate the many ways the two are related), and thus resonated most with the final moments of the arc of Osborn’s book.

  2. This is a term he explicitly borrows from Kathryn Schifferdecker (155).

  3. It may be productive to compare Osborn with fellow Christian (a Presbyterian minister) and 2003 Templeton prize-winner Holmes Rolston III. In a widely-discussed article, “Does Nature Need to Be Redeemed,” Zygon (1994): 205–29, Rolston similarly interrogates the traditional doctrine of the fall from the point of view of science (by which “a once paradisiacal nature becomes recalcitrant as a punishment for human sin”), likewise affirms that the “question of suffering in natural history” escapes the “competence of science” but remains “one of the central issues we face” as it is “difficult to avoid pity for nestling birds fallen to the ground,” and similarly quotes from the final chapters of Job (as well as Ps 104: 18–21) to conclude that “none of this suggests that nature is fallen and needs to be redeemed. Is there more to be said”? (Rolston, 205, 211, 216). Rolston differs markedly from Osborn, however, in giving content to the goodness of creation: there is not actually “value loss” but “value capture” in the “appropriation of nutrient materials and energy from one life stream to another” in the case of predation and nature itself could be described as “cruciform” in the way that it redeems suffering, as when a creature “perish[es] in tragedy…but is [also] delivered over as an innocent sacrifice…a blood sacrifice perishing that others may live” (213, 215­19). In the Osborn’s third response (to be discussed below), Osborn seemingly moves away from theological voluntarism and toward Rolston’s views when he acknowledges the “terrible beauty in nature’s mysterious passion play of life-giving death—a beauty that is perhaps the closest we can hope to come to answering the theodicy riddle of animal suffering” (175).

  4. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics, Correspondence with Arnauld and Monadology, translated by George R. Montgomery (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1902 [1686]), 4–5.

  5. Elsewhere, Osborn references Slavoj Žižek’s “provocative rereading of the book of Job . . . as a story . . . of divine impotence” by suggesting that “perhaps” this “self-described atheistic materialist” had nonetheless “discerned a vital truth” (158).

  6. Jay McDaniel, Of God and PelicansA Theology of Reverence for Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 24.

  7. According to McDaniel, relational panenthesism entails the beliefs that “(1) the ‘stuff’ of which the world consists is not identical to the ‘stuff of which God consists, and (2) that the history of the universe, in generality and detail, is not always expressive of the will or purposes of God, though it may be?” (27).

  8. Grace Y. Kao, To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians, edited by Rebecca Todd Peters and Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 97–107.

  9. What Osborn does correctly identify is the link between those who hold biblical literalist beliefs and those who “construc[t] creationist-themed amusement parks or . . . figh[t] costly legal battles in vain attempts to insert their religious beliefs into public high school classrooms” (174).

  10. For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that it is “contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly,” but adds, “It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.” See Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), 2418. The eminent (secular) philosopher Peter Singer has also observed that the assumption that “‘human beings come first’ and that any problem about animals cannot be comparable, as a serious moral or political issue, to problems about humans” is grounded in a widely-held speciesism across society (219–20). See his Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009 [1973]).

  11. ST I, 96, 1, ad. 2; ST II–II, 64, 1, ad. 1.

  12. Cindy Tutsch, “Interpreting Ellen G. White’s Earth History Comments,” Faith and Science Conference II, Glacier View, Colorado, August 13–21, 2003. http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.whiteestate.org/issues/genesis.html. I have my student Saul Barcelo’s 2014 MA thesis, “Adventism and the Incidental Link to the Animal Rights Movement,” to thank for first alerting me to the work of Ellen G. White on animal welfare.

  13. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Company, 1905), 315. Available at http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.whiteestate.org/books/mh/mh.asp.

  14. UNFAO, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options,” November 29, 2006.http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.

  15. White, The Ministry of Healing, 315.

  • Ron Osborn

    Ron Osborn

    Reply

    A Response to Grace Y. Kao and Stina Busman Jost

    Stina and Grace, if you don’t mind I would like to limit my response to your essays to the questions you have both raised concerning the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, which I forthrightly claim in Death Before the Fall albeit as a dissenter when it comes to a number of deeply problematic aspects of official Adventist theology. Grace, we can perhaps return to your questions about voluntarism, process theology, etc., at a later time.

    Most people in the United States, I think it can safely be said, do not know anything at all about Adventism, despite the fact that it is one of the world’s fastest growing Christian denominations (with approaching 20 million members worldwide, mostly in Africa and Latin America). Perceptions of Adventists in the larger Christian as well as non-Christian world are often shaped by two jarringly different expressions of Adventist identity: the church’s large network of hospitals and clinics providing excellent medical care to the public; and the evangelistic pamphlets mass distributed by some self-supporting Adventist lay ministries, which often feature lurid imagery of the beasts of Revelation and dire warnings of impending global catastrophe (intermingled with cheerful nutritional advice!). There have been a number of excellent scholarly studies in recent years of Adventist sociology, history, and theology that shed light on these disparate phenomena.[ref]See especially Malcom Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, 2nd edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); and Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001).[/ref] There is also a new edited volume from Oxford University Press on the denomination’s nineteenth-century founding female visionary, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, that will hopefully lead to increased awareness of, and interest in, the Adventist story. Still, Adventism remains largely unexplored in academia. As such, it might have the allure to some outside researchers of an exotic theological “tribe” begging for deeper analysis across a range of topics (apocalypticism, the intersection of health and religion, female charismatic religious leaders, and so on).

    One of the things that anyone paying careful attention to the Adventist experience will quickly discover, however, is that Adventism is by no means a monolithic social or religious group. There is no single way of either defining or making sense of what it means to be Adventist. In this light, I want to critically examine an assumption that seems (even if unconsciously) to underlie both of your reflections, namely, the idea that thinking theologically as an Adventist ought to entail staking out a “uniquely” Adventist approach to the kinds of dilemmas raised in my book.

    Stina, you allude to a singular Adventist understanding of the Sabbath and lament the fact that I did not directly engage with it or speak from out of it. You conclude that the reason I did not do so was because I wanted “to appeal to a more general theological (or evangelical) audience.” Still, you “submit something is lost without the specificity of a strong theological rationale for appealing to the Sabbath.” I am curious, though, why you did not accept the account of the Sabbath I presented as precisely what Sabbath-keeping might mean for at least one Adventist in contrast to more dominant narratives rooted in eschatological claims about the church’s “remnant” status and a preoccupation with commandment-keeping as the path to salvation. Admittedly, I did not attempt anything like a systematic theology of the Sabbath (a task I will leave to the systematic theologians; you might also refer to Adventist New Testament scholar Sigve Tonstad’s excellent book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day). But I do think there were more than a few hints in my final chapter about what the Sabbath means theologically from this particular Adventist’s perspective: participation in a mystical and sacramental drama that might “reenchant the world and mend the frayed strands of existence” (167); symbolic remembrance of continuous creation and an eschatological intimation of eternity (168); a spiritual discipline that reawakens us to God’s compassion, justice, and mercy in our daily living; a reminder of the Jewishness of Christ and an act of repentance for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism (172); and a testament of hope for believers still situated in the liminal time or “shadowlands” between Christ’s cross and the parousia (168). Were these somehow not “Adventist” enough ways of speaking about the meaning of the Sabbath? Was the fact that I was speaking about the Sabbath at all not evidence enough of a somewhat uniquely (although not exclusively) Adventist sensibility?

    Grace, you similarly write that I “neglect to draw upon several tradition-specific practices and arguments” that “would have held special meaning (and thus rhetorical power) for Seventh-Day Adventists” (which, unlike Stina, you take to be my actual primary audience). In particular, you wonder why I did not appeal to widespread Adventist adherence (at least in North America) to a vegetarian diet as well as to White’s words against animal cruelty in my final chapter on caring for creation. These are valid questions. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder about what is implicitly assumed about Adventists in the asking of them. Would, for example, a self-identifying Catholic scholar be as likely to face the question: Why didn’t you write about St. Aquinas? Or are some Christians expected and desired to be more “tradition-specific” than others?

    It is, of course, Adventists themselves who have most frequently emphasized what makes them “tradition specific.” Death Before the Fall grew out of a series of articles I published on the progressive Adventist blog site of Spectrum Magazine, and some readers on that site immediately dismissed my arguments not by carefully attending to my logic or my evidence but instead by way of appeal to the authority of the Adventist tradition itself: Haven’t we always been young earth creationists? Isn’t this what it means to be an Adventist by definition? Why should we care about what St. Augustine, or Calvin, or Barth, or Maimonides has to say about Genesis when we have our own authoritative interpreter of Scripture, Ellen White? One of the purposes of my book, I will candidly share, was to model to the Adventist community a way of being more forthrightly Adventist in conversation with other Christians while at the same time being less tradition-specific, which is to say, less sectarian. Stina, you are therefore only partially correct when you guess that Adventism featured less prominently in the book than it might have because I was writing for a broader Christian audience. Paradoxically, Death Before the Fall attempts to speak to Adventists precisely by refusing to speak about them in the self-referential way many Adventists are accustomed to hearing and reflexively demand.

    To do otherwise, Grace, would unfortunately be fraught with difficulties you may not be aware of when you ask why I did not appeal to statements by Ellen White in my chapter on animal ethics. It is true that White did make several commendable statements of concern for animals near the end of her life. In 1905, she wrote: “Think of the cruelty to animals that meat-eating involves, and its effects on those who inflict and those who behold it. How it destroys the tenderness with which we should regard those creatures of God! The intelligence displayed by many dumb animals approaches so closely to human intelligence that it is a mystery. The animals see and hear and love and fear and suffer.” This statement, which I agree should be celebrated, can be found on the website of a non-profit organization and network for peacemaking and social justice which I helped to co-found in 2001, the Adventist Peace Fellowship (www.adventistpeace.org). There are certainly some rich resources and inspiring examples from within the Adventist tradition for environmental ethics. The most compelling example of an Adventist who has translated White’s words about animal welfare into concrete ethical action is, without question, the Dutch lawyer and environmentalist Marianne Thieme, who in 2002 founded the Party for Animals—the world’s first political party dedicated to defending the rights and interests of non-humans, which now holds several seats in Holland’s national parliament and is the fastest growing party in the country.

    Unfortunately, any celebration of White in a book engaging with questions of theodicy, creationism, evolution, and the origins of animal predation could not simply end with a few inspirational quotations extracted from her corpus. These statements by White are, if we are honest, very few in number, which is why the overwhelming majority of Adventists are completely unaware of them and continue to explain their vegetarianism purely as a matter of bodily health, without any reference to animal rights or animal suffering. By contrast, White spoke repeatedly about the age of the earth being approximately 6,000 years, and she described those who believed otherwise as having succumbed to the atheistic teachings of “infidel geologists.” These harsh words go far to explain why the overwhelming majority of Adventists are today young earth creationists inclined toward strictly literal readings of the creation narratives. It is an uncomfortable fact that one of the things White most clearly left to Adventism is a rigid adherence among many members to strict literalism on Genesis. The Adventist tradition is today in many ways trapped in what a friend of mine astutely refers to as a “double hermeneutical bind”: fundamentalist readings of the Bible are reinforced by the fact that White herself was a highly literalistic reader of Scripture, with any challenge to one being seen as synonymous with an attack on the other.

    I hope these observations help to clarify why I adopted the approach I did in the book.

    • Grace Kao

      Grace Kao

      Reply

      A Reply to Ronald Osborn

      Ronald: Before I respond to your questions, let me begin by acknowledging how much I enjoyed reading your book, as I see now that I neglected to do so explicitly in my original response. You’ve asked (1) if I believe even on some unconscious level that “thinking theologically as an Adventist ought to entail staking out a ‘uniquely’ Adventist approach to the kinds of dilemmas raised in my book,” (2) whether what I wrote as my “surprise” at your omission of any mention of Ellen White or the tradition of Adventist vegetarianism in Part II is grounded in an implicit assumption on my part about the particularity of Adventists; in your words: “Would, for example, a self-identifying Catholic scholar be as likely to face the question: Why didn’t you write about St. Aquinas? Or are some Christians expected and desired to be more ‘tradition-specific’ than others?”

      I appreciate these questions and the opportunity to converse with you about them for two main reasons. The first is personal—I would hate to be lumped into the category of “outside researchers” whom you find approach Adventism as an “exotic theological ‘tribe’ begging for deeper analysis.” The second is methodological, as the intra-Christian question you raise about sources for theo-ethical reflection has a methodological parallel in Christian ethics about the stance Christians as a community should take to the world: should we as Christians be distinctive and “tradition-specific” in our theo-ethical reasoning (i.e., pursue what Robin Lovin has called the “integrity” approach) or attempt to emphasize connections between Christian faith and other understandings of the right and the good (i.e., pursue what Lovin has called the “synergy” approach)? My own answer to this question is that it depends on the audience one is hoping to persuade.

      So understood, the assumption behind my surprise at your non-mention of Ellen White and Adventist vegetarianism says less about what I think about Adventism and more about my understanding of moral motivation in general: I gather that people are more likely to be moved to change their ways if the reform in question harmonizes with their pre-existing values and/or interests. You’ve penned your book as largely an “open letter” to the Adventist community (p. 18). As I stated, I assumed that Ellen White’s status among Adventists and widespread (though not universal) practices of vegetarianism would have “held special meaning (and thus rhetorical power) for Seventh-day Adventists.” Counterfactually, had your book been addressed to a different audience, I would have expected to see other exemplars or lines of thought. For instance, if you had been trying to convince white Western feminists to care more abut nonhuman animal suffering, I would have been surprised by an omission of the work of Carol Adams. If your intended audience had instead been politically conservative Republican evangelicals, I would have been shocked if you neglected to draw upon Matthew Scully’s Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, since such an audience is more likely to be persuaded by something written by a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush than similar content penned by a PETA activist.

      To answer your question directly, then, had you been a self-identified Catholic scholar and you had been hoping to persuade Catholics on Catholic grounds to care more about nonhuman animal suffering, I would have expected you argue largely in the manner that my colleague Charlie Camosy did in his recent book, For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action: appeal to the Catechism, papal encyclicals, principles in Catholic social teaching such as the “preferential option for the poor,” saints like Francis of Assissi and (yes) theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. But had you been a self-identified Catholic scholar who either did not wish to tread so closely with the Magisterium or were attempting to reach “disaffected Catholics,” then surely I would expect your use and interpretation of sources to be different. I take it that your intended audience, Adventists, and the ways in which you dissent from received teaching serves to complicate the question of which sources to use.

      This brings me to my last point. Of course you are right that I do not know all the complexities involved in using or not using Ellen White for the purposes of moving Adventists more toward an animal welfarist or rights position. But I find that the implicit answer that you gave to my question (about your book’s omission) serves to underscore what I wrote in my original review about what I take to be one of the weakest claims in your book: the link you draw between the holding of certain theological beliefs and indifference to animal suffering. More specifically, I take you to be making the point that you could not have invoked White’s anti-cruelty statements without conjuring for your readers her views on the position you spent more than half of the book attempting to deconstruct: young-earth creationism. But you yourself acknowledge that the Adventist Peace Fellowship you helped to co-found uses Ellen White’s views on nonhuman animals to further your organization’s mission. This is to say that you used her words on nonhuman animals in the “free-standing” way of which I wrote—your organization invoked her animal-friendly views without seeing them (as far as I can tell) as invariably connected theologically to biblical literalism. To be clear, I agree with you that there are problems (theological and practical) with young-earth creationism. I also agree with you, theologically and ethically, that we should be troubled by Christian indifference to (nonhuman) animal suffering. But I just do not see these issues as connected in the ways that you do (though you do, of course, acknowledge in your book that the link is “not inevitable,” p. 174).

    • Ron Osborn

      Ron Osborn

      Reply

      A Reply to Grace Kao

      Grace, thank you for your additional comments. I realize participating in this symposium is a considerable time investment, and it is truly a privilege to be in dialogue with you as well as my other conversation partners.

      Death Before the Fall was certainly written with Adventists as one important audience in mind. The book evolved, after all, from a series of essays that first appeared in a progressive Adventist publication in response to what I describe as powerful movements within Adventist “officialdom” toward an increasingly rigid literalism if not fundamentalism when it comes to the meaning of Genesis (54). However, I also make clear in my introduction that “these reflections are not only for or about Adventists” (18). The question of whether or not to include a chapter about Ellen White and the history and legacy of Adventist creationism was one that I discussed with my editor, David Congdon, at InterVarsity Press. We both in the end agreed that this would distract from the goals of the book given its broader purposes and intended readership.

      I have not hesitated, though, from writing at length about White elsewhere. In the event that you or others are interested in reading my thoughts on some of the peculiarly Adventist dilemmas posed by White’s declarations of young earth creationism (which include the astonishing and hugely embarrassing idea in an 1864 work that some animals as well as human races are the result of biological “amalgamations” of “man and beast”) I am happy to share with you my article,“True Blood: Race, Science, and Early Adventist Amalgamation Theory Revisited” (Spectrum Magazine, 2010). I might also refer you to a recent article of mine in the journal Modern Theology, “The Theopolitics of Adventist Apocalypticism: Progressive or Degenerating Research Program” (which prompted one reader to inform me he had no idea Adventists were so “exotic”).

      I am going to be persistent, however, in emphasizing that there are more ways of modeling as well as expanding a “tradition-specific” theology than by way of direct appeal to a group’s founding figures, its history, or its doctrinal formulations. I have no stake in being anything other than a Christian who is honest and careful in his work. It so happens that I am working out the meaning of my Christianity in the context of Adventist community and beliefs. This includes creatively mining the Adventist heritage for resources that point in the direction of a more intellectually rigorous and socially engaged faith than Adventists have at times exhibited. It also includes being honest in naming those aspects of one’s heritage that are simply indefensible. Anyone who knows Adventist theology well, whether as “insiders” or “outsiders,” should thus immediately recognize this book as a work that is Adventist to its core—not only in its autobiographical aspects or in the problem it is naming but also in the seriousness with which I take cosmic conflict themes, in my expansion of essentially Arminian ideas of freedom to explain realities of evil and suffering, and in my final celebration of a theology and ethics of Sabbath-keeping. There is no secret additional “Adventist sauce” that I’m keeping hidden away in the pantry for when the other guests leave. Nor, I insist, should there be.

      Consider one of the counterfactual examples you offered: Matthew Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. It so happens that Scully was a speechwriter to George W. Bush. I agree with you that if I were trying to engage a conservative Republican evangelical in dialogue about care for creation his book would be a valuable resource. Yet there is nothing in Scully’s book that is politically partisan or distinctively “Republican” whatsoever. His work is powerful because it is morally and critically engaged in ways that transcend ideology. Scully poses a challenge not only to his fellow Republicans but also to those inclined toward dismissive stereotypes of conservative Republican thinkers. I would hope that my book achieves similar things for Adventist readers as well as for persons who have assumed that being a critically engaged Adventist today still requires basing one’s theology or one’s arguments on quotations from Ellen White—even when it comes to scientific matters.

      Finally, let me repeat what I actually said in my book concerning the relationship between rigid fundamentalism or literalism and care (or lack of care) for the environment. Terence Fretheim suggests that when our images or metaphors of the Creator are ones of absolute domination, mastery, and control, our images of humanity’s relationship to the rest of the world also tend to become images of domination, manipulation, and exploitation. And images very often translate into actions. But while I quote this statement by Fretheim and offer several examples of fundamentalist-style rationales for not caring for the environment, I do not argue that literalism leads to indifference to creation as a matter of logical or theological necessity. Instead, I state what I take to be a plain historical fact: “scientific creationists” have not “been at the forefront of the environmental or animal rights movements” (172), and “evolutionary biologists and naturalists—including avowed atheists—have taken the lead in actually protecting God’s creation” (174). My purpose in making these observations was not to invite an argument—it was to provoke at least some of my readers to action. Ethical engagement, not abstract theory, is the best way for biblical literalists to prove my suspicions ungrounded. That is a kind of falsification I would in fact welcome.

    • Grace Kao

      Grace Kao

      Reply

      A Reply to Ronald Osborn

      Ron – forgive me for my lapse in response; I hadn’t realized that you had responded to my response some time ago. Thanks for the clarification re: your discussions with IVP, since as a an academic I know all to well that what we as authors envision and what the publisher may want may not perfectly coincide. And thanks also for pointing me to your earlier work on Ellen White. Your comparison to Scully is indeed informative and I see more clearly now through this symposium exchange (particularly in your comments to Stina and me ) that you really had an unstated third goal for writing your book: undercut biblical literalism on the evolution/creation question (goal #1), move your readership to adopt a certain set of practices and attitudes about nonhuman animal suffering (goal #2), but provide in your writing a new way of doing Adventist theology for both “insiders” (Adventists themselves) and “outsiders” (be they the broader evangelical community or others who may have caricatured understandings of what it means to work out of the Adventist tradition) (goal #3). I can affirm all three of these goals; I just think #3 exists in some tension with #2 for the reasons I named earlier. Still, I think you know by now that my response to your book has been republished in Spectrum, so it is clear that your book is continuing to stir discussion among one segment of the population you had hoped to persuade!

    • Grace Kao

      Grace Kao

      Reply

      A Reply to Edward Guzman

      Edward: thanks for contributing to this symposium discussion and also please forgive the delay in my responding (n.b., I had neglected to check the box “inform me of future comments”). I understand you to be having an internal discussion/dispute with Ron having to do with what is essential to Adventism. I lack the proper positioning to weigh-in on the matter not only as a non-Adventist, but someone who has also some familiarity (not expertise) with the tradition. That said, in general I have long supported particularity (i.e., the development of flourishing, local churches and church traditions) AND ecumenism. To give an example, I might find myself in the company of Mennonites, Catholics, mainline Presbyterians, Quakers, etc. on the applied ethical question of pacifism (vs. just war, or Christian realism), but I appreciate that this assortment of folks will bring both particular/tradition-specific reasons AND shared reasons to the table. As you can see from my exchange with Ron, I think in some cases his many goals and different audiences for the book leads him away from emphasizing the particularities of Adventism that I as an outsider would have thought he would have used, but I also understand more (through this exchange) why he took the path that he did.

       

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