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.