“It Was Good”

In the first creation myth in the first book of the Hebrew Bible, God is always looking back at what he has been doing, to see whether it is any good. It always is, but he cannot have known in advance that it was going to be, and this is why he has to check his work.

So it seems to me. In any case, when we create things, part of the job is checking our work.

The new Turkish translation of Collingwood’s Religion and Philosophy
with introduction by yours truly

We do create things. This blog post is an example. So is your response, if you come up with one. So is an electric car, or a vaccine.

Creative activities such as Victor Frankenstein’s have been called “playing God.” The phrase has been given its own Wikipedia article, where the emphasis is on the second word. The first word is just as important. The problem with playing God is in the playing. The capping injunction of the Sermon on the Mount is not to play God, but to be as he is. This is in Matthew 5:48, the last verse of its chapter:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Ἐσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ ούράνιος τέλειός ἐστιν.

You can play at being perfect, like the human member of Calvin and Hobbes, as in the strip of Sunday, December 31, 1989:


This is amusing, only because Calvin is a child. At some stage, you have to get serious. The meaning of the Latin perfectus, and of the Greek τέλειος that it translates, is “done to the end.” If you are going to do things that way, then “Move fast and break things” cannot be your motto.

The point is not new to this blog. In June, in “Creativity,” I said,

Every new sentence that we utter is a solution to the problem of saying whatever it was that we wanted to say. If we care, we have to decide whether it was a good solution.

I did not suggest that God did just that. Now I do. It seems to me that anybody believing the Bible worth special attention should think this over.

My father was such a person. When I was Calvin’s age, Dad was reading Genesis, seeing wisdom about life, and pointing it out to me. However, he was more focused on the second creation myth, the one with Adam and Eve. Let us get the first myth on the table, when seven times in six days, God observes that everything is good so far:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
6 ¶ And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
9 ¶ And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.
14 ¶ And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
23 And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
24 ¶ And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
26 ¶ And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
29 ¶ And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Seven times does God note the goodness of what he has brought into existence. The number seven denotes “divine completion,” according to Wikipedia (as of October 30, 2022). The article does not say this completion involves reflection on what has been done. Neither do two commentaries that I have retained from the Bible class that was required (along with ancient Greek history) at St Albans School (governed by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation).

  • Concerning Genesis 1:3–5, where “it was good” appears first, The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York, 1973, page 1) says,

    Creation by the word of God (Ps. 33.6–9) expresses God’s absolute lordship and prepares for the doctrine of creation out of nothing (2 Macc. 7.28). Light was created first (2 Cor. 4.6), even before the sun, and was separated from night, a remnant of uncreated darkness (v. 2). Since the Jewish day began with sundown, the order is evening and morning.

    If one is going to note the “absolute lordship” of God, one might also note that this lordship is not capricious, since God thinks about what he is doing. The point is not really made by the three references, except possibly the last, though they are all interesting, particularly the one to the Apocrypha, which was not part of the Bible that we used:

    Psalm 33

    6 By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.
    7 He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap: he layeth up the depth in storehouses.
    8 Let all the earth fear the Lord: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
    9 For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.

    2 Maccabees 7

    28 I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.

    2 Corinthians 4

    6 For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

    I am quoting the King James Version, although the text we used at St Albans was the Revised Standard Version.

  • In commenting on Genesis 1:1–2:4 in Understanding the Old Testament (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1972, page 77), Jay G. Williams dwells on the phrase that he writes as “image and likeness”:

    The interpretation which makes most sense to this reader is that man reflects God in his actions. That is to say, in the relation between male and female and in man’s dominion of creation, the love and providence of God are reflected …

    Throughout this chapter primary emphasis is placed upon the goodness of creation. Nowhere is there any hint of the existence of the devil or demons, nor is the created order regarded as merely maya (illusion).

    Again this is interesting, but omits that God is not capricious, unless this is implicit in the observation that what has been created is an order. Not only is the creation good, but God has confirmed that it is good.

That creators reflect on their work was noted in the third year of this blog, in a post called “Freedom,” where I ended up looking at a passage of Collingwood’s Principles of Art that begins,

Any theory of art should be required to show, if it wishes to be taken seriously, how an artist, in pursuing his artistic labour, is able to tell whether he is pursuing it successfully or unsuccessfully: how, for example, it is possible for him to say, “I am not satisfied with that line; let us try it this way … and this way … and this way … there! that will do.”

I now propose that the artist here is only doing what God does in Genesis 1.

Two years after “Freedom,” in “One & Many,” I wrote about some failures to check one’s work, as for example in a homework exercise in high-school chemistry that involved balancing chemical equations. I observed that Robert Pirsig had written about such failures in another context, and he had observed,

there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

As I suggested in the post “Creativity” already mentioned, I am pleased to have been able to talk about Pirsig in “Conics in Place” (Annales Universitatis Paedagogicae Cracoviensis | Studia Ad Didacticam Mathematicae Pertinentia 13 [2021], 127–150, DOI 10.24917/20809751.13.2). The paper presents what was also the subject of “An Exercise in Analytic Geometry.” The exercise requires tedious computations that can easily go astray, but that are easy and even satisfying to verify when completed. This verification does not require an external authority, such as a teacher. This is what Pirsig wanted his own students to understand, even when the subject was English composition.

It can be hard to be satisfied with one’s own work. It can be hard even to face the question of whether one is satisfied. Giving an example, I asked in “Anthropology of Mathematics”: “How many of us avoid judging our work?”

The point now is that God judges his own work, and Jesus tells us to be like God. He tells us also, “Judge not (Μὴ κρίνετε)” in Matthew 7; however, he would seem to mean not to judge others, until we have perfected ourselves:

1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

I had the idea that C. S. Lewis cited this passage in Mere Christianity (1950) as a reason why Jesus could only be a lunatic, a devil, or God; for Jesus himself judges people. Now I see that Lewis’s reason is that Jesus forgives people:

He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin.

The two paragraphs that include this passage turn out not to be in The Case for Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1950), which I have on paper (it belonged to my mother). This had been “published in England under the title ‘Broadcast Talks’,” and it became the first part of Mere Christianity—evidently with some editing.

As for the command to be perfect in Matthew 5:48, a couple of scriptural sources are cited in The Greek New Testament (fourth revised edition, Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001) of Aland et al.

  • Leviticus 19:

    1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
    2 Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.
    3 Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father, and keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.
    4 Turn ye not unto idols, nor make to yourselves molten gods: I am the Lord your God.
    5 And if ye offer a sacrifice of peace offerings unto the Lord, ye shall offer it at your own will.

  • Deuteronomy 18:

    9 When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations.
    10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch,
    11 Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.
    12 For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.
    13 Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God.
    14 For these nations, which thou shalt possess, hearkened unto observers of times, and unto diviners: but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.

I cannot read Hebrew, but here are the bolded passages as they appear in the Septuagint; there are no surprises.

ἅγιοι ἔσεσθε, ὅτι ἅγιος ἐγὼ Κύριος ὁ Θεὸς ὑμῶν.

τέλειος ἔσῃ ἐναντίον Κυρίου τοῦ Θεοῦ σου.

Christians can misinterpret Hebrew scriptures, such as Deuteronomy 32:35, “Their foot shall slide in due time,” which I looked at in “The Hands of an Angry Deity” and “Judaism for Pascal.”

I can cite a published source for the assertion that, for Collingwood at least, the goal of perfection was the main lesson to be taken from Christianity. My source is the sunuş or introduction to Din ve Felsefe, the Turkish translation of Collingwood’s first book, Religion and Philosophy. However, the writer of the sunuş happens to be myself. First I wrote in English, including the following:

For his own understanding of the impossibility of an empirical science of thought, Collingwood, in An Autobiography of 1939, will credit the work that has gone into Religion and Philosophy, where he says, for example (I.iii.1.a, pages 40–1),

In conduct generally we have certain actions, individual or social, designed to attain the ends of morality, utility, or the like; psychology will study these actions without asking whether they are right or wrong, but taking them merely as things done. In general, the characteristic of psychology is the refusal to raise ultimate questions. And since that is so, it is plainly not in a position to offer answers to them.

One of those ultimate questions is simply whether what we are doing is any good. Collingwood thought he had work to do that was worth doing. During World War II, when he knew he was dying, he managed to publish one last book, The New Leviathan: Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism (1942), an account of what he thought was worth defending against the Nazis. The teaching of Jesus of Nazareth that he seems to have taken most to heart is Matthew 5:48,

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

For Collingwood, in Religion and Philosophy (I.iii.5, page 53),

the historical life of Jesus is the guarantee that man can be perfect if he will.

Collingwood applies the idea of perfection throughout Religion and Philosophy:

  • “A philosophical problem cannot be insoluble, though it may be too hard for you or me to solve satisfactorily” (II.iv.1.a, pages 123–4).

  • “Pain seems to involve imperfection only in the sense in which any one who has a thing to do and has not yet done it is imperfect; and in that sense imperfection is only another name for activity and perfection for death” (II.iv.1.b.i, page 126).

  • “The world we see around us is not a stationary, already-existing, given totality, but a totality in the making: its unity consists only in the striving towards unity on the part of the minds which constitute it. This does not mean that its completion lies at some point in the future; it is a completion that never is and never will be attained for good and all, but one which is always being attained. The life of the world, like the life of a man, consists in perpetual activity” (II.iv.3.a, pages 140–1).

  • “God’s attitude towards the sins of men must be one which combines condemnation of the sinful will with love and hope for it; these two being combined not as externally connected and internally inconsistent elements of a state of mind, but as being the single necessary expression of his perfect nature towards natures less perfect, but regarded as capable of perfection” (III.ii.3, page 180).

If I return now to the words I quoted from The Principles of Art, about how real artists constantly evaluate their work, I see these echoed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, chapter 14, when Pirsig is holding forth at the house of artists Bob and Gennie DeWeese in Montana:

“Sometime look at a novice workman [sic] or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”

“Sounds like art,” the instructor says.

“Well, it is art,” I say. “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural …”

A friend has drawn my attention to Jay Caspian Kang, “Returning, Again, to Robert M. Pirsig” (The New Yorker, October 25, 2022):

I was mostly struck by a central contradiction that appears not only in Pirsig’s writing but also in the work of so many of his fellow literary Zen seekers. On the one hand, Pirsig believes that the universality of quality means that everyone can access it. But he also seems to have very little faith that the people around him—whether John, his motorcycling buddy, or even his readers—can actually see quality in the wild.

Kang is responding to the book On Quality, “a collection of Pirsig’s speeches, fiction, letters, and musings that was posthumously published last month.” I have not obtained this yet, though I am likely to do so eventually. Meanwhile, my sense from Zen and the Art … is that what concerns Pirsig is not whether people can see quality, but whether they recognize that they can.

Collingwood shares this concern, or something like it. In lectures of 1940 called “Goodness, Rightness, Utility” and included in the 1992 revised edition of The New Leviathan, Collingwood said (with my emphasis),

What we can gain by studying moral philosophy is not the knowledge of anything we did not know hitherto, but the knowledge that we know things which hitherto we knew without knowing that we knew them. This knowledge is practical knowledge; that is to say it is wholly dependent upon our experience as moral agents and has as its aim the improvement of our moral life.

Let me note that I recently read these lectures, having noticed somehow that they take up Njal’s Saga, which is one of the works (along with Plato’s Republic again, and Augustine’s Confessions) that I am now reading and discussing with the Catherine Project. If we are subject to laws, this is because we subject ourselves, which means in turn that we have effectively made the laws; however, humanity is slow to come to this realization, and Njal’s Saga helps illustrate the point, since here, while everybody knows that there are laws, there is no legislature; there are only wise individuals who know in detail what the laws already are. Says Collingwood generally (bullets added by me,

We have considered two forms which may be—or rather must be—taken by the [58] consciousness of rules.

  • The first is the innocent consciousness of obeying them …
  • The second is the guilty conscience of disobeying them …

The third form … is the consciousness of making them. Here the consciousness of a division between the ego that obeys and disobeys the rule, and the superego that makes it, is overcome …

… it is only because people already know by experience that rules are sacred and authoritative that they invent the mythology which makes God their author.

Such a claim may sound blasphemous. Collingwood has doubts that he ought to make such a claim to undergraduates, who Aristotle said were too young for moral philosophy.

In our own educational practice, we have decided to neglect Aristotle’s warning, and to assume that men and women of around about twenty do not live wholly at the beck and call of their emotions, but have already some experience of moral action, enough to justify us in asking them to reflect on it and find out what it is that [they] already [know] about it … there are certainly faults in the current educational systems of the modern world; and this may be one of them.

I only want my students to learn to reflect on their mathematical work. It isn’t mathematics unless they can know for themselves whether they are doing it right. Otherwise they are effectively playing.

What has me thinking about “playing God” is a short essay by Carmel Richardson in The American Conservative (February 23, 2022) that takes its title from the novel of C. S. Lewis called That Hideous Strength. Richardson’s subtitle or tagline reads,

As it turns out, what real science and real technology are proposing is surprisingly similar to the dystopia Lewis imagined.

She concludes,

What makes Lewis’s fiction true is the same thing that makes the idea of such stunning human ability sickening—that is, men who play at being God.

She is referring to men (perhaps including women) who are trying to achieve what Yuval Noah Harari predicted at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018:

All of life, for 4 billion years—dinosaurs, amoebas, tomatoes, humans—all of life was subject to the laws of natural selection, and to the laws or organic biochemistry. But this is now about to change. Science is replacing evolution by natural selection with evolution by intelligent design.

I think the impossibility of designing a new human species intelligently is adequately shown by Mary Midgley in Evolution as a Religion. Also, as my friend Warren Buss wrote me,

I feel this sort of thinking is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be human, for the role of chance in our lives. For NOT being in control and learning to welcome that as part of what it means to be human.

For now, let me note Richardson’s idea that novels like Lewis’s are

a warning that, in excess, science becomes scientism and seeks to replace the role of God.

I don’t know how Richardson distinguishes our role from God’s. It seems to me the problem lies in not understanding the role of God. When a creation is out of nothing, this means in particular that the creation is not by design. In the myth, God does not make a plan for the world, and then follow the plan. He is Pirsig’s excellent craftsman, who “isn’t ever following a single line of instruction.” The instruction and the creation are one, as the psalm says:

By the word of the Lord were the heavens made … he spake, and it was done.

The creation wasn’t quite done though; the Creator had to check that it was good.

Edited January 25, 2023

One Comment

  1. Alexandre Borovik
    Posted October 31, 2022 at 9:44 am | Permalink | Reply

    You have to write your book! Sasha

2 Trackbacks

  1. By The Ideal « Polytropy on November 12, 2022 at 9:15 am

    […] « “It Was Good” […]

  2. By On Homer’s Iliad Book I « Polytropy on January 20, 2023 at 7:10 am

    […] Looking back at the results of one’s work was the subject of “‘It Was Good’.” […]

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