I’ve long been interested in how drastically our underlying assumptions and perspectives regarding what the world is and how it works affect how we understand the world. This applies to how we read Scripture too. Recently, I read Stratford Caldecott’s The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity. One who looks into the underlying metaphysics of the secular West, for which we’ll use the term metaphysical naturalism to denote, realizes that it reduces all reality to the mechanical interactions of physical particles. If this is the case, then what constitutes the real distinction between life and death, animate and inanimate? At the bottom they are both the same sort of thing. Thus, life tends to become the aporia – the exception to reality – or worse, something to be explained away.
Caldecott suggests that we turn from this Enlightenment view of reality, where “deadness” or “lack of life” is the basic state of things, and instead see “life” as the given, a transcendental quality of all being (by “being” I mean that which exists; by “transcendental” I mean a quality that all being shares inherently). Thus “life” or “proto-life” would be inherent in all things. Animate, ensouled beings are not the exception then; rather, they are the fulfilment of a primal principle contained in all being.
This seems to me the proper Christian perspective. Or at least close to it. If we look to the Gospel of John: “That which came into being in him was life” (John 1:3-4). While this sentence is terse and somewhat obscure in the Greek, it seems almost certain to me that it should be translated something like this. As the Psalmist says in “For with you is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). God is life and life flows from him. All which comes from him, all created things, participate in his Life.
As I’ve been reflected on this, I came across another interesting reframing. This time of a scriptural passage – the story of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark.* In this story Jesus allows about several thousand demons to enter a herd of pigs, which then proceed to rush headlong into the sea and drown.
Many people understandably find this passage disturbing, wondering why Jesus allows, even commands, the suffering and death of all these poor animals. I think perhaps we can find a different perspective on it.
Of course, being the secular Westerners that we are, we read this passage far too atheistically. First, we have to remember that in the minds of Mark and his readers, this Jesus is a cosmic, heavenly being.** All things came into being through him (as even our earliest Christian writer, the Apostle Paul, acknowledges), and therefore all things intimately have their life through him and share their life with him. These swine are one of his creations, and they have their life through him.
What if, instead of imagining poor piggies being goaded to haplessly run off a cliff, we imagine that they, at the center of their being, “know” that this Jesus is the source of their being and that their life is in and from him. What if these swine have a primal impulse of life in them that runs counter to the death and anti-creational impulse of the demons. What if they understood themselves on a deep level as serving their creator and the source of their being through sacrificing themselves in order to trap these demons at the bottom of the abyss? In other words, what if we imagine the pigs as on some level courageous agents serving being against anti-being rather than unfortunate victims?
I think Mark’s narrative even runs in this direction. Scholars recognize that in Greek the terminology used to describe the pigs’ action could just as easily be military terminology: the demons ask to be “dispatched” into the swine. The herd is a “company” of soldiers. The pigs “rush” down the slope like soldiers rushing into battle. All of this connects to the fact that the demons call themselves “legion,” literally a Roman military unit.
Most scholars think the pigs serve as an ironic negative symbol, pointing towards idolatry and gentile disobedience to God and connecting to Roman imperialism. But what if the pigs were an ironic positive symbol? While on the surface, the pigs seem to symbolize idolatry, a Jewish person could have certainly recognized that all these pigs were actually strange and beautiful creations of their God (reading Job 39-41; Psalm 104; Psalm 50:10-21). Their life reflects his own life. The demons hope to enter the pigs, so that they may have contact with gentiles, perhaps ones who are seeking to use the pigs for pagan sacrifice. But the pigs courageously give themselves in order to honor the life principle inside them, graciously given to them by the one who stands before them. They sacrifice themselves to bind up death under the abyss and to cleanse the creation. These “unclean” pigs take it upon themselves to purify the world, transcending the framing the Law gave them and showing that even these unclean animals are good creations who seek to serve the Source of their life and being. I think that this reading is as just as likely textually plausible as the usual reading.
I think this all goes to show that the presuppositions that you bring to a text can have a huge effect on its significance. The basic question is, were the pigs sad instruments indiscriminately used with no concern for their (well-)being, or were they, in a sense, giving themselves in service to a higher good and following the course of their being? And I think it’s clear that our answer to this question ties into larger metaphysical presuppositions we have about reality and God.
*This basis of this idea was influenced by a comment in Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction by Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink. I don’t have my copy around, so I can’t cite the exact page. Hopefully, I can update later.
** Many scholars are recognizing now that probably all followers of Jesus, even the earliest ones, believed Jesus to be in some way a divine being. There are a lot of difficult connections there, but gone are the days when it was just assumed that the earliest Christians saw Jesus as just a wise, earthly teacher.