22 May 2012

Let There Be...

Genesis 1: 1-5, 24-2:4b & John 1: 1-15

7th Sunday of Easter/ 20th May 2012

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth….” We know these words by heart.  In our day, they’re often used (or abused) by those who insist that the Bible is making a scientific claim, justifying Creationism over Evolution.  Unfortunately, the creation story has been sucked into the science vs. religion debate (which is really a false debate, science it not at odds with religion), thus distorting what is actually going on here in the opening verses of Genesis and the Bible. 

            So, what is going on here?  It’s important to lift up that there is not one creation story in Genesis, but two, composed by two different authors, hundreds of years apart. The first account is found between Genesis 1:1 through 2:4a.  The second account begins with Genesis 2:4b through 2:24.  A good Bible translation will make this plain.  The second story is actually the older of the two, written in the 7th to 6th century BC, by an author (s) scholars call the Yahwist, because of the word used for God, Yahweh.  The first story, the one that opens Genesis emerged later, during Israel’s exile in Babylon and after their return home, in the 6th to 5th centuries BC.  It’s known as the Priestly, due, in part, to the tradition’s concern for worship and ritual; the Priestly tradition is identified by the use of particular Hebrew names for God, such as Elohim and El Shaddai.  The Priestly author composed his text in response and reaction to the prevailing myths and religions of the Babylon and Mesopotamia.

            What I’m saying here isn’t radical; there’s nothing new about it.  Biblical scholars have been teaching this in universities and seminaries, first in Germany, since the late 19th century.[1] While Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was making revolutionary claims in On the Origin of Species, in 1859, biblical scholars and historians were making revolutionary discoveries about how the Bible was written.  It was in direct response to advances in the world of science and scholarship that Fundamentalism emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century; fundamentalism was a conservative reaction to progress in knowledge and continues to plague the advancement of the Gospel.  Fundamentalism is always a conservative reaction to progress.

            Considerable damage has been done to the hearing and reading of this text by turning the opening creation stories into science.  These stories were never written to offer scientific proof for a theory of origins.  They were written, however, to make a theological claim about the nature and purpose of God.  And this was especially so for the Priestly tradition, the tradition behind the first creation story, because this story deliberately confronts the creation myths of the Babylonians.  The Priestly writer insists that the earth was not the result of a struggle between the gods, as one myth claimed, nor was it born from a cosmic egg, or from primordial matter.[2]  Instead, the Priestly tradition offers us an entirely different image of God; it imagines an entirely different story of creation, a story that tells us something profound and amazing about how they came to conceive of God.  It’s all contained in this first verse:  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth….” It’s so obvious; yet, it’s easy to miss.

            The earth is the result of God’s free choice to create; it’s an act of God’s will.  The very first image of God we’re given in the Bible is a God who acts, who chooses, who has a will, who without compulsion and in freedom, acts, chooses, wills the earth into being; everything is the result of God’s creative activity.   “God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way.  This is the presupposition for everything that follows in the Bible.”  Walter Brueggemann claims, “It is the deepest premise from which good new is possible.  God and [God’s] creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards that creation.”  God wills to be in relationship with the earth.  God is bound to creation and the “connection cannot be nullified.”[3]  And the point here is not whether all of this was done in six or six billion days – that entirely misses the point.  The point here is that we’re given an image of God known chiefly as a creator. 

            Now, what’s so radical or unusual about this?  The image of God here is unique among the religions of the world because behind the word creator is the Hebrew word bara’.  In the Priestly Writings this verb bara’ is used exclusively as a term for the divine bringing forth, for which there is no human analogy.  This verb refers to a kind of creation that only God can do, beyond the power of human will and action.  “The word means a bringing forth in the sphere of history, nature and spirit, through which something comes into existence which was not there previously.”[4]  It has a very specific meaning. 

            Bara’ is never used to describe the creation of something out of something else.  While humans being are creative, technically, theologically speaking we are creative with what’s been given to us, we don’t create anything, that is bring something into existence out of nothing. When God creates, God creates something out of nothing.  Theologians refer to this as creatio ex nihilo, God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing, because there was nothing before creation. [5] This is what’s being imagined in the opening sentence of Genesis.  When God creates it is always something new, never before seen or experienced.  When the psalmist says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10),” the Hebrew here is bara’.  Something radically new is coming into existence, which is not the result of human effort or will.

            The word bara’, to create, is used in connection with creation, the universe as a whole, in verse 1.  Then a related word is introduced, ‘asah,’ which means, “to make.”  The “making” begins in verse 2: forming, shaping creation from what God created.  Technically speaking, only God can create out of nothing.[6]  Following after the pattern of God, humans make, we manufacture, shape, construct, produce, assemble, and form what God has given us and in this sense we are creative.  We creatively, imaginatively engage with what’s been given to us by the Creator and when we do this we come to understand, in part, what it means to be created in the image of God.  We are the product of God’s creative imagination; endowed with this image we are then invited, called, and even freed to use our imagination, to use our creativity, to help form and reform a world that reflects God’s intention for creation – this created world that God tells us over and over again is good, given in love.

            And note the way God’s creativity causes things to be.  God says the word, “Let there be…” and it was… and it came into being.  The divine Word creates.  The same idea is picked up in the opening verses of John’s gospel, intentionally modeled on Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God” (John 1: 1).  The first Christians came to see the Divine Creative Word enfleshed, that is, embodied in Jesus Christ.  He is the One who, like God, creates and calls into being something new.  “Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus says in Revelation (21:5). 

            Let there be.... Can you hear, even feel the dynamism, the movement in the Divine Speech? 
            Let there be… 
            God speaks and things come into being.
            God speaks and things happen.
            God speaks and people are formed. 
            Let there be…

            God is the one who calls people, things, and new worlds into existence.  God doesn’t just create and then step away.  God creates by “letting-be,” God makes room for something to exist.  There is an old Jewish tradition that God creates by stepping back, as it were, and in the space vacated by God’s presence, something new is invited to come into being, something other than Godself.[7]  And then, remarkably, God doesn’t seek to control it, but trusts the goodness of creation and lets it evolve. God gives it, gives us the freedom to be, to flourish, to grow, even – and this is one of the most remarkable aspects of this creation story – we are even given the freedom to reject the Creator. 

            In “letting-be” God forms and lets go in order for the creation to fulfill its purpose, to evolve and change and blossom and grow and yield and bear fruit.  God doesn’t control, but creates the occasion, the setting, the space for growth; God grants creation freedom, risks freedom for the sake of growth, and then watches and waits for the further unfolding of creation before God’s eyes.  For us to be endowed with the image of God means that we too are given the means to create spaces, settings – such as the Church, this is what the Church can be and become! – places that allow further growth, creativity, freedom for others, for the world. 

            Can you sense the grace expressed in this image of God the Creator?  “The grace of God is that the creature whom [God] has caused to be, [God] now lets be.”[8]  And in “letting-be” we make and form and create in our own way.  In letting-be, we grow and flourish and bear fruit. 

            But we have to be honest here and acknowledge that it’s not that easy.  As any artist knows, there’s probably more that blocks creativity in us than fosters it.  There is a force in us and in the world that hinders growth, which resists evolution and change, which hampers our desire to “let-be.”  Sometimes we’re not very good at “letting-be.” Sometimes, actually, whether consciously or unconsciously, unintentionally or sometimes very intentionally, we try to stop being, stop growth, stop flourishing in ourselves or in others, thwarting any effort to grow, impeding change, and standing in the way of what God is creating in the world.   What we’re talking about here is really how the Bible describes sin.  It’s one way to think about sin.  Sin is the opposite of creation; it’s anti-creation.  Sin wants to undo creation.  It wants to breakdown that which is trying to be formed.  It blocks the forces working for growth; it negates the ongoing creative life of God.  It hinders flourishing.  Sin doesn’t bear fruit.  The early theologian, Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395), writing from the fourth century, was even more explicit, “Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.”[9]

            Grace. Love. Forgiveness. Resurrection. New Life. These are the many ways scripture makes the point that while sin is real and serious, it never has the last word. We were not created to sin, but for something more.   God’s grace, love, forgiveness, resurrection, new life are the ways the Bible tells us that this is what it means to be authentically human.  We were created with lives free to reflect the image of God, free to grow, to thrive, and to flourish, all for God’s glory!

            And there’s nothing in scripture to suggest that this isn’t the way God as Creator still relates to the creation, to you and to me.  In love, in grace, in trust, God is continually calling people and families and churches and things and new worlds into being, changing lives, resurrecting everything that is dead, creating new possibilities of hope and healing and wholeness in people, with the help of the Holy Spirit, allowing people and churches to grow and flourish and bear fruit.

            The Jewish Talmud says, “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’”[10]  That’s another way of saying, “Let be.  Let be.”  What if we imagined the Holy Spirit whispering in our ears, saying to us, “Grow, grow.”  What if this is what God is saying to us all the time?  Grow.  Grow.  BeLet be.  Let be.  Flourish.  Become.  With every whisper, with every word spoken and heard, the Holy Spirit calls us into existence, making and remaking, forming and reforming, creating and recreating our lives. And all this is good – very good.

[1] The German biblical scholar and orientalist Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) first put forth the multiple-author hypothesis in 1878 with the publication of Geschichte Israels (English translation:  Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel).  Although the source hypothesis has been challenged, it is still the primary methodology used in the study of the Pentateuch.
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation:  A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 72ff.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), 28.
[4] Moltmann, 73.
[5] Moltmann, 74-75ff.
[6] Moltmann, 73.
[7] This idea, zimzum in Hebrew, was developed by the Kabbalist (Jewish mystic), Isaac Luria (1534-1572).  Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) makes creative use of this idea in his novels, especially The Slave.  God is one who “hides his face.”  The Kabbalistic doctrine of divine self-limitation has found a place in Christian theology in Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), J. G. Hamann (1730-1788), Friedrich Oetinger (1702-1787), F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854), Emil Brunner (1889-1966) and others.  See also Moltmann, 87-88.
[8] Brueggemann, 28.
[9] Cited in Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 51.
[10] Cited in Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way:  A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (New York:  Putnam’s Sons, 1992), 3. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “Creativity is God’s gift to us.  Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” 

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