The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.
What it says
Walton’s first proposition was that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. His second proposition is that Ancient Cosmology is function oriented.
This leads to a discussion of the philosophical concept of existence, or ontology. Walton says that our culture has a strong leaning toward the idea that something exists when it has material substance. He tries to show that this is a cultural bias and that other notions of existence are possible. For instance, does a restaurant exist simply because a restaurant building exists? Or does a restaurant exist when it begins to serve food and function as a restaurant?
He argues that a functional definition of existence is possible. This changes what we mean by creation. According to a material ontology, creation means bringing something into physical existence. Yet we often use the word “create” in other ways. When we create a committee, we do not bring the members into physical existence. We even sometimes say that someone creates havoc or creates a masterpiece.
When talking about the creation of the cosmos, most of us buy into the cultural assumption that creation means to bring into material existence. We do not consider alternatives. Thus, we may read our cultural assumption into ancient writings.
Walton, however, argues that in the ancient world people believed that something existed when it came to have a function in an ordered system. This means that something could be there in the physical sense and still not “exist” until it became functional. The sun, for instance, could be there as a ball of plasma but still not have been created until given the functions of providing warmth, light, and the division of day from night.
So unless men or gods benefited from some feature of the universe, that feature’s existence was null, or at least, unfulfilled. The “actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system” (p. 27).
Walton has not offered evidence that the ancient understanding of being and creation was functional rather than material. He says that he will offer such evidence in the rest of the book.
There was a part of this chapter that does not appear in my summary. It was about computers and the idea of function. I found his argument difficult to summarize, but it is the kind of argument he needs to make to appeal to tech-savvy people.
I would not have started with a discussion of ontology. Anything that smacks of post-modernism drives me a little crazy. And the attempt to deconstruct our modern bias before dealing with the history of thought in the ancient world just seems backwards to me.
But there is a strong emphasis on presuppositional apologetics among some evangelicals. So Walton may feel that the audience he expects to read this book will be on the same page if he starts by talking about presuppositions.
Is the contemporary view of material being really as pervasive as this chapter makes it sound, though? And was the ancient world view really that monolithic? Right at the end of the chapter Walton makes it clear that he is just going to talk about “ancient Near Eastern literature”.*
Furthermore, he several times speaks of the idea of “an ordered system” in the context of the ancient world view. I wonder about this. Maybe it is just because I am familiar with Systems Theory as a contemporary viewpoint
Nevertheless, this chapter clarifies the position Walton is going to try to establish. Function, more than material existence, rules in the ancient world view. Genesis shares in that view.
He seems to set the stage for a rejection of the creation-out-of-nothing dogma, at least so far as Genesis 1 is concerned. It will be interesting to see if he becomes more specific about this.
Walton’s talk of functionality reminded me of the concept of tendency or intention as I remember it from John Wild’s The Challenge of Existentialism. (This was an extremely important book for me once, seeing that existentialism was the prevailing philosophy at my seminary. . . .And I just looked it up and found that it is now cheap and available on Kindle. I think it was out of print some years ago when I moved away from a library that had it. I am so excited!)
*I made a mistake in thinking this was the end of the chapter. He does go on and deal with ancient Near Eastern material in this chapter. Because of the way he has what he calls “Technical Support” instead of Notes at the end of chapters, I was confused. This mitigates my thinking his approach was backwards from what I would have done. But I will leave what I have written and deal with the rest of the chapter in another post.