Sermon on Creation Theology. ( from January 2001)
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.