Thinking Through the Creed, Part 2

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” James Baldwin.

One of the real tragedies of the whole brouhaha over Creationism is that it turns the first chapter of the Book of Genesis from something beautiful and profound into something boring and meaningless.  It is not so much that interpreting Genesis 1 to mean that the world was created in six 24-hour units is wrong (though, I do think it is wrong) as it is missing the point.  Genesis 1 is a beautiful poem that is packed with profound theological ideas, ideas that get lost completely in the shuffle of arguing over the timing of the various events.

We should start in the beginning.  The first word of Genesis is "bereishit," which literally means "at the head of," but is usually translated as "in the beginning."  The very notion that there was a beginning or a head is itself radical, particularly where the learned opinion of the time was that existence had no beginning and no end, but endless, unchanging cycles.  Insisting on a beginning is to insist that time and creation moves forward, from that point at which everything begins to its ultimate end point.  The very notion that things can "progress" is dependent on the assertion that there is a beginning--if there is only and endless series of recurring cycles, then no progress is possible.

In this beginning, we have a primordial chaos--"the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters."  (Genesis 1:2).  Upon this primordial chaos, God imposes order.  This, again, is a profound departure from the conventional wisdom of the time.  In all of the creation accounts of the neighbors of the ancient Israelites, creation is itself a product of chaos and conflict.  The earth and the sky are formed from the bodies of dead gods, and human beings are a by-product of this divine conflict.  Humanity, under this scheme, has no choice but to cower and hope to avoid being caught up in this conflict that is far beyond humanity's keen.  It is, to use a modern term, a nihilistic view of the universe--the universe is ultimately uncaring and indifferent to the concerns of human beings.

None of that is found in the Genesis account.  God speaks creation into existence, places that creation into its proper location.  The world is not born in struggle and uncaring violence, but in order and harmony.  Most importantly, God declares each part of this creation to be good--loved and willed by God as it is.  There is, to borrow a term from Matthew Fox, a former Dominican whose habit I once inherited after his "difficulties," an "Original Blessing" described in Genesis 1.  This Original Blessing extends to everything in creation--each part of it is good, and the whole is "very good" (Genesis 1:31).

This Original Blessing also extends to us.  Humanity is not the accidental by-product of indifferent forces, but the summit of the harmony of creation that God has designed and loves.  By placing humanity at the top of creation, Genesis 1 affirms not only the uniqueness and special dignity of human beings, but also that humanity must always be seen as part of the broader creation of God.  In doing so, Genesis 1 pushes back against anti-human visions that see human beings as necessarily subordinate to impersonal forces (whether of nature or of human construction, such as political or social ideologies), as well as totalizing visions that see humanity as standing beyond (and, thus, not subject to) the rest of the world--a vision which has led us to our current environmental problems.  We may be on top, but we are always still a part of the rest of what God has made, and that gives us responsibilities toward the rest of that creation.

Not one single bit of this beautiful and powerful message is undermined by the notion that the universe is 13.82 billion years old, or that chimpanzees are our distant cousins.  The Creationist issue isn't really about Genesis 1 per se, but instead has to do with a bad and ultimately unworkable theology and ecclesiology about the Bible and how to read it.  The problem is that the focus on this ultimately collateral question has swallowed up what Genesis 1 is really trying to say.  Which is very unfortunate, because the message of Genesis 1 is something that we need to hear.

But there is another problem with Genesis 1, and that is that it tends to get ignored in favor of Genesis 2 (I suppose, for clarity sake, I should say that for purposes of this discussion, "Genesis 1" includes Genesis 2:1-3, which discussed the seventh day of creation, where God rests.  "Genesis 2," proper, begins with 2:4, where the story takes a clear turn).  Genesis 2 is another account of creation, one that, despite yeoman's efforts down through the generations, is not fully compatible with the account in Genesis 1--the order of events in creation is different, for one thing; the name used for God is also different in the two stories, for another.  Because the two versions of the story don't perfectly fit together, there is a temptation to pick one and ignore the other.  And Christians, both then and now, have tended to pick Genesis 2 and ignore Genesis 1.

Sometimes, this is because Genesis 2 better serves certain hermaneutical objectives.  Catholic Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, in his new book The Revelatory Body, points out that Pope John Paul II's famous Theology of the Body, which purports to base itself on Genesis when crafting its comprehensive vision of sexuality, deals exclusively with Genesis 2.  It's as if Genesis 1 is not even in the Bible.  Why?  In large measure it is because Genesis 2 has the man, Adam created first, with the woman created as a companion and helpmate to the man.  From there, John Paul spins out his vision of gender complementarity.  Genesis 1, by contrast, has male and female created together, at the same time ("So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." (Genesis 1:27)).  In the Genesis 1 vision of gender, male and female may be conceptually distinct, but are otherwise utterly equivalent and equal in all respects.  That doesn't fit the story John Paul wants to tell, and so it is ignored in favor of the more "helpful" vision in Genesis 2.

But I think there is a more common and fundamental reason that Genesis 1 gets ignored, one that came into focus for me after listening to a talk by Rob Bell (you can find it here, if you are curious).  For many Christians, past and present, the Bible really begins with Genesis 3, the Fall of Man.  The story of the Fall is used as a meta-narrative that is used to explain everything that comes after--why people are so awful to each other, why bad things happen to good people, why Jesus is important, etc.  What happens in Genesis 3, on this reading, is certainly the most important thing that happens in the Hebrew Scriptures, and second only to the Resurrection (and, maybe, the Crucifixion) in the Bible as a whole.

If you believe that Genesis 3 is the lynchpin on which the whole Biblical story turns, then Genesis 2 acts as a kind of natural prologue.  Genesis 2 introduces Adam and Eve, the main characters of the drama of the Fall.  Most scholars believe that Genesis 2 and Genesis 3 come from the same source--the same author or group of authors, referred to as the "J" or Yahwist source (as opposed to Genesis 1, which comes from the Priestly, "P" source).  Regardless of the mechanism involved, Genesis 2 and Genesis 3 fit together and tell a coherent narrative.  Thus, if you think Genesis 3 is the key passage, and Genesis 2 answers all of the questions you might have about that key passage, you don't really need to engage with Genesis 1 all that much.  It can just drop off, without affecting what is "really important."

Bell argues, and I agree with him, that focusing on Genesis 3 and ignoring Genesis 1 distorts the Biblical story in a fundamental way.  Among the many distortions, it sets Christianity up to become an "evacuation theology," where the purpose of our life on Earth is to get out of here and go to someplace else (generally called "Heaven").  If the point of life is to get away from the material world, then the material world is not really that important, and our experiences in the material world are not really that important.  If anything, they become potential impediments to our successful evacuation.  This leads to a host of very concrete consequences that most of us know quite well--from a throw-away attitude toward the environment ("who cares about polluting the water when I'm going to get out of here to Heaven, anyway?") to a fear of embodied physical encounters, especially sex.

Starting with Genesis 1 corrects these distortions by affirming the fundamental goodness and importance of God's creation.  God made the natural world and declared it to be good.  God also made us and put us into this physical world, and declared that to be good, as well.  If we insist that the Earth and our physicality is fundamentally good, that has enormous implications for the way we approach ourselves and our environment.  If we see creation and physicality only through the lens of sin, we will necessarily come to question the goodness of those realities.

To say it another way--I believe that there is such a thing as Original Sin, and I believe that Genesis 3 is an important part of the overall story of humanity (though, I think it needs to be read in the far more allegorical manner suggested by Girard than the literal-ish way generally is read, but that's another discussion).  But the existence of Original Sin in Genesis 3 does not wipe out or counteract the Original Blessing described in Genesis 1.  Both exist alongside each other, in tension.  To read the Original Blessing of Genesis 1 out of the story makes the entire Biblical narrative, and a Christianity based on it, unbalanced.

God looked out at all God created, including us, and declared it to be good.  Nothing we can do can change this basic fact.  That is where we must always begin.


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