Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4
In the beginning God created…and God saw that it was good. That is the central message of our Judeo-Christian creation story. And of all the creation stories, and there are many, ours is one of the most beautiful narratives I’ve read. It has a poetic rhythm that in a sense dances creation into being. Listen to it…
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 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. If you have ever sat at a lake or at the ocean and watched the wind dance across the water maybe you can imagine this scene.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good…And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And then God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters…And it was so. And God call the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And so it goes, after each creation God would declare it good, very good, and another day would be born. It truly is a story that dances and celebrates and inspires. It is a snapshot of a brilliant artist painting her masterpiece. And it is more. Much more.
Creation myths or stories are usually regarded as conveying profound truths, metaphorically, symbolically and sometimes even in a historical or literal sense. They often share a number of features. For example, they commonly, although not always, describe the ordering of the cosmos from a state of chaos or nothingness into something ordered and meaningful. Many are considered sacred accounts and can be found in nearly all known religious traditions. Most of them are stories with a plot and characters who are either deities, human-like figures, or animals—or all of those— who speak and transform easily. They address questions deeply meaningful to the society that shares them, revealing their central worldview and the framework for the identity of the culture and individual in a universal context. It can be said of creation stories that “just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t so.” They are intended to teach, to give meaning, and to form relationships. So our focus today on this first Sunday of Creation Season is to ask not did creation happen exactly the way our Christian scriptures tell the story, but rather what does it mean. And to get to that question, we might need to rethink how we have taught this story and how we understand it.
To begin our thinking, I want to read you a poem by Wendell Berry from his collection, A Timbered Choir. It begins…
Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear
and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bulldozed, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there
I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and
gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked
like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.
Their passing had obliterated the graves and the
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten. Men, women, and children now
pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.
The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in
pursuit of the objective.
The once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best-paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction of all
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the
destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the
way to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who
ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the
ground and covered over.
Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated,
with their many eyes opened only toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.
The first thing we have to rethink about our creation story is the objective. For hundreds of years, Christian theology has taught that the objective or object of creation—the crown jewel of creation— was human beings. We have taken this mysterious and magnificent story of God breathing into existence all of creation and for all practical purposes made it solely about us humans. In interpreting this story as a framework for how to live in and relate to all living things, we have placed humankind at the pinnacle of the created order. Too often we have treated the land and seas and rivers and air and trees and all other living creatures that crawl on the ground, walk on all fours, fly in the air and make their homes in stumps and bushes and treetops and by the riverbeds as ours to consume, to displace, and destroy at will for our convenience. We, the church with a capital C, have NOT taught this story in a way that teaches us the sacredness of the relationship between the dirt and those of us living off of the land, between the green leafy trees that produce oxygen and those of us breathing the air, between the rocky riverbeds and those of us drinking the water, between the evolution of those who still walk on all fours and those of us who stand on two feet. We have failed to teach that we are one. That we need each other. That we cannot survive independent from one another. One part of God’s creation is not more important than the other. Without the land and water and air, there would be no human form. The objective of creation is the inter-relatedness, the inter-dependence, the very relationship between every living thing that has been created. God created the world and all that is in it to be in relationship—to care for, to respect, to honor, to hold gently, to bless. That is the objective of creation. In order to know where we are going, we must know from where we came. And we came from a God who, in the beginning, created a world and all that is in it to be in relationship working together, caring for the good of the whole and treating every single aspect of creation as sacred and holy. That is what God pronounced “good, very good.” Our faith demands that we rethink the objective of creation.
The other thing that we as humans have to rethink is what it means to be in relationship with God’s created order. There are two very problematic words in our creation story: subdue and dominion. Without question, these two words have done more harm to our understanding of our relationship with creation than any other two words. There has been, and continues to be, in the Christian tradition a strong proprietary understanding of how humans are to relate and be in relationship with nature. Lynn White, a professor of history at UCLA, summarized this perspective in an essay for the journal Science in 1967. She argued that, unlike the more nature-friendly religions of Asia and Western pagan traditions, Christianity “not only established a dualism of [humans] and nature but also insisted that [humans] exploit nature for their own needs.” According to this perspective, humans could and should use whatever resources they extracted from the planet as they saw fit. It was a God-given prerogative. And where did this thinking/framework come from? It came from the creation story in Genesis 1. And it is rooted in how the Christian theology has interpreted verse 28 of Genesis 1. “God blessed them, (male and female) and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”
There is really no way to define those two words, in Hebrew or English, to make them say something other than what we know them to mean. Subdue, kabash in Hebrew, signifies the action of conquering or having authority over someone or something else. And the word dominion, radah in Hebrew, literally means “to rule” and carries with it a sense of domination imposed by a show of brute force over an enemy. There is no way to define either of these words to mean caretaker of or steward of as some have tried to do. What we are left with as 21st century readers of the text is to rethink this part of the story as it applies to us today. And that will mean giving ourselves permission to find and bless new words to describe our relationship with nature and the fullness of creation. I know that some people get fretful when we start rethinking some of the words in the Bible. But if these scriptures are going to have any meaning for us today we will, at times, need to find new words and give new definition.
The text does give us some hints as to how we might do that. In the context of the entire creation story, the command that God gives the humans in Genesis 1 tells us that God creates humans in God’s image and according to God’s likeness. So, the real question for us today is, “How does God, and how would God expect us to, subdue or have dominion over creation?” It seems to me that the answer to that is clear, at least as clear as mud: to have dominion is to exercise a dominion that is in the image, or likeness of God. Humans are to rule over creation in a way that is consistent with the way God rules. And how does God rule?
If we consider how the biblical text in general understands the nature of God’s rule we learn that God is a generous God who does not exploit or dominate or consume recklessly. God does not use God’s power to hurt, but rather to heal. God values what cannot be replaced. God works to preserve life, not to destroy it. In the story of the unfaithful steward in the gospel of Matthew we are reminded that poor stewardship of what God has placed in our care can carry consequences that are even more far-reaching. And so, as we face the environmental crisis of the 21st century it is imperative that the church, again with a capital C, start rethinking what new words or new definition we will give to describing our relationship with all of creation—the land, the sky, the air, the waters, all creatures great and small. Our question today: What sort of dominion will we exercise? Displacement, dominance, brute force, destruction? Or a dominion that represents generosity, healing, caring for, protecting? Can we relearn and teach a dominion that is in the likeness and image of God?
Rethinking our creation narrative as we know it from our Christian scriptures does not require us to throw out our narrative; it does offer us a framework for our identity as people of faith – that we are made in the image of God. It suggests that there is sacred meaning in our creation as humans AND non-humans. But, as people of faith, as moral people who care about the environment, it is imperative that we rethink how we are teaching the biblical narrative of creation. And the questions that most need our attention as we address the environmental crises and cries of our day is to frame a narrative that has as its objective and central message relationship with and interconnectedness to all of creation. And that central message must also be a reflection of the image and likeness of God’s care for the earth. There is more than one crown jewel in creation. There are thousands.
In the beginning God created…and God saw that it was good. To be faithful to that good, it is our responsibility to continue creating and rethinking how we will care for God’s mysterious and magnificent creation. The church must do no less than to sound the clarion call to do this work and do it now—to delay this work would be unfaithful. Creation groaning. Our work is to be that mammy that James Weldon Johnson envisioned bending over her baby and breathing life into it; and our baby is creation. The church, the faithful sitting here today, must lead the way in restoring God’s likeness to creation. When our children and their children’s children read the very first sentence of our continuing faith story will they read these words, “And the people cared for God’s creation…and it was good, very good.”