This meditation this morning is based on my reflections on Genesis 1. I’m going to speak from a first person point of view a lot of the time today, about my own wondering, and doubts. I see these reflections as connected to gospel, but it might at times be at odds with your own wonderings about big and unresolvable places in our story of faith.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been in conversations with someone who said, “I used to believe in God and as a child I liked the creation story, but then I started taking science and those stories of my childhood seem, well, meant for childhood. I can’t live there in my understanding anymore.” I most often just let the conversation go because it’s too complicated for a passing moment. “God said, ‘let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky’…and God saw that it was good.” This sublime picture is not, for me, about fantasy vs. reality, former truths and new modern truths. But it is worth pondering: just why is it that I return to these ancient sacred stories and respond so differently from these conversation partners? And why is it also that something in the ancient story does grate on me, something is not on the table yet, something hasn’t been said that needs saying.
I’ve spent much time pondering the kinds of thought and discourse we bring to this human quest to know: distinguishing factual, from theoretical and worldview and metaphysical levels of human words and thoughts, and finally arriving at existential experience which may be the richest place of all in our pursuit of meaning. It is the place of loyalty and trust, of placing ourselves in the way of the evidence, as the doorway into who we are, where we come from, and what we are pursuing as human beings.
I go back to today’s story from Chapter 1 of Genesis looking for its hold on me; and I see at bottom it is about trust that I share with those who tell the story. I’m not a scholar of the dominant worldview during the time of the priestly tradition, and how ordered ritual time mapped onto the ordered coming into existence of a cosmos. But when I look for the heartbeat of Genesis 1, the truth of this picture language, what I feel coming through is trust in the One who is source of all there is and finding it a worthy place to be. At the end of the day, is the universe and life and the creativity of existence an expression of God’s will and desire, or not? Is its order a reflection of God’s intention, so that chaos and randomness and meaningless are not the last word, or can we not trust this? And is life in this universe fundamentally good, or is it filled with too much suffering to be labeled good, and just something to be endured? Yes, in the end it is a question of faith, a spot at the boundary questions where one places one’s stakes in the ground.
The story tells me that this universe did not have to be. It could have been otherwise, and I am utterly, utterly dependent on this with every breath I take, and it’s possible even if almost unimaginable, that there could have been nothing, no thing as physical cosmos, yet God said ‘let it be’. The ordered days of the story tells me further that I can count on the regularity of things, the natural and moral patterns even in the midst of unpredictability and messiness. For those who probe the depths of the physical universe, the universe responds and talks back to our inquiry about it in signals that can be understood. This for the ancient writer meant that what is, is ordered and intentional. The proclamation of goodness at the end of each day, when I pay attention, places me in a position of reverence, not because nature is god, but because God declared it good, and as such it is a window onto our knowing and relating to God’s goodness. This is what I trust; and this is what the story of ancient times tells me in spite of its modesty from the perspective of today’s knowledge, today’s ‘facts’.
All of this is from a people of faith on a little plot in ancient Palestine, gazing into the skies, into their lives, taking their experience of covenantal faith and wondering, imagining about origins and destinies so far as their place in the universe could take them. We have advanced vastly in knowledge but frankly, in my opinion we are in no different position for answering the ‘why’ question about ‘what is the case’. I can’t dismiss this story so quickly as my interlocutors often do.
But among the more reflective doubters there is something I pick up, which must be taken seriously. When we fast-forward to today’s cosmos and leave the ancient world, our knowledge includes stark reminders of our finitude, the coming and going of life, the accident of a genetic mutation here and there that determines a biological and emotional destiny (sometimes gracious outcomes, sometimes soul destroying), of disease, mechanisms of aggression in the natural process millions of year in the making which tells us that the shadow side—suffering and pain—are built into the processes and fabric of the natural world too; the sublime picture needs some revision.
We’ve always had to cope with suffering and death but the contemporary cosmic picture throws it in our face and says “whatever you think about the beauty of the universe and God as its creator needs to include this darker part of the story.” And I think this is right: we must conceive the creative goodness of God so that it embraces the whole picture; I must allow my wrestling with suffering and despair (which comes to me simply by being part of this natural world let alone the social-political world emerging from it) within the frame of our trust in God. The psalm may say we are a little lower than angels, and Augustine that we are fallen from our primordial heights, but I suspect we are less like fallen angels and more like rising apes, emerging on the shoulders of millions of years of life, only slowly and fitfully opening the apertures of our moral vision and capacity, and never in a straight line in our history. We are participating in the wonders of spiritual awakening in an environment where treachery already exists and complicates our picture of goodness. But these just are the real conditions of coming into faith in God.
Is this a deal breaker with respect to the good news of Jesus Christ? I don’t think so. We may claim, with William Temple, that Christ is the supreme expression of God’s self giving love which has always been the case from the foundations of the world. We may not know why this mode of creating a universe, but we stake our claim in God as not only source of this creating, but also present to it in its suffering. We aspire toward the urge of love, on the one hand, and under conditions of perceived scarcity and real rivalry, on the other hand? Isn’t this where we have met Jesus also?
If we are at all alive and awake we have probably been personally touched by meaningless and alienation from God and who knows what coping mechanisms that follow, just simply from finitude itself. I think oftentimes, that the liberation from the bondage of sin, in our collect, is about being released from the discouragement that touches us directly in times of unknowing and shaken hope. Grant us, the collect prays, liberation from this bondage and a new experience of abundance as we have found it in Jesus Christ. Let trust, we pray, be restored and fill us with courage and not fear in the face of what we cannot know.
So this is really a sermon with a modest message: Don’t walk away; face into the picture, all the way in, to see the parts that leave you thrilled in wonder, and the parts that haunt you. Ultimately we must return to the question of trust over and over again as we did in contemplating the first chapter of Genesis, now from our expanded picture.
Sometimes in this frame I return to the Eucharist prayer of humble access, to the humility of recognizing my finitude and dependence: that on the face of things in the scope of all that is, and standing before the mystery of God, I am a blip on the screen of time and space not worthy to come to the divine banquet on terms owed to me, not worthy to gather up the crumbs under the table. It can be as simple as a recognition that the gift of existence itself is amazing grace, and we are owed no explanation whatsoever for what’s on the table. Yet this prayer, which begins with our finitude, arrives in a few short lines at the extraordinary claim that God never ceases from drawing us into the divine life itself, so that we might evermore dwell in him and he in us. What begins in insignificance ends in a rich and unsurpassable love, in amazing grace.
I think that what I return to over the years as the heart of my faith, in moments of discouragement, either brought about by natural ills or social and political ones, is this: Christ comes to us not to pay a price in order to turn the face of God back toward humanity; Christ comes to turn our gaze back toward God in hope once again, Christ the power to inspire, convert, and transform our fear into courage, and pioneer a way that follows from this fundamental trust that God is maker of heaven and earth, and it is good.