There are books that are planets. One lands oon them, as in some sci-fi flick, and explores the strange ruins, the fantastic phrases that lie about and that seem to have been invented for unknown uses by a mysteriously vanished mental technology.
The Bible, of course, is the most famous of those texts in the West. I like sometimes to play the astronaut among the prophets and the gospels.
Which is how I came upon one of those amazing sentences, a couple of days ago, that seemed to overturn what I thought I know about the book.
Its tucked, appropriately, in one of the books of the Apocrypha – The wisdom of Solomon. In the first chapter:
“For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living.”
Reading this sentence, I did a sort of wiley coyote thing in my head, digging in my heels even as I was sliding over the cliff.
In other religious traditions, the idea of God not making something would not be a big deal. Divine power often operates in a world that exists quite apart from the God. Among the Greeks, there were things in the world that actually encumbered divine power. How the world came to be is often a murkey preface to other stories, and it is the latter that grab the spotlight. But monotheisms are distinguished by the close tie between God and the creator function. So much so, in fact, that it is difficult for people raised in a monotheistic tradition to recognize gods in traditions where no God creates everuthing.
Now, even in monotheism, God’s creating everything does not mean that God is responsible for everuthing. There’s nature, and then there’s the moral order, where man has free will, and sins. Whatever kind of theological curlycues one draws about that fact, it is still endemic to most monotheisms that the moral order is not identical to the natural order.
So one could say, in a sense, that God did not create sin. But death?
Death is, of course, part of the natural order. Or at least the secular view of death puts it with other natural things, such as breathing, eating, sex, etc.
All those natural things are created by God – so how is it that death isn’t? Doesn’t the sentence seem to challenge the power and scope of God?
I can think of two framing interpretations of this statement. In one, death is, indeed, a fragment of the uncreated state - a sort of emissary of what was before God created everything. I am tempted to call it a floating negation, but only in as much as negation approximates the uncreated. In reality, negation would seem to be dependent as a concept on creation, so death wouldn’t be negation so much as a hole in things, a tear.
The other interpretation, which is more orthodox, is that something besides God created death. In this view, there is a spirit of negation, of some type, that has the power to create on a cosmic scale, but subordinate to God. Thus far orthodoxy would go. Here, the story of the Fall intrudes into the picture. And takes on a Blakean cast. The unorthodox version – the gnostic, or promethean, version – would draw attention to the paradoxes in that story. After all, when God places the tree of knowledge in the Garden and warns man not to eat of its fruit on pain of suffering death, it is a warning that makes no sense if man doesn’t understand what death is. But how can man understand what death is if there is no death? The paradox seems diabolic, and the gnostic way out of it would make the God who issued this warning a demiurge of no very moral type.
The orthodox answer, here, is to ignore this paradox as a mystery, and to go ahead with the rest of the story, removing death from the natural order and inserting it into the moral order.
Augustine, in the City of God, treads this route. Death, he explains, is “good unto none.” Thus, it is a pure negation. Death isn’t even good for martyrs. But martyrs and others can go through dying as a glorious thing.
Since death is good unton none, Augustine continues, it is a punishmment. It bears the mark of punishment in its very essence. Augustine impressed a sort of conflation of the moral and the natural, or, if you like, a sublation of the natural into the moral, upon the Christian mind: existence is positive. Existence bears within it the sign of creation – of the being created. This line, actually, is suggested in the Wisdom of Solomon: “for he created all things, that they might have their being: and the generations of the world are healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of death upon earth.”
In our dreamtime – which enfolds most of our waking as well as sleeping moments – this has an intuitive, fairy tale sense. Death is a punishment, and the natural order is the order of health. That’s how our stories work. They all work backwards from death in one way or another.
But I am interested in the first great framing interpretation, which has a less traceable history. I’m interested in how it tugs at the self-evidence of creation itself.