In James Suzman’s book Work: A Deep History from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, he spends a good amount of time attempting to locate the question, why is it that modern humans hold the relationship to work that we do? As the book develops, he fleshes out what this relationship is, what it developed from, and what it has to say about where we are today.
The Central Human Vocation: To Create
One aspect of Suzman’s theoretical approach, which maintains that assumptions that humans have developed a “problematic” relationship with work, which has been continually gnawing at me is the relationship between our need to work and the seeming relationship between this larger notion of life itself and this need to “create”.
A number of months ago I was struck by how much of the larger Biblical narrative sseems to function as one grand hyperlink back to the Genesis (and Exodus) story, and in particular the first 6 chapters of Genesis in its grand unfolding of the God-Creation-Human relationship, I’ve been spending much of my time since then simply reading and rereading these passages in Genesis. There’s something special about imagining the way the ancients likely would have done the same thing in their own oral context.
And as I’ve been rereading this text in line with the later emergence of the Tabernacle and the Temple as the imaginging of this meeting place of Heaven and Earth, this reenactment of the Genesis story within the disorder that follows the fall, this depicting of God’s dwelling within the created order (and further, within the disorder) as people occupy this space in the temple as God’s image bearers (which in Genesis evokes the whole of the created order in a cosmological sense), this notion of the central human vocation keeps coming up again and again. Just as God creates, speaking creation into existence as a creative and imaginative work, so are we, made in the image and likeness of the creator, called to “create”. This is the emphasis behind the call to be fruitful and to fill the earth. Life begets more life, and creation begets more “creating”. This then becomes the vocation we are called to enter into on the 7th day, the Sabbath day, in which we take up the very human vocation of true “dominion” within the created order (Genesis 1:28), a word that carries with it this sense of occupying both space (the temple) and time (the sabbath). In this we create in relationship to both God (the temple as God’s dwelling) and Land (Creation).
The Loss of the Human Vocation
Perhaps most noted in this call to “create” is this striking notion that in the story of the fall (Genesis 3), the call to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (1:28) is now imagined within this forced migration into the wilderness, something that leads to this quickly expanding vision of people and cultures and cities which echo the very human vocation found in Genesis 1 and 2. Only this filling of the earth, as we read in Genesis 6:5, has led to wickedness, defined not as the evils of “creation” but as the trading of God’s image for (literally in the action of God and humans procreating) making god’s in our own image. As it says in Genesis 1:31, where God “saw” everything that he had made and declared it “good”, Genesis 6 finds God looking at all that humanity has made (created) in its own image and is grieved (sorrowed). At the heart of this observed wickedness is the intent of this “creative” work of God to bring about unity in diversity by being image bearers of God, the essential assertion of the curious phrase of 1:26 where it says “let us make humankind in ‘our’ image, after ‘our’ likeness.” This notion of unity in diversity is being traded for the curse of humanity’s sin, which sees humanity being divided against that which it is supposed to be in union with (creation, one another, and the image of God). This emerges from the lie of the serpent which sees humanity desiring to become “like” God and thus exchange the image of God for a God made in their own likeness- the imaging of themselves.
It should come as no surprise then that this notion of creating, or “work” plays throughout chapters 3-6, with the narrative now positing this creative work as a reconciliatory work, a work that will emerge through the similar call to Noah and eventually Abraham to evoke the central vocation of Genesis 1 and 2, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. There is a duality here in that Abraham’s call to once again pick up this most basic human vocation and create (make nations) and this notion that the larger Biblical narrative evokes of the nations once again returning and being reconciled to God and Land.
Entropy: The Ordered Law of God and Nature and the problem of Disordered Creation
Suzman outlines the essential “laws” of life, that by which our creative work is patterned by, as “entropy”. To read the law of entropy in line with the Genesis text is to uncover the order and disorder of the creation-flood pattern. The flood is at its heart a decreation story, repeating the text of Genesis 1 and 2 and reestablishing it as the “promise” of new creation.
Just as the law of entropy reveals that “unlike almost everything else in the universe, which seemed to tend towards increasing disorder, life insolently gathered matter together and then organized it very precisely into astonishingly complex structures that gathered free energy and reproduced…” Suzman suggests that “life needed to contribute to the overall entropy in the universe”, and he concludes that it did this by “seeking out and capturing free energy, using it do work which generated heat, and thus added to the total entropy in the universe”. Suzman confesses that although “precisely where this energy came from is uncertain… the fact that abiogenesis- the process by which life first appeared- involved work is perhaps the least mysterious part of it.” As the Genesis narrative suggests, we are created to create, and we create within the ordered laws of entropy as this energy making exercise.
Of interest to the Genesis is narrative is this further idea that Suzman points out, which is that some scientists today “are more inclined to think that life may have been inevitable and that entropy, the trickster god, was not just a destroyer but may well have also been the creator of life.” In other words, order comes necessarily from disorder, just as light comes from dark, life from death, healing from hurt, new creation from decreation. Along with this then, in the establishing of order from disorder, we can observe that “the long history of life on earth has been described in terms of life’s ability to capture energy from new sources… over time, its ability to evolve meant evolving to capture and draw energy from new sources and thus surviving in different conditions.”
What I found so curious about this phrasing is this same sense that we find in the Genesis narrative of the call to create in Genesis 1 and 2 repeating itself within humanities forced migration into the “wilderness”. Different conditions with the same vocation. The real question then becomes, to what end or to what purpose do we create?
Order From Disorder: To What End Do We Create?
This is where the Genesis narrative submits that we are tasked to create in the image of God, in the image of the creator, or what Suzman calls and grants, the thing that gave life and order its initial and necessary push therefore established the necessary pattern by which it must then create. If this is true, than Suzman’s theory that humankind essentially repatterned this patterned “image” in its own making when it shifted the narrative from a picture of abundance (trust in our relationship to God and Land) to scarcity (distrust in our relationshi to God and Land) holds a good deal of weight. Rather than patterning our creative, energy producting work after trust in God, we patterned it after our own anxieties, thus giving this notion of scarcity its power over us, forever enslaving us to this idea that we must make more and more because in a world shaped by our own image our wants will never truly be satisfied. The desire for God’s heart for humanity has been exchanged for the human desire for “want”, which takes the abundance of creation and exchanges it for the illusion of abundance, one that perpetuates anxiety and disorder.
This is what we find in the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), which interestingly flows straight from the story of the flood, a shared and universal narrative that all of humankind at the time (in a generalized sense) would have understood and known as a very real experience representing very real ecological and economic uncertainty. If humankind can no longer depend on our relationship to God and Land, then “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens”, a phrase that evokes this picture of the mountaintop on which Noah (representing “humankind”) emerges. Let us elevate ourelves above nature and take the place of the gods. This passage once again evokes an image of the temple, with the picture of “God coming down” and imagining the place in which heaven and earth meet. Note how Genesis 11 likewise culminates in a forced migration followed by the call and task of Abram to then get on with the job of “creating”.
This then is the central conflict of the story, to create in the image of God, and the call to image God to the world stands in conflict with this drive to create a world in our own image. It should come as no surprise then that this precisely the same narrative that emerges in the enlightenment and in the story of the modernized West, a vision for humanity that emerges from economic uncertainty and which forces us to contend with precisely the same questions (and not suprisingly turns the old architecture that was designed with a symetry of vertical and horizontal symbolism, turning our gaze upwards towards the divine while drawing our gaze downwards to the space we occupy on the ground, to the emergence of the skyscraper, buildings that disconnect us from the land and turn our gaze upwards as the imaging of our own creation… the promise of free markets to reach the heavens). The desire we see in this modern narrative is to create a world in our own image, a work that happens in line with this overarching narrative of scarcity as our primary motivation precisely because of the inequality and uncertiainty it perpetuates.
A Story of Competing Narratives: Sex and Death, Life and Meaning
What’s interesting is that Suzman also notes that “Evolutionary biologists have to see life as a story of sex and death. This is what drives us. They are hesistant though to apply this to human work and activity in the same way.” Why? Because this simple biological narrative feels out of place with the laws of entropy that inform the most basic tenants of our human vocation.
In the Genesis narrative, it is energy (life source, the river of life) given by the spirit (the breath of God) that obligates us to then create by using this surplus energy for the purpose of filling the earth with the image of God. In science, this notion is expressed very much in the same fashion, even if it doesn’t or can’t locate it within a clear expression of the image of God. It still recognizes a necessary imaging that flows from the excess energy we inherit from the creative process that precedes us. We are compelled by the source of life itself to use the energy we have been given to create. The question is not so much that we must create, but it is to what end do we create? Why does life require this of itself? This is where things tend to collapse back into the limiting narrative of sex and death as the purely biological answer. In the Genesis narrative, to be fruitful and multiply carries a different and I would argue a more life giving vision, one that hinges on this notion of creating, filling, and making. This is why the story of Jesus holds so much power in the Christian vision, as it is through the narrative of sex and death (remember how the lead up to the flood narrative involves a corrupted and evolutionary depiction of sex in the beginning of chapter 6, something that one can see when they view it in line with the ancient understanding of sex’s relationship to the divine) that Christ then reorders and reforms the God-Creation-Human relationship through the image of the virgin birth and away from the predominant practice of human sacrifice that permated the ancient world and towards the sacrficial giving of the Creator as the means by which we move from death to life. And what’s crucial to understand is that for this narrative to carry us forward into something other than the evolutionary biologist’s reliance on sex and death, it must first transform our vision of “all” of life. It must first reorder us into right relationship with God and Land. To be created means to be given the vocation to create and thus bring about life, and in the Christian story this emerges as something meaningful in and of itself. From creation comes life, and life is declared to be meaningful, we do not need to create meaning for ourselves.
This difference between created and given meaning is crucial, because for biologists, the most they can say is that life exists for sex and death, to procreate and then to die, because this is what we observe within the pattern of life itself. To suggest anything beyond this is to project something onto the pattern. A given meaning. The problem when we apply this to the human experience is that life appears, and feels and seems and intuitively appears to mean something more than sex and death. This is why we work so hard in the symbolic “wilderness” to alleviate suffering. This is why the patterned narrative changed from one of trust in the present to peretual anxiety over the future, because without the kind of given meaning that comes from our relationship to God and Land we are left attempting to create it for ourselves, which leaves us in that perpetuated state of anxiety over the future and the battle over what we percieve to be scarce resources. Meaning gets translated to survival.
If existing only for sex and death, life would not appear to require such concerns. As Suzman suggests, “Humans have always found analogies for their behavior in the natural world”, going on to suggest that “It is clear that the version of Darwinism caricatured by economists, politicians, and others in support of free markets does not have much in common with the way biologists now tend to think of relationships between organisms in the natural world. It is also clear… that while success or failure in the energy quest will always shape the evolutionary trajectory of any species, many hard-to-explain animal traits and behaviors may well have been shaped by the seasonal over-abundance of energy rather than the battle for scarce resources, and that in this may lie a clue as to why we, the most energy profligate of all species, work so hard.” In other words (my own interpretation of his analysis in the light of God), life gains its meaming as we create in relationship with God and Land, not in contention with it. Not in standing above and in control of it. This is how life itself is patterned after the image of God.
The Curious Question of Immortality: The Creative Work as the Eternal Vocation
One of the most oft criticisms I hear regarding the notion of faith (particularly when it comes to the Christian faith which has become notorious for its tendency to view this earth and this life as something we escape so as to go to heaven, a wrong depiction of the Christian vision) is that its need to emphasize a life beyond death, eternal life, is a sign of humanities invention of relgion, something many humanists and naturalists see as increasingly toxic to our ability to live into this world in the here and now. Religion in this sense developed from our anxiety over death and the unknown of the future. A product of increased human awareness of occupying time and space. What Suzman’s book uncovers for me is that this is in fact a puzzling criticism, if primarily because life itself seems to suggest this anxiety they credit to religion actually emerges from the realm of our shift away from religion, our own corrupting of the patterns that entropy holds in play. And the more anxious we become, the more evidence we in fact have of humanities increased striving for forms of immortality. The trajectory of our anxiety laden creative work has always been towards the prolonging of life, the eradication of sickness, the haulting and reversing of the ever evasive mystery of aging, finding ways for human life to persist in the future becuase of uncertainty within the present. This romanticized idealism of that biological narrative of sex and death is simply not rational when set against the sheer amount of energy we give to protecting and making this present life meaningful within its long, struggling and inevitable decent towards the grave. That we now see a life of 80 plus years rather than the much more limited lifespans we faced before as the mark of the fruitful and meaningful life is perhaps the best evidence that this imaginging of eternity is not foreign to humanities understanding of life itself. What makes us believe that we would simply stop at 80 years as the necessary standard of a meaninful life if life’s trajectory reflects a continued upward movement towards prolonging life? Philosophically speaking, what allows to romanticize nihilistic visions of a limited life formed around death is in fact sickness and struggle, and, if we are to place it within the fundamental laws of entropy, the experience we have of that essental vocation to create and to make. It is only when the energy that entropy measures and affords us can no longer be used in the decay of our bodies that we are then motivated to romanticize sex and death as ideals in and of themselves.
What we essentially do as a humanity living within a narrative of scarcity is we apply meaning to the positive side of entropy (creativity) in highly irraitonal ways so that we can justify living in a narrative of scarcity and struggle. Scarcity is thus explained and justified as the outflow of our natural biological drive or need to simply have sex and die, and we explain this by similtaneously attending to the fact that life is more than sex and death by lobbying on to this narrative things this narrative can’t presuppose by itself without some form or idea of a god, whatever this notion of god might be.
We all build our lives on some form of a narrative that understands that we are working towards some greater purpose, that there is greater meaning to what we do. And this meaning is attached to the pursuit of less suffering, less illness, less struggle, increased survival and the prolonging of life (that this happens at the expense of other life, including within our own species, simply uncovers the central problem of scarcity). The irony is, this push has nothing to do with the idea of God itself. This irrationality is actually born from the absence of God, the need to locate the meaning that life without God presumes in ourselves and our own creations, our own ability to solve the problems of economic and ecological uncertianty. That we need to work towards this kind of reconciliation is not a mystery. That can be explained through the study of empathy’s social benefit and contribution to our continued survival as a species. To what end we contribute meaning to this process is where we become less than rational, and we see these irrational tendencies written all over our attemts to justify the modern, human story of scarcity, which is an illusion of our own making that perpetuates it or turns it into a reality as it compells us to abuse both land and one another in response. After all, if we were simply meant to have sex and die, far better for nature to let this have its way without this nasty notion of “awareness” that life must hold greater meaning and thus drive us to do what we do. Lest why expend all this energy on meaningless endeavors that actually set us in contest with creation itself? If the creative vocation has a true eternal purpose, then this changes the narrative and gives it a meaning that we couldn’t otherwise afford it on our own. That it also calls us to reorient ourselves in relationship to God and Land in ways that sacrifice our reliance on our own individual freedoms is where the resistance settles in. And yet it is when we do so that we allow given meaning to emerge as our motivating force rather than leaving us to chase forever after it as a product of our own creation.
The Human Vocatioin and Motherhood: More Than Mere Gendered Complimentarianism
If I may push this idea a little further yet, given that it is mother’s day I think there is something profound in this idea of seeing a mother’s unique role in the “creative”, life giving, meaning making process. It is here, in fact, that we find the power of the human vocation given its most clearest expression as a meaning making exercise. In an ancient world that understood the role of sex and death in very particular ways, this notion of the “we” that permeates the descriptive of the “creator” in the Genesis text, a text that stands in dialogue with this ancient world and its ancient practices, perhaps finds its greatest expression in the declared diversity of the human form the “we” creates in its image. The “us” that emerges as an equal expression of the image of God. This is far more than mere complimentarianism where “man” bears the image of God and “wo-man” then bears the image of god in “man”. What’s profound to me about the Genesis narrative is how it flips this kind of hiearchal and highly patriarchal thinking and imaging on its head. We can no more set the “we” of God over and against itself than we can set the “we”of humanity over and against itself. This picture of man and woman becoming one and thus giving way to the creative work of “multiplying” and diversifying the world (the creative process that we see the Tower of Babel commenting on in its subsequent lack of diversity) is actually best understood from the perspective of the wilderness, as it is from this place of forced migration where we can see this most basic tenants of the human vocation gaining force as the reclaiming of the ordered pattern of Creation itself. To imagine that the only way for the “wo-man” to understand the character of God is by looking at the “man” form which she emerges is not only to misunderstand the word from which we get “adam” (which means the whole of humankind), it is to perpetuate the division that see expressed in the curse of Genesis 3. It is to perpetuate the wrong ordering of creation, or the disorder the flood narrative is looking to deconsruct. By setting male and female within a gender ordered hiearchal imagining we are left to do likewise with the we of God Himself. And thus we end up with a false narrative that misplaces and redirects the meaning making exercise of the central human vocation, the call to create and to be image bearers, towards ourselves as one who assumes the role of God over creation, and the role of God over “wo-man” kind.
As a mother gives birth, they are giving birth to what is best seen and understood as a diversified whole. They are in effect making something new, the result of bringing together that which is divided in an altogether new creation which bears the image of God as this child then grows to fill the earth with its own creations. This is far more, and I would say even altogether different than perpetuating a divided picture of differentiating male and female genders offering a necessarily complimentary picture of the entire image of God. What we find in the Genesis narrative is a picture of a single humankind representing the same work that science observes in the basic division of the cell, this picture of division leading to wholeness and newness leading then to diversity. It is by locating this diversity as a unified and singular picture of the image of God that we can then discover the meaning of the shared human vocation, not as separated gender roles, but as a humanity no longer peretually divided against itself and able to live into the central human vocation as an expression of this ongoing creative work. It’s worth pointing out that this is also what makes the idea of adoption so crucial to the understanding of the family of God. What elevating gender does, beyond leaving us with limiting and problematic depictions of God’s own nature, is it elevates sex as the primary creative force, when God’s act of creation in Genesis is actually pulling it from this sex soaked obsession and applying it to the whole of creation. This is what it means for God to in fact dwell with the created order. Just as the ancient text offered a different vision to the ancients who used gender to divide, so should it offer a different vision to the biological understandings we have today.
This is, I think, why that perspective from the wilderness is so valuable and powerful, because we are locating this vocation from the vantage point of this perpetuated division, the same division that we see in the Cain and Abel story and which plays itself out into the national and global contextst of this growing division between nations and kingdoms and cultures, the very result of this forced migration that needs reconciling.
Here then is what I think mother’s day can teach all of us. It is from within the mother’s creative and life giving work that we are able to impart meaning to the creation. The child finds in the pattern of life’s division the vision of a whole, which it can then breathe out into the world through its own creative making process. And it is through this act of given “meaning” being imparted freely to this child from the postion of an other that the creative process becomes about something far more than sex and gender. It is by making this creative process about sex in fact that the narrative becomes corrupted. The way in which we impart meaning is by this same meaning first being imparted to us in equal portion as a representation of the image of God. Which is precisely what the God-Creation-Human story is all about. As we engage in and with creation through the very human vocation and call to “create”, we are invoking the shared image of God in one another and thus filling the earth with a diversified whole. This is what the Sabbath, an eternal natured idea, is all about. Creation begets new creation, and properly ordered in God’s image this leads to newness, unity and life, which is precisely what allows us to trust and rest in the beauty of the present. Disordered within the creation of socially driven gender constructs made in our own image, this leads to division, inquality, death and decay, which is precisely what causes us to then become and remain obsessed with the future and forever anxious about its provision, the very thing that continues to breed inequality at the hands of these power imbalances.
To say this more succinctly, to be a mother is not a “gendered” vocation, it is a human vocation that finds its pattern most fully expressed in the shared image of a God.