24 April 2016

Let There Be...

Genesis 1:1-2:4b & John 1: 1-5

5th Sunday of Easter/ 24th April 2016

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1). Familiar words.  In our day, this text is used (and abused) by those who insist that the Bible is making a scientific claim, defending creationism over evolution.  Unfortunately, the creation story has been sucked into the science vs. religion debate (a false debate since science is 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 are two creation stories in Genesis, not one, each composed by two different authors, hundreds of years apart. The first account is found between Genesis 1:1 and 2:4a.  The second account begins with Genesis 2:4b and runs 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 a writer that scholars call Yahwist, because of the Hebrew word used for God in these verses, 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 writer, due, in part, to this tradition’s concern for worship and ritual; the Priestly tradition is identified by the use of different Hebrew names for God, Elohim and El Shaddai.  The Priestly writer composed this text in reaction to the prevailing myths and religions of 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 (1878, to be exact).[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 came to be.  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.[2]

Considerable damage has been done to the hearing and reading of Genesis 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 did not emerge from a struggle between the gods, as one myth claimed, nor was it born from a cosmic egg, or from primordial matter.[3]  Instead, the Priestly tradition offers us an entirely different, bold, understanding 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 the nature of God.  The clue is found in the first verse:  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth….” It’s so obvious; yet, it’s easy to miss.

So, here it is.  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, that is, 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 news 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.”[4]  And it doesn’t matter whether all of this was done in six or six billion days—this entirely misses the point.  The critical point here is that we’re given an image of God known chiefly as Creator. 

What’s so radical or unusual about this?  The image of God here is unique among the religions of the world because behind the English word creator is the Hebrew word bara’.  In the Priestly Writings the 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.”[5]  It has a very specific meaning. 

Bara’ is never used to describe the creation of something out of something else.  While it’s true that human beings are creative, technically, theologically speaking we are only creative with what’s been given to us; we don’t actually 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 the nihil, out of nothing, out of the void, because before creation there was no-thing.[6] 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—a clean heart—that was not the result of human effort or will.

The word bara’, to create, is used in Genesis 1:1 in connection with creation of the universe as a whole.  Then in Genesis 1:2 a related word is introduced, ‘asah,’ which means, “to make.”  The “making” begins in verse two: forming, shaping creation from what God had created.  Technically speaking, only God can create out of nothing.[7]  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.  Bearing the mark of God’s image, God’s imagination, 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, “Let there be…” and it was….  “Let there be…” and it came into being.  The divine Word creates through speech.  The same idea is picked up in the sublime prologue to John’s Gospel, which was intentionally modeled on the opening of 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 that spoke creation into being was enfleshed, that is, embodied in Jesus Christ.  He is the One who, like God, creates and calls into being something radically new.  “Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus says in Revelation (21:5).  And doesn’t Paul tell us that in Christ we are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17)?

Let there be.... Can you hear, even feel the dynamism, the movement, and the open-endedness of the Divine Speech? 

Let there be… 
God speaks and things come into being.
God speaks and new worlds come into existence.
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 idea, known as zimzum, which suggests that God creates by stepping back, as it were, withdrawing, and in the space vacated by God’s presence something new is invited to come into being, something other than Godself.[8]  And then, remarkably, God doesn’t seek to control creation, but trusts the goodness of creation and frees it to 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 creation—we are even given the freedom to reject the Creator, to turn our face away from 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 or micro-manage everything, but creates the occasion, the setting, the space for growth; God grants creation freedom, even 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, in part, that we, too, are given the means to create spaces, settings, places that allow ongoing growth, creativity, freedom for others, for the world—indeed, this is what the Church can be and become, the place that fosters creative living and flourishing.

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.”[9]  And in “letting-be” we are free to 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 being creative isn’t easy.  As any artist knows, there’s probably in us more that blocks creativity than fosters it.  There is a force in us and in the world that hinders growth, which resists evolution and change and progress, 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, we try to stop growth, we resist growth, we undermine flourishing in ourselves or we undermine it in others, thwarting every effort to grow, impeding change, obstructing, standing in the way of what God is creating in the world.  What I’m talking about here is how the Bible describes sin; it’s a way to think about sin.  Sin is the opposite of creation; it’s anti-creation.  This is also a way to think about evil.  Sin and evil seek to undo creation.  Sin and evil work to breakdown that which is trying to be formed.  Sin and evil block the forces working for growth; they negate the ongoing creative life of God.  Sin and evil hinder flourishing.  Sin, along with evil, doesn’t bear fruit.  The early theologian, Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395) was even more explicit, “Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.”[10]

Grace.  Love.  Forgiveness.  Resurrection.  New Creation. These are among 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 creation are among the ways the Bible conveys to 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 things today are any different. This is still the way God as Creator relates to the creation, to you and to me.  In love, in grace, in trust, God is continually calling individuals and families, communities and churches and things and worlds into being, changing lives, resurrecting everything that is dead, creating new possibilities of hope and healing and wholeness in people, through the work 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.’”[11]  This is another way of saying, “Let be.  Let be.”  What if we imagined the Holy Spirit saying to us, “Grow, grow.”  Go ahead, use your imagination.  Imagine the Spirit whispering in your ear, “Grow, grow.”  What if God is saying this to us all the time?  Grow! Grow!  Be!  Let be!  Flourish!  Become!  Imagine how different our lives would be.

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.  This is why it’s all good–very good. Very, 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 (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] For an excellent history of fundamentalism within the American context, see George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006).
[3] J├╝rgen Moltmann, God in Creation:  A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 72ff.
[4] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), 28.
[5] Moltmann, 73.
[6] Moltmann, 74-75ff.  See also Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014); and my review of McFarland’s text in The Presbyterian Outlook.
[7] Moltmann, 73.
[8] 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.
[9] Brueggemann, 28.
[10] Cited in Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 51.
[11] Cited in Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (New York:  Putnam’s Sons, 1992), 3.

03 April 2016

Room for Doubt

John 20:19-31

Second Sunday of Easter
3rd April 2016

Thomas has received a lot of criticism over the centuries for his doubt.  And ever since then, it seems, doubt lost its place in the world of faith.  No one wants to be called a Doubting Thomas.

I can remember as a boy struggling with doubt.  I was taught, either directly or indirectly, that God wanted my belief, complete belief, one hundred percent.  I was taught that doubt, being the opposite of belief, was a bad thing, to be avoided, and eventually conquered.  I was taught about “justification through faith” (Romans 5:1).  God wants my faith in order for faith to be effective. Doubt was evidence that I didn’t believe enough, have faith enough to be saved. 

The text from John seems to support this view.  Thomas was nowhere to be found when Jesus first appeared to the other disciples on Easter. When Thomas returned and learned that he just missed Jesus, the risen Lord, you can see why he would be extremely skeptical. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 19:25).  In other words, I won’t be made the fool.  I want to see the evidence.  I want to see it myself.  I want to touch his wounds myself. 

And then, a week later, Thomas was with the disciples at home, behind shut doors.  Jesus stood among them again and said, “Peace be with you.”  Word of Thomas’ incredulity must have gotten back to Jesus because he says directly to Thomas—who was probably beating himself up all week for not being home when Jesus showed up the first time (I would have)—“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe” (John 19:27).  And then Thomas answered, “My Lord and My God.”  Thomas came to believe through evidence and then Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 19:29).  With Jesus’ words here you can see why we’ve come to disparage doubt and desire belief.  We don’t have Jesus’ wounds to physically touch. All we have is belief—but who wants to be like Thomas?

But is all of this criticism really warranted?  Is there really no place for doubt within the life of faith? Are they polar opposites?  My own dualistic, either-or thinking on this subject began to collapse when I was in college.  It was in a theology class (offered by a very secular, public university in New Jersey), when I heard the professor, Hiroshi Obayashi—a teacher I highly respected, a Christian—say, “We should always maintain a healthy agnosticism.” We need to leave space for humility of knowledge, somewhere between faith and doubt, to say we don’t know and will never know everything.  Slowly I learned that doubt was important, incredibly important—not the kind of doubt that leaves us cynical or always skeptical—but doubt that keeps things open, open to discovering something new and different, open to discovering what one thought was true is no longer true or was never true and so you have to lean into a new way of knowing the world or yourself or neighbor or even God.  Maybe we need more doubt in the church—again, not the cynical, skeptical kind, that becomes tiresome—but the kind that leaves us always curious.

On Friday morning, our own Jeff Bolognese, who works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, hosted what may have been the very first Presbyterian Pastor Tour at NASA.  Dorothy Boulton, David and Molly Douthett, pastors serving in National Capital Presbytery and very dear, longtime friends, and I were treated to a remarkable behind the scenes walkthrough of some of the test facilities.  We finished the tour in an observation room looking down at the construction of the James Webb SpaceTelescope, which will be launched in October 2018.  It’s the most ambitious telescope ever made by Goddard, costing billions of dollars, which will allow us to see into the darkness of space and search in the darkest, coldest reaches of the universe for some evidence of light, original light that emerged at the beginning of time.  It was extraordinarily humbling to stand there and see that telescope—I felt tears welling up in me—for who knows what this will discover.  We stood around talking about the nature of scientific research.  Jeff said, “Scientists change their minds because of data.”  Scientists want more data because they want to discover more.  Once the Hubble Telescope was launched they said, “What’s next?”  Scientists ask questions, explore the evidence; they’re learning, discovering all the time, always asking, “What else don’t we know?”  The questions push us forward.  The truth is out there, but the truth is open-ended.

Thomas the doubter sounds oddly contemporary.  Maybe he deserves our thanks and praise. That’s what James Loder (1931-2001) said.  Professor of practical theology at Princeton, with considerable interest in science, a mentor and friend, Loder wrote a short piece in praise of Thomas.  Jim wrote, “It is to Thomas’ great credit that he knows a problem when he sees it. …I see Thomas’ famous dubiety not so much a problem of whether [Jesus] lives, but if He lives—for that presents the problem.  His doubt is rooted in a profound sense of the implications of such a claim and an unwillingness to take that step seriously.”  “It’s a problem,” Loder writes, “to have the presumably dead Jesus, radically reversing the universal tendency of matter to disintegrate, appear before you in a form of tangibility you’ve never seen before.  It is a problem so great that it may violently awaken you from a deep Newtonian slumber and put you into the world in a new way—yet without any sense of direction…perhaps, all you know to do is wander off and go fishing.”  Thomas “sees all too clearly that if he lives, [if Jesus lives] the apparent and assumptive world we have always tended to take for granted is not actually definitive of us after all.”[1] 

We could just say we believe and be done with it and go about our lives.  This is what Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) called bad faith, ‘Just say you believe in God, then you won’t have to think about it anymore.”[2]  Loder says, “Oh, yes, I know—‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ Cynically, one can say, ‘Thank goodness he said that.  I haven’t seen anything and I don’t want to, so I can say I believe, and by this saying, I can be better than Thomas and still not have it make any difference!”

But it made a difference to Thomas.  It made a difference because his doubt, his search for proof was evidence that he actually cared enough to know the truth. The polymath Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) said we only come to know something or someone when we care enough to know; we come to know through love.  “Of course, if Thomas had really wanted to avoid the implications of the claim his companions were making,” Loder suggests, “if he had really wanted to avoid changing anything, he made a big, tactical mistake.  He should have just walked away, left the scene so as not to be associated with a marginal person who thought that way.”

Thomas’ doubt was an expression of how much he cared.  He had “the courage to say so, and the tenacity not to let go of it until he had an answer.”  Thomas “believed the empirical test was necessary but found, like so many after him in all fields of human endeavor…that the truth always exceeds the proof.”  But the doubt pushed him there.  That’s because, as Loder said and as he knew firsthand in his own life, “Yes, sooner or later, when you get passionate about this you will walk headlong into the resurrected incarnation.  When that stunning moment occurs or when that astounding realization gradually dawns upon you over a considerable length of time…when you say ‘My Lord and my God,’ without actually having to touch Him after all, you know you have been struck an immortal blow, you have been permanently wounded by the sheer awe and wonder of this grace.  Once wised up, you can’t wise down.”

So, here’s to Thomas. Here’s to doubt. Here’s to being curious, courageous, and caring enough to pursue and explore and fathom what we really mean when we say we believe, “Christ is risen!”  

[1] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989).  All the references to Thomas are found in the Epilogue, especially 213-215.  For more on Loder, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology ofJames E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[2] Cited in Loder, 214.