The Three-Tiered Cosmos and Other Lost Causes (EHJ series)

“The historical Jesus community does not worship; it gathers.”

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 171

My college Hebrew professor once woke me up to the dramatic differences between ancient and modern world-views by drawing us a picture of the cosmos as the writer of Genesis understood it. On a dusty green chalkboard he drew a line to represent the ground, then added a half-circle above it to represent the firmament—the vault or arch of the sky. Underneath, he drew a few pillars to hold up the earth, with the space in between representing the world of the dead. Finessing a bit, he added a few windows into the semi-circle, which the gods could open to smell the delicious scent of burning meat on an altar and sprinkle down life-giving water onto the earth in return for the gift. According to the Babylonian epic of creation, the Enuma Elish, which is much older than the Hebrew Bible and on which arguably writers of the Hebrew Bible shamelessly riffed, the firmament was built of the corpse of Tiamat, goddess of creation, who takes the form of water:

Then the lord rested, gazing upon her dead body,
While he divided the flesh of the … , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he established as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
(end of 4th tablet)

You might be interested to learn that human beings in the Enuma Elish were created from the blood of a traitor god Kingu, and destined to be servants of the gods at least in part because of this heritage. The Hebrew God YHWH also assumes the servitude of mankind, but—more optimistically, it seems to me—makes us not of blood but of the dust of the earth. In this sense, the Hebrew worldview had more in common with the Egyptians, who for example in one ancient spell described the relationship between god and humans in the following manner:

It is in the body of the great self-evolving god that I have evolved,
For he created me in his heart,
Made me in his effectiveness,
And exhaled me from his nose.
(Coffin Text Spell 75, in Hollis, “Egyptian Literature”: 129)

Each of these stories of who we are, where we come from, and how we relate to ultimate reality in turn shape our values. It is to such varying understandings of god, the cosmos, and human meaning—in a word, theology—that David Galston turns in chapter 8 of Embracing the Human Jesus, which we have been reading for the past several weeks on this blog. Galston’s whole project has been to ask what would happen if we tried to build a community based on the historical, human Jesus. In this chapter, David asks if we bracket and set aside the idea of a divine being clothed in human flesh, and let Jesus just be human, how would it change our theology?

Courtesy of the British Museum. Clay tablet; map of the world; shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the “Bitter River”

We don’t live in a world that is quite as small as the one envisioned by ancient Mesopotamian peoples. To put it in Galston’s words, “Sometimes ancient problems, even when explained with modern sensibility, remain ancient problems” (181). We can’t make the ancient view of the heavens fit ours. There just isn’t a divine corpse up there holding back the waters of chaos. We’ve gone up and looked around; we know! What’s up there is a dark, cold space punctuated by light. We can still feel awe when we regard it, sense beauty in its formation, and desire to know it. What we can’t do necessarily is worship it as divine.

Galston is arguing that, in the same way, “a word like sin may not be just outdated, it might be a fundamentally flawed way to think about life” along with notions of Jesus as a divine savior and divine intervention in human affairs (181–82). Another notion that goes to the wayside it prayer, in the traditional senses of supplication and thanksgiving. Although many generations of theologians have found ways to make these notions palatable to modern people, it’s still basically the remains of a bygone era. What makes more sense now is to replace the language of God with the language of life, as philosopher Don Cupitt has argued. Although individual people may hold onto these notions for psychological reasons such as the comfort it brings, or out of nostalgia for family and cultural values, Galston urges us to resist this temptation especially in the public sphere, and most especially in church:

All of these expressions deflate the community experience by directing the collective will away from history and from authentic language about life. … An imperative of the historical Jesus community must surely be that the language of the community needs to be directed to history, raised from within the solidarity of people, and hold inspiration to act now. (184)

What I found most meaningful in this chapter was the unswerving commitment to this life, and the warning not to escape it by redirecting our attention to an external, possibly nonexistent reality. Even if it does exist, Galston points out, we still have to live life here, now. Importantly, the conviction is for public life. We don’t worship; we work. I stumbled here on the realization that we often informally define religion itself as involving an attitude of worship. Buddhism, Taoism and other world-views are frequently described as “philosophy” instead of “religion” on this premise. If there’s no worship going on, is it still religion? The next chapter of Galston tackles that question. For now, we are charged not to hope but to act, as in the example of the Good Samaritan: “It is not about a world where someday there will be no enemies; it is, rather, the practice of compassion that shatters the present world of enmity” (185).

From this perspective, the reigning question of life becomes, what actions are you taking that go beyond hope and actually challenge and change a present reality?

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston’s book, Embracing the Human Jesus. You can find chapter 7 here. Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

31 replies
  1. Peter Kane says:

    Tuesday our church hosted a talk by Michael Dowd, scheduled between talks at a number of UU churches before and after. Dowd redefined god more or less as the sum of everything, as revealed by science. Honoring god becomes understanding evolution and preserving the environment. I thought that way of reimagining god was a bit short on a countercultural human Jesus. But it clearly awakened numbers of people to various alternatives to a 3 tiered anthropomorphic way of thinking.

  2. Peter Kane says:

    There were quite a few “I can’t believe a church could support such an interesting topic” comments. For some “losing god” was hard to swallow, but I think not just removing a 1st century god, but suggesting possible 21st century alternatives at the same time is a good idea. Wheels turned in many heads. I have seen the mission field! I have also seen traditional liturgy as an even bigger roadblock to the mission field than before. David’s appendix examples are now even more interesting.

  3. Peter Kane says:

    There were quite a few “I can’t believe a church could support such an interesting topic” comments. For some “losing god” was hard to swallow, but I think not just removing a 1st century god, but suggesting possible 21st century alternatives at the same time is a good idea. Wheels turned in many heads. I have seen the mission field! I have also seen traditional liturgy as an even bigger roadblock to the mission field than before. David’s appendix examples are now even more interesting.

    • Gene Stecher says:

      If there is no Theos, why is it ok to “identity with” Jesus’ ‘practices’ in the liturgies with terms like ‘Holy One of Israel,’ and ‘Father,’ or acknowledge the Egyptian Horus or Akkadian Shamash or Sumerian Utu as promoters of light and justice. Why does the gathering take place in ‘the house of Sophia or Hokmah, the ancient goddess who personifies wisdom,’ who ‘calls human beings to share in a common dignity.’ (Appendix 3)

  4. Gene Stecher says:

    Thoughts: (1) There is no theology without “Theos,” only philosophy or “love of wisdom;” why talk of “theological challenges?” (2) In EHJ liturgy “living” replaces “thanksgiving” to God. Can’t one be thankful for life on its own terms? (3) The experience of guilt is not dependent on a three tiered vision of the universe. (4) The EHJ Jesus is not human but parabolic, the parable world is new Myth; but p is just a clever use of common words to speak truth.
    (5) Is the action poor…

  5. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Well, the historical Jesus would have been a first century, three-tiered world human, where demons roamed & one’s place in that world had to do with the charis of the patron god.There is absolutely no reason to think otherwise, unless one would make him a modern thinker. And, of course that is just elevating him to an omniscient creature.

  6. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    “Action poor” churches is an inaccurate view of most churches of my experience.I detest their theology, but the fundamentalist church down the street also functions as a food bank. My 2 sisters are now on an SBC mission trip, as was recently a former student, a member of an evang. megachurch.The sisters are healers,not proselytizers.I assume mainline denom. do the same.The actions probably include theology,but they are helping hurting people.

    • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

      Vilifying “other” churches is merely applying the evangelical standard to progressive movements.There is a spiritual inbreeding which as I showed in “Cultural Cohesiveness” is a way to maintain the Christian culture, often leading to a sense of superiority and intolerance,but no one with a straight face can say that churches are “action poor.”Is it any different than what Hal Taussig noted in A New Spiritual Home as potential for arrogance (140)?

  7. Gene Stecher says:

    More thoughts: (1) Neither a three tiered universe nor even religious predilections are necessary for violation of a trust and the subsequent self-loathing which comprise sin and guilt: NT examples are Judas and Peter. (2) Supplication is a desire to connect and influence when feeling helpless, a desperate act of hope. Healing is found in the joy of knowing others want to connect. (3) Thanksgiving is not a human inclination that is controlled by the God word.

  8. Brian says:

    Just a curiosity, Cassandra. In the Leonard King (1902) translation of the Enuma Elish, human beings are made from Marduk’s blood and bone.

    When Marduk heard the word of the gods,
    His heart prompted him and he devised a cunning plan.
    He opened his mouth and unto Ea he spake
    That which he had conceived in his heart he imparted unto him:
    “My blood will I take and bone will I fashion
    I will make man, that man may
    I will create man who shall inhabit the earth…”


    • Cassandra says:

      Brian, it’s Kingu, and it’s fascinating! Look for a more complete version of the 6th tablet, like this one:

      Marduk ends up making humans of Kingu’s body at Ea’s suggestion: “Let one brother of theirs be given up./Let him perish that people may be fashioned./Let the great gods assemble/And let the guilty one be given up that they may be confirmed.”

      • Brian says:

        Thanks, Cassandra. This is really helpful! When I have time I’d like to figure out why L. King translated the way he did — maybe there are different versions and they are reconciled by just picking one? I’m going to go with the Lambert version : )

  9. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    There is poetry in the spirit world that isn’t found in the analytical world.The most popular world in the last 20 years has possibly been the spirit world of Harry Potter.People know it’s fiction, but that doesn’t stop them from entering it.Whether presented as religious fact or fantasy,the spirit world of gods&demons will continue to provoke.

  10. Brian says:

    I think the X-Files expressed it the best: “I Want to Believe.” I am not sure what it means–that some people can so easily, imaginatively, abide in mythological/fictional worlds; they want to live there. It can mean a variety of things. Vicarious living through video games, movies, elaborate stories, sports…

    • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

      I see it as a way to escape -if only for an hour or two – from a world of boredom, numbers, nightly news, perhaps of despair & disenfranchisement, into a world that is within one’s control, strange as that might seem. I’m sure that’s one reason I love to read and write fiction and to create music.

  11. Brian says:

    I know many people, young people especially, are looking for heroes and role models. I think that’s part of it: examples of how to behave in this life.

  12. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Writing fiction I enter a different world, the world of the characters & setting, of conflict.It is difficult for anyone to dislodge me from in this world.Plot builds from interactions within the world.Playing music I enter a yet different world of sounds,where my notes are floating on a texture of other notes.Nothing exists but the sounds.I couldn’t imagine how boring life must be without the power of creation.I suspect religious experience is similar.

  13. Peter Kane says:

    In case you haven’t noticed, Galston has a nice column at the end of the latest 4R, The Last Word section, worth reading slowly a couple of times.

    • Gene Stecher says:

      Yes, I saw that Peter, thanks for the heads-up. I remain puzzled by David’s approach. After saying things like, “There is no ultimate signifier, no God,” and, “It (the world) has taken leave of God,” he goes on to propose, “What shall be the theology (knowledge of Theos) of our age” [my parentheses]. How can there be theology without Theos? I think that one can have “atheology” or philosophy (love of wisdom). I hope responses will be given to the many Q raised.

      • Peter Kane says:

        I am sure David would say god is a word that only has meaning in relation to all other human words, and doesn’t stand outside of us and our ‘reality’. David seems to love systematic thinking, but what does theology do when it has lost its object. Think systematically about history???

    • Peter Kane says:

      Mike: There is a sense in which philosophy has some of the same issues as god. is ‘the way things really are’ eternal or relational?

  14. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Just collapse “biblical studies” and theology (or whatever) into philosophy schools at the universities.(Some scholars in one egroup have talked of something similar happening in Europe to save money, so it seems to be “coming.”)If the JS sees the parables as ‘the most significant voiceprint’ of Jesus,that is based on theology,not necessarily history.

  15. Mike Short says:

    “is ‘the way things really are’ eternal or relational?”

    As in all things philosophical, definitions are required. Eternal-having infinite duration. Relational-characterized or constituted by relations. Concerning the nature of the universe, how it really is, it’s eternal but evolving. The universe is also relational, thus the need for the laws of physics to explain those relationships. You, me, them-are also relational but psychology comes into play here. Further discussion will ensue…

  16. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Of course, the problem with Christianity is not the worldview, which generally only is believed in church but the rules pieced together from the general epistles, the 13 attributed to Paul and a selection from the Torah,generally the Holiness Codes (Lev.17-26).That is where the evil lies.

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