February 27, 2011
Genesis 1.1-2.3; Matthew 6, 25-34
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
From time to time, I’ve watched TV programmes about the origin of the universe. I can keep up, just about, with Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the idea that the universe originated with a singularity and a Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago (though I keep having to remind myself what a singularity is!). But then I gradually get lost! When people start talking about how higher mathematics has cast doubt on the validity of these theories, and put forward alternative theories such as Steady State (which says the universe has no origin but new matter is continuously being created); or The Big Bounce (which says that something existed before this universe, went through a big crunch and ‘bounced back’ as this universe); or the theory of cyclic universes (constantly dissolving and re-appearing – though that does fit with some Hindu creation myths which speak of the universe dissolving into the being of the gods and then being recreated); or parallel universes existing at the same time (that one is at least familiar from science fiction films!), I’m way out of my depth!
What I do get from these programmes, though is a sense of just how complex the universe is, how ideas about it and theories to explain its origins are constantly being revised, and how anyone who claims that we know everything about it simply doesn’t know what they are talking about!
The other thing I learn is that differences between scientists about theories of the origin of the universe are just as deep and can be just as bitterly argued as differences between science and faith.
Even if I don’t fully understand everything I see and hear, I am left with a sense of wonder at the beauty, majesty and complexity of the universe we live in; and that sense of wonder that is reinforced by photos of galaxies and stars and a series of micro-photographs published this week of some of the smallest things in creation (prize winners of the Wellcome Image Awards ).
The Old Testament reading we heard today, from Genesis chapter 1, and the beginning of chapter 2, is one of the the creation stories from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is believed to come from around the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon, and may have been influenced by Babylonian creation myths, reshaped by the priestly editors to fit in with their beliefs about God’s relationship with Israel and the created world. There is another creation story, from a much earlier period in Jewish history, in the rest of chapter 2. In this second story, God interacts much more directly with human beings, and there is a different order of creation. This too has links with a Sumerian/Baylonian myth. Other contributions to a Judaeo-Christian creation theology are found in passages in Psalms, 2nd Isaiah, the Wisdom literature and Job, some of which show the influence of yet another Babylonian creation myth which saw creation coming out of a fight between the High God Marduk and a sea monster.
Passages in the New Testament from the first chapter of John’s gospel and from the Pauline epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians contributed to a Christian theology of creation. This theology continued to develop and change, particularly in the early centuries after Christ, when conflict with Gnostic versions of Christianity led to the doctrine that God created ex nihilo – out of nothing. This was because some Gnostics believed that matter was evil, and therefore could not have been created by a good God; they therefore said creation was the work of a demiurge; this was unacceptable to orthodox Christian theology, which believed God created everything.
Christian creation theology remained largely uncontroversial until modern times. It was the rise of fundamentalist creation theologies in reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution that really brought creation theology into the forefront of Christian thought again. Some more recent thinking about God as Creator can be found in the publications of the Doctrine Commission “We believe in God’ (1987) and “We believe in the Holy Spirit” (1991). These reject the idea that God just initiated creation and then left it, intervening only on occasions to make special things happen . Rather, creation is understood as God’s continuous sustaining of an evolving process. The Commission makes use of quantum theory and chaos theory to challenge the idea that everything is pre-determined and says that the universe is shot through with the possibility of flexibility.
So you can see that biblical interpretation and theologies of creation are not static, but are changing, in conversation with philosophy and with scientific discoveries.
Nowadays, belief about creation is often presented as a straight choice between ‘science’ and ‘religion’, with ‘science’ understood as the Big Bang and Evolution and ‘religion’ as a literal understanding of Genesis 1. It is not as simple as that. St Augustine didn’t take Genesis 1 literally; he recognised you couldn’t have day and night before the sun was created. And since there are two different accounts of creation one after the other in the early chapters of Genesis, it is obvious its compilers didn’t intend them to be literal descriptions of what happened.
Some of the greatest minds of the scientific world were also religious both in the past and the present and find that the study of science reinforces rather than challenges their faith. The Doctrine Commission acknowledges that the Genesis creation stories were expressed in the cosmology of the day, and says our creation theology must make use of the vastly better informed cosmology of our day.
So should we just abandon Genesis 1, and other Old and New Testament passages as sources of our creation theology?
The Bible, along with tradition and our reason and current experience all feed in to our theology.
What then does Genesis 1 tell us about God the Creator?
It says that God created out of pre-existing matter, which was formless, dark and barren. The action of God, in the persons of the Word and the Spirit, brought life and light out of this. It says that the creation was not a single event, but a process, a process which we know is continuing to this day. It says that God cares for creation, in one translation of verse 2, like a hovering watchful mother bird. It says that human being were created to continue that care as stewards or shepherds (a better way of translating verses 26 & 28 than ‘have dominion over them).
It says that God delighted equally in every aspect of the creation for its own sake, so it was not just created for human beings to enjoy. That has implications for our stewardship of the world, and our care for the environment.
More problematically, it repeatedly says that God saw each thing that was made, and pronounced it good. In a week when we have heard about a devastating earthquake in New Zealand, that is difficult to accept. Like generations of Christians, we have to struggle with this. Earth scientists remind us that earthquakes are an inevitable consequence of the structure of our planet, and if the conditions that cause earthquakes were not present, the conditions that allowed life to evolve would not exist either. Theologians say each of God’s creations, both animate and inanimate, is called to be faithful to its nature, and that suffering, sacrifice and death are part of God’s creation.
This reminds us again that creation theology is not just about what happened ‘in the beginning’. It has a bearing on what we believe about God, how we explain sin, suffering and evil, how we understand the work of the Spirit and the person of Jesus, miracles, ethics and how we think the world will come to an end.
Genesis 1 tells us that there is a rhythm to life, both natural and human, times of work and creativity and times of rest and consolidation. The crowning moment of its account is not the creation of human beings, but the day of rest.
It tells us that human beings, male and female were created together, and given equal responsibility towards the earth, not one after the other or one subordinate to the other. It also tells us that all human beings were created in the image of God – but doesn’t spell out for us what that means. Does it mean we are like God because we are creative; because we have reason and imagination; because we have a moral sense and consciences; because we can love; or simply that we are here as God’s agents?
Genesis 1 is not a scientific account, and should not be taken as such. It is a myth, and it is poetry, which together with other myths and poetry in the Bible, points us to a greater understanding of creation and our responsibility towards it under God. It reminds us, as our passage from Matthew also reminds us, that the world made by God is to be trusted to provide for us.
Above all, it is a hymn of praise to the unfathomable glories of God, whose handiwork is revealed through the vast expanse of the cosmos, and the tiniest cell of a creature, a universe which (in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins) is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. It is a passage which prompts us to worship and serve God.
February 25, 2011
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
In the beginning was a golden cosmic egg of fire, which contained the universal spirit.
The spirit took the form of the first man Purusha. The gods sacrificed Purusha, and from his body created the cosmos and human beings in their castes. The Creator god, Brahman, slept within a lotus flower floating on the waters of chaos. When he awoke, he set about creation. At first he made many mistakes, and from ignorance created the demons and the beings of darkness. The cosmos thus created lasts 4320 earth years, gradually seeing a deterioration in morals. The God Vishnu, the preserver, intervenes periodically to put things right, but at the end of each cosmic era, the god Shiva destroys the universe, and everything, gods included is dissolved, a new Brahman is born and the cycle of creation begins again.
That is a summary of the Hindu creation story.
All cultures have creation stories, derived from their observation of the world, interpreted according to their beliefs about how the world works, both physically and spiritually.
In our culture, we tend to operate with a combination of two creation stories: a scientific creation story, or rather a pseudo-scientific one, made up, for most people, of half-understood bits of scientific theories about the Big Bang and evolution, combined, to a greater or lesser extent with religious beliefs from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is that combination we are looking at this morning, to try to see what sort of creation theology it might be reasonable to hold in the light of modern knowledge.
Our creation theology is fundamental to our faith. It bears on our doctrine of God, how we understand God to operate in relation to human beings and the creation; it has implications for our understanding of sin, suffering and evil; it interacts with our understanding of the Bible and how God is revealed to us; it affects our understanding of the person of Jesus, his birth, death and resurrection; how we understand the created world has implications for our approach to miracles; it also has implications for ethics, how we decide what is right and what is wrong; finally, how we think about the creation of the world has implications for how we think the world will come to an end – what in theological language is known as eschatology.
In our society, creation theory is often presented as a straight choice between ‘science’ and ‘religion’. By the scientific theory is meant a vague alliance between theories from physics of a world which began with the big bang, and which operates according to fixed and unchanging laws and a biology based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, completely random natural selection by survival of the fittest. All this, it is said, is fact, proved by the observations of astro-physicists and palaeontologists.
On the religious side is often meant an acceptance of chapter 1 of Genesis (and sometimes chapter 2, though it is not often acknowledged that there are two different accounts ) as a literal, historical description of the creation of the world during 6 days in 4004 BC, or a sort of divinely guaranteed scientific textbook of the mechanism of creation. To it’s supporters, this is fact, revealed by God through the Bible; to it’s detractors it is just ‘faith’ with no factual basis.
However, it is not as simple as that! All creation stories, including scientific ones, are just that – stories, theories deduced from observations of the physical universe. Whether it was the Big Bang or the creation of the Garden of Eden, there were no human beings there at the time to observe and record what went on! Scientific theories set up a model that seems to fit the data available -but the model is always a provisional one, and is modified as new data becomes available. Models of the process of creation of the universe and the evolution of animal species change fairly frequently, as new discoveries and observations are made. For instance, in the last week or so, the analysis of a grain of crystal discovered in Australia has pushed back by about half a billion years estimates of the time at which the earth cooled sufficiently for rocks to have formed; the discovery of two giant planets in the Aquarius and Serpens constellations has changed theories about the maximum size of planets possible; and the discovery of a skeleton of an early humanoid has changed current theories about where the first humans as apart from other primates came from.
The idea of the universe as a closed system, operating according to immutable laws, is also now ‘old hat’. Observations are now challenging even Einstein’s theory of relativity. suggesting that at one time in the universe’s history, light may have moved at a faster rate than now. It is now seen that there are ‘gaps’ in the predictability of physical laws. This is called ‘chaos theory’ or ‘the butterfly effect’.
On the other hand, biblical interpretation and theologies of creation are not static, but are changing, in conversation with scientific discoveries. Some of the greatest minds of the scientific world were also religious- even if like Newton they were somewhat unorthodox, or like Galileo, they got into trouble with the religious authorities of their time. Many modern scientist theologians, like John Polkinghorne, the mathematician and physicist, and Arthur Peacocke, the biochemist, find that the study of science reinforces rather than challenges their faith. Indeed, there is considerable support for the view that science arose as a consequence of the Judaeo-Christian world view: because we believe in one creator, the world is assumed to be rational and consistent, but because the creator has free will, the world has to be observed to be understood; because the world is God’s creation, it is worthy of study, but because it is separate from the creator, we can experiment on it without impiety.
Some of the tenets of a theology of creation are philosophical assumptions – but equally so are some of the elements of a non-religious creation theory. For instance whether or not there is a creator, whether the creation has purpose or not, are equally articles of belief – they cannot be proved or disproved. For some scientists, the order and beauty of creation is evidence of design. The more we learn about the universe, says Polkinghorne, and the more we understand about the fine tuning necessary to enable the emergence of carbon based life forms, the more he believes in a guiding mind behind it. This is known as the Anthropic Principle.
However, even if we accept the assumption of a Creator, this leaves open the question of how far God is involved in the ongoing process of creation. Did God just set the whole thing going at the Big Bang, and leave it to the chance mechanisms of evolution from then on? This is technically known as Deism – the idea that the creator is uninvolved in the world.
The opposite assumption is that the whole course of history has been planned down to the tiniest detail, and that God puts a finger in the works to direct it, and to adjust things for special people from time to time.
Creation theology, you see, is not just concerned with how it all began, but also with what has been going on since. Strangely, the observations of scientists are now being used by those who believe the Biblical account of creation to oppose a purely Darwinian account of evolution. So, writers such as Philip Johnson, in his ‘testing Darwinism’ will point to gaps in the fossil record and anomalies such as the Cambrian explosion, to argue that natural selection on the macro-evolutionary scale could not have produced human beings in the time scale available; and recent discoveries about the history of human DNA seem to point to a common male and female ancestor, who could be claimed as Adam and Eve. These people would argue that the gaps and anomalies are evidence that God has intervened, as described in the Bible, to direct the creation of human beings.
Other scientists who are also religious believers, while not wishing to go down this road, would nevertheless argue that the doctrine of God’s omnipotence requires that God is free to intervene to direct the progress of Creation towards the divine purpose for it, by events such as the Virginal Conception and the Resurrection of Jesus – miracles that ‘suspend’ natural laws.
Polkinghorne believes that a better explanation for the world as it is, which is also consistent with Christian belief about the nature of God, is that ongoing creation is an interplay between chance and necessity. A fertile world needs both necessity and regularity to provide reliable conditions for life, and chance for novel developments and progress. God is faithful, so the world must be reliable – but a totally reliable world would never change. God is loving, so will give creation freedom to evolve according to its own laws with an element of chance, and humans freedom to choose – so new possibilities will evolve within the limits of the universe.
This produces a world which is in the process of creation. It is a world with ragged edges – with both good and evil inherent in it. Following such a theology of creation, we cannot hold onto the idea of a perfect creation which was then spoilt by a Fall (but that whole area is something we will go on to consider in later sermons in this series.
But changes like this worry some people who assume that there is a Christian doctrine of creation which has been the same for all time. That is not so. Creation theology has undergone change during the Christian era, as it has been influenced by current philosophical ideas. For instance, the belief that God creates ‘ex nihilo’ (out of nothing ) is not necessarily the biblical idea, where God seems to be creating order from a pre-existent chaos; it came about to counter Gnostic ideas that the matter which God worked with was inherently evil, and the world was the product of a demiurge, and the pure soul needed to escape from it to be with God. The Christian doctrine of creation has been evolving over the past 2000 years – and will continue to do so. It draws on the descriptions of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, but also other passages describing creation in the Psalms and Job, and by many New Testament passages, which talk about the roles of the three persons of the Trinity in creation.
It is simply not the case that the one true Biblical theology of creation has been challenged by the discoveries of 19th and 20th century science. Christian creation theology will go on changing, in conversation with the discoveries of modern science and with our reflection upon our experience of the world we live in and our encounters with God as revealed by that world. The early scientists used to say “ God has written two books for our instruction – the book of scripture and the book of nature”. St. Paul said “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made”. John Polkinghorne writes of the friendship between science and religion, because they are both involved in the search for truth.
That is what creation theology is all about, and it is perfectly possible for us to engage in such theology with intellectual honesty in the third millenium.
February 20, 2011
Leviticus 19, 1-2 & 9-18; 1 Cor. 3, 10-11 & 16-23; Matthew 5, 38-48.
This week I found out a little bit about the history of this church. I learnt that the first Methodist Chapel was opened in 1852 near Clay Hill, and was replaced by a building in The Rutts in 1883. Then there was another building in the High Road which lasted from 1891 until 1967, and then this building was opened in September 1968. So, as with many places of worship, there was a continual process of renewal, refurbishment and replacement, to create a suitable ‘temple’ in which the Methodist people of this area could worship and encounter God.
It was the same for the people of Israel. Their first centre of worship and encounter with God was the Tabernacle, a large tent which could be moved around with them. That was replaced by the Temple, built by King Solomon, and one of the most magnificent buildings of the ancient world. The second Temple which replaced it after the return from Exile was not so grand, but King Herod the Great was determined to equal the glories of Solomon and rebuilt and extended it from 19 BC. This was the Temple which Jesus visited, and which he called ‘my Father’s house”. But it too was destroyed in AD 70.
But even before that destruction, for the followers of Christ the place where they encountered God had already changed. It had become not a place, but a person. The Gospels have Jesus speaking about himself as ‘the Temple’, and the heart of Christian belief is that in Jesus we see and encounter God. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostles Paul and Peter speak about the Christian community as ‘the Temple’ where God is both found and worshipped on earth. In the passage from the letter to the Corinthians we heard today, Paul tells them (and us) that we are God’s Temple, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, filled with God’s Spirit, and holy.
So, if we are collectively and individually God’s Holy Temple, how can we ensure that we remain ‘holy’, truly a place where people may encounter the living God?
The ancient Jews came to believe that if you were to encounter God, you had to be ritually pure. So they forbade anything they considered ‘impure’ from approaching the Holy of Holies. Unfortunately, some Christians have also adopted that approach. Paul’s words about ‘being a temple of the Holy Spirit’ have been interpreted as referring primarily to sexual purity, because in another part of 1 Corinthians he refers to the human body being the temple, which should therefore not be used in immoral ways. As a consequence, Christians, too, have tried to ban those they consider to be sexually impure from the Christian community and Christian leadership. This is one argument that has been used for the exclusion of women from Christian leadership roles, and for excluding gay and lesbian people.
We don’t often read the Book of Leviticus in church, and we tend to think about it as being totally concerned with obscure issues of ritual and sexual purity. Passages about mixing two sorts of crop in a field, or two sorts of fibres in a garment and how you deal with mildew don’t seem to have much to say to 21st century Christians. But, as our reading this morning shows, it does have some passages which, like Deuteronomy, interpret the Covenant with God as being about more than ritual and exclusiveness; and what is more, it has passages which were directly quoted by Jesus.
The passage we heard tells us that if we are to be the place in which God is encountered, then we need to be concerned about relationships: relationships with God and our our families first(verses 3 & 4 which we didn’t hear reiterate the commandments about honouring parents, keeping the Sabbath and not worshipping idols); but equally important are relationships with our neighbours, and especially those who are poor or vulnerable. So the well-off farmers are reminded to leave gleanings and windfalls for the poor to gather; the commercial sector is warned not to defraud the vulnerable, or use economic power to leave the workers without daily sustenance, and the judiciary is reminded that they judge in God’s name, so should not favour the rich or take bribes.
And just like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Leviticus extends obedience to the commandments to what is going on inside people’s minds and hearts. You cannot be ‘holy’ simply by doing the right things; you need to have an internal attitude like that of God: you need to be forgiving, and just, and to love your neighbour as yourself.
That phrase was taken by Jesus to be used as part of his Summary of the Law. Loving and worshipping God is important: but it is not enough if your aim is to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Paul reminds us that, as Christian disciples, we must be ‘in Christ’ as Christ was ‘in God’. That is, we must be as much like God as it is possible for a human to be; and Christ shows us the way.
So, Jesus tells us that if we want to be like God, then when someone injures us, we don’t retaliate, and we even give the person the opportunity to hurt us again. When someone sues us for half of what we have, we voluntarily let them take the other half as well. We are supposed to co-operate when government oppresses us, give to beggars and lend to anyone who asks.
It may seem to us to be madness, a recipe for economic collapse and social anarchy; and we could debate whether Jesus meant us to take these commands literally, or whether he was exaggerating to make his point. The point Jesus is making is the same point Paul makes to the Corinthians – God’s wisdom seems like foolishness to those who live by worldly standards. So, if we want to be the place where God is encountered, we are going to have to be thought foolish by the world too.
The passages we have been hearing over the past few weeks from the Sermon on the Mount remind us what a high standard that sets before us. The sort of ‘love’ it demands is not romantic love, or the love we have for family and friends; nor even the love it is easy to feel for those who like us and treat us well. It’s love that compels us to put the needs and preferences of others first, even of others who hate, injure and oppress us.
God doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe, righteous and unrighteous, those who acknowledge the divine commands and those who don’t. The good things of the earth, and the chance of salvation are equally open to everyone. That’s what being ‘holy’ means. That’s the difference that becoming the ‘temple of God’ demands of us.
When you read the Sermon on the Mount through in it’s entirety, from Matthew, Chapter 5 through Chapter 7, it is easy to become discouraged. There are 27 or more different injunctions about how you are to behave and think, each one demanding that you go beyond what is usually considered good behaviour. I don’t imagine Jesus actually ever sat down on a mountain and listed all of them at the same time – he was much too wise a teacher to do so. Matthew however wanted to present Jesus as the new Moses, and so created a new ‘Book of the Law’ to equal the books found in the Old Testament, by gathering the precepts Jesus taught into one place. It’s a daunting list!
But the Sermon on the Mount is only discouraging if you read it apart from the rest of the New Testament, and make the mistake of imagining we are supposed to do all this in our own strength. We’re not!
The Temple we are building with our own minds and bodies is constructed on the foundation stone of Jesus Christ, who has walked the path of human life, and suffered, and died, even for those who hated, persecuted and harmed him. We build it in company with many other believers, through time and across the world who have tried that way and found it possible, so long as they remain ‘in Christ’. We build it, strengthened by the Spirit of God, who lives in us and loves through us, and empowers us to do what ordinary human beings think foolish and impossible.
The building of a Temple made up of humans who live out the message of Christ signals a new era in God’s relationship with humanity, the breaking in of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the sign that God is truly active on earth, in the living Temple, where any human being may encounter and participate in that divine perfection of love.