A Theological Thought on Autonomous Beings

It pains me to think that scriptures in the Bible from the Christian tradition have at times been misappropriated to promote the divine sanction of the oppression of people groups.

As this blog is a blog not only about coffee, but also about being and beings, I will use this post to explore one aspect of our being, autonomy. *Note, this is not an academic essay, just a reflection. I’m still only developing in my theological understanding and acquisition of theological knowledge, so I apologize in advance for my fumblings. I really wish I could spend more time developing this into an essay, but I have two papers that I should really be working on instead of writing this post right now!

Recently, in my Hebrew Bible class, we read an article offering an alternate reading of the story of Nimrod and the tower of Babel, a story of which previously unbeknownst to me “ha(s) been used as (a) marker of divinely sanctioned discrimination” (Pinn, 2008). In the article, the author employed an African American humanist reading of the passage with the goal being “to provide an alternative reading of (a) sacred story in ways that promote human welfare” (Pinn, 2008). It was a very interesting article, and I appreciated the author’s intentional effort to seek a reading of scripture that would promote the good of the human endeavor/human flourishing and challenge readings that could potentially lead to misappropriation and abuse.

The story of Nimrod and the tower of Babel begins with a group of people, who come together to build a city and a tower, saying “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly; Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower (Gen. 11:4).” It’s what Pinn describes as a communal act of creativity and ingenuity. It is in the midst of their building of a city and tower in the story, however, that God takes notice – he comes down to see and after he sees how unified the people are in their resolve to build a city and tower, he says, “Behold they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them (Gen. 11:6).” He scatters them and confuses their language. And in so doing, the construction of the tower is halted indefinitely.

The motivations behind the erection of the city and tower, are what traditionally have been used as justification for this divine act. The people say to themselves, “let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves (Gen. 11:4).” The repetition of the words “us” and “ourselves” in addition to the act of making a name for one’s self seems to suggest a self-interest or self-reliance. Nimrod is seen as the creative genius behind this endeavor, and as Pinn notes, is often interpreted as “attempting to be god—to assume the shape and posture of the biblical god” (Pinn, 2008). In his humanist reading of the text, Pinn argues against this depiction of Nimrod. Instead, he defines God in this narrative as a metasymbol of restraint (Restraint is God) – restraint in the sense that God limits the efforts of humans to build a city and tower. Nimrod, then becomes an agent of free will – someone who, in the face of restraint, what Pinn describes as “metaphysically imposed limitation on human creativity and action, rebels” (Pinn, 2008). Further, Pinn argues that this type of divine restraint is not conducive to promoting human welfare.

In the beginning of his article, Pinn states two possibilities (although there are many more) for dealing with the traditional interpretations of the narrative: “(1) Reformulate our understanding of God to allow for human autonomy or (2) accept exercise of autonomy as problematic” (Pinn, 2008). While Pinn does not appear to offer a reformulation of God in the passage that allows for human autonomy, at the end of his argument, he does offer a more positive vision of a world in which Restraint as God exists. He says that the story of Nimrod and the tower of Babel represents “an act of will (that) contains both a promise and a pitfall: it reflects human creativity and human limitation, (in addition to an example of how) will and creativity are what we have, but they can only accomplish so much” (Pinn, 2008). Further, Restraint as God cannot stop “(humanity’s) questioning of metaphysically sanctioned limits, and the human push for the exercise of freedom within the context of responsible membership in community” (Pinn, 2008). To paraphrase, while Restraint as God can impose restraint, it cannot restrain human will or human questioning of restraint.

I wondered, however, if instead of accepting a more positive vision of a world in which Restraint as God despite being problematic, exists, if one could reformulate an understanding of God from the passage that would allow for human autonomy. I’ll begin here with questions to help lead to that point.

What is Pinn’s definition of autonomy?
I’ve recently been thinking about autonomy in the context of ethics in healthcare when it comes to things like the informed consent of patients as I’m taking a bioethics class. In the context of medicine, a patient may forgo a procedure that may be necessary for their health or even survival due to religious beliefs, which might be viewed as a type of restraint. An outsider may see this as a loss of autonomy – one forgoing something that would otherwise preserve their life just for the sake of abiding by religious principles, which may have taken away a freedom of choice. However, it is possible for one to autonomously subject themselves to something – exercising free will to submit to an authority. Although an important distinction was made in my Hebrew Bible class discussion – one does not always have the choice to autonomously subject themselves, for example people groups who have traditionally been marginalized and oppressed. What happens when you don’t get to choose? When you don’t have a choice, because you don’t even have a voice.

It is here that I would turn back to the passage. A passage that has been used as an example of divine discrimination. I ask, are Nimrod and his people in a position of being marginalized or oppressed by God? Are they voiceless and choice-less in the matter? Is it possible that autonomy exists here in the form of free-will, in the sense that there is such a thing as good and bad or even a spectrum with better uses of autonomy relative to others? Is this example of God’s interference one of restraint or a consequence of choosing bad or not the best option of autonomy?

What is Pinn’s definition of divine anxiety?
Pinn links Restraint as God to the idea of divine anxiety – a God anxious about “protecting us from ourselves” and who “serves to stifle (our) push for a greater sense of being” (Pinn, 2008). Further, Pinn seems to suggest that divine anxiety is threatened by something that might rival him when he says, “Restraint as God does not want true fellowship. The possibility that those in fellowship will think differently, will challenge, and perhaps threaten the cosmic structure, the theologically contrived status quo” (Pinn, 2008). Here, I wonder whether the divine is anxious or concerned. Is it less about a threatened divinity and more about concern for what exactly humans might do? He says that this is only the “beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Pinn, 2008). What would they have done? Perhaps we will never know.

Pinn does make the point that the divine does not appear to be threatened by self-will, but is threatened by the communal will of a people unified to do something. It is possible that collective will as opposed to self-will can be collectively abused? If one exercised self-will to do bad, there would still in theory be others who exercised their self-will to do good. However, if there were rather a unified community with a collective will (espousing the same wills/convictions) and they collectively chose to do bad, there would be no resolve. Could this collective will be a concern for the divine – people who could do who knows what, good, but especially bad? (I apologize for my simplified use of relative terms like good/bad here – these could be better developed)

To conclude, in the passage, regardless of whether God is acting as restraint here to limit human autonomy, I believe it is hopeful to note that God does not destroy the tower that Nimrod and the people of Babel were building – rather, he stops it, indefinitely and indirectly. Perhaps this isn’t the most hopeful of hopes, but it is more hopeful to think of a God that doesn’t destroy human ingenuity or acts of ingenuity. Perhaps this also hints at a spirit of resilience in humanity as well. That even in the face of restraint people will find other ways, not to intentionally seek to rebel or kick against the pricks so to speak of the divine, but rather to operate in a world of limitations, not always divine limitations (although I’d like to explore more Restraint as God since I don’t know how fully I agree/disagree with it yet!), but also things like socioeconomic limitations, limitations that we can’t really control, and even those that we are responsible for placing ourselves in. I think this resilence was what Pinn was alluding to.

Lastly, Pinn writes that, “Nimrod’s actions suggest a sense of interdependence, of mutuality—but one that allows humans to build their world, however compromised and fragile those structure may be.” Here, I find Pinn’s words especially, but troublingly true because I do believe we live in a world of compromised and fragile structures that enable things like oppression and abuse and exploitation of people – it’s a world that we have been allowed to build – I wonder if this was in part what the divine was anxious about.

Anthony B. Pinn, “God of Restraint: An African American Humanist Interpretation of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel,” in African American Religious Life and the Story of Nimrod (ed. Anthony B. Pinn and Allen D. Calahan; New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008): 27-43.

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