Monday, January 12, 2015

Continually Renewed Wonder

Reading the scripture texts appointed for today reminded me that Biblical faith paints on an outsized canvas.  Its claims are astonishingly large in scope, and this is true right from the very first words of the Book of Genesis, the opening words of the Bible.  Walter Brueggemann has characterized the creation story of Genesis as among the most important, best known, and most frequently misunderstood scripture texts.  I would have to agree with him.  I think what we tend to miss in reading this text, and Biblical faith as a whole, it the sense of sheer wonder that it is meant to evoke. 

The Bible is continually pointing us back to our own experience of wonder, and the creation story is the first and clearest case in point.  It is simply wonder-ful.  It reminds us of what Annie Dillard describes so well in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:  “The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.  After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever fresh vigor.  The whole show has been on fire from the word go!”[1]

The Bible opens with a hymn of wonder.  The first part of Genesis, chapter 1:1 through chapter 2:4, is a liturgical text, created by Jewish priestly scribes living in exile in Babylon during the sixth century before Christ.  While it draws from ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies, it is not a mythic text per se.  It does not deal with the eternal structures of the cosmos.  It is certainly not a scientific text, concerned with how the world came to be.  It takes the form of doxology, a hymn of praise to the Creator who creates Creation.  It is a proclamation of faith.

What, then, does this faith affirm?  It proclaims the intrinsic and irrevocable relationship between the Creator and the Creation at the heart of reality.  Neither can be understood without the other.  The Creation is not accidental or aimless, but exists by the will of God and develops according to God’s intention.  God is revealed in Creation as One who delights in its beauty, bestows upon it his blessing, and promises to bring it to its fulfillment.

Notice how the relationship between the Creator and Creation is described in this hymn.  There is a certain ambiguity in the Hebrew of the opening verses of Genesis that is illuminating, but difficult to capture in English translation.  The conventional translation is the familiar, “In the beginning, God created,” an absolute claim for creation as God’s action.  But it can also be rendered, “When God began to create,” a dependent clause closely related to what follows and emphasizing creation as an ongoing action. 

What follows is the description of an already existing chaos in which a wind from God vibrates over the waters.  Then God speaks and Creation begins to emerge out of chaos.  It seems to me that this ambiguity is a fortuitous, if not intentional, interpretative clue.  God is both Creator in the sense of absolute Source of all that is, but also is Creator in the sense of continuing to work with the chaos of an emergent universe to make it a Creation, a place of order, bounty, and awesome wonder.

Israel’s theologians in exile proclaim faith in the power of God in the face of the power of the Babylonian empire.  In the midst of their forced relocation, cultural disorientation, economic insecurity, and tragic loss, the priestly authors of the creation hymn are speaking a word of reassurance to their fellow exiles.  God is still the Creator and God is still working with and through the chaos of the world to bring it – and us – to the fulfillment God intends.

What is more, these theologians affirm the graciousness of God whose power works by way of evocation.  God’s Creative Word is a command exercised in the form of an invitation:  “Let there be light.”  This “letting be” is more than a “causing to be,” implying spaciousness within the Godhead, a making room for the Creation to emerge.  This culminates in the creation of the Human Being in the image of God, charged with responsibility for the rest of the Creation.   The Human Being, which images God collectively as male and female, is given both authority and freedom to exercise this responsibility.

So the Creator speaks, but the Creation listens and is given space to respond to God’s gracious call.  There is a certain tension here.  The Creature can respond in ways that accord with God’s will – or not.  The Human Being is called to be a partner with God in the care of Creation. God’s promise to bring the creation to its fulfillment is brought into question.  Will God be faithful to the promise?  Will Human Beings be faithful in their response?  The stage is set for the Biblical drama that will unfold and that enfolds us.

Walter Brueggemann’s brilliant commentary on Genesis captures well this tension:  “Sin is only and always a resistance to God’s gracious will.  It is the compassion of God which makes sin possible . . . God’s sovereignty is not yet fully visible.  Creation is not yet fully obedient . . . But the narrative lives in hope.”[2] 

There is tension here, but also the grounds for genuine hope.  Not only is God the Creator, the Creature is free within the limits of finitude.  God doesn’t simply command, but invites and blesses, working with the chaos of the world and the willful resistance of the Human Being to bring Creation to its fulfillment.  Israel’s theologians are whispering to their fellow exiles and to us, “No matter how bad it gets, God is painting on a much bigger canvass than the Babylonian empire.  We have some room to maneuver and trust that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Look around you.  The Creation is still pretty amazing.  The whole show has been on fire from the word go!”

In the confusion and loss of our lives, Israel’s theologians invite us to look again at the big picture; not to deny the reality of suffering – the chaos is really there – but to see it as part of a larger work in progress.  Will we allow ourselves to be consoled and empowered by continually renewed wonder?  Might it not be possible for us to expand our vision beyond our narrow preoccupations, however pressing they may seem?  Can we hear God’s creative Word anew and reclaim our vocation to care for Creation as bearers of God’s image?  “The creation of the world is not only a process which moves from God to humanity” writes Nicolas Berdyaev, “God demands newness from humanity:  God awaits the works of human freedom.”[3]

Many years ago, my spiritual director at the time turned the tables on me by asking, not if I trust God, but rather, “Do you believe that God trusts you?”  God overcomes our resistance not by authoritarian commands or punishments, but by embracing us in our finite but real freedom, by continually awakening in us our desire for God and God’s gracious desire for the whole Creation. 

God’s Spirit just keeps blowing over the chaos to see what it will stir up in us.  In Baptism, we symbolically enter into the chaotic waters to receive the gift of the Spirit’s power at work in us.  Baptism is not an escape from the chaos, but a commitment to enter it creatively, trusting that God’s Spirit is already blowing there.   Baptism is our way of putting our money on God in the contest between God’s promise and the Creature’s resistance.  We also take the risk of making promises in keeping with God’s promise, betting that God trusts us as well.  Some days it is hard to know whose trust is more foolish – God’s or ours! 

God all-bounteous, all creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world he made.[4]

Christopher Smart’s poem reminds us that God bet the whole farm by becoming human.  However risky it is to trust God, what is even more astonishing is that God becomes one with us in Jesus.  The more I come to know Jesus, the more I agree with St. Paul that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”[5] 

Trusting in that wisdom and strength, we renew our commitment to keep the promises we have made in Holy Baptism.  That is a good and even a joyful thing to do, but even that is too small a thing for God.  Our promises are held in a much larger reality, the reality expressed in the hymn of praise sung by the theologians of Israel:  “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”[6]   The renewal of wonder is the foundation for the keeping of our promises.

[1] Quoted in The Living Pulpit, April/June 2000, p. 32
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 20.  My reading of the Creation story is indebted to Brueggemann.
[3] Quoted in The Living Pulpit, April/June 2000, p. 33.
[4] Quoted in The Living Pulpit, April/June 2000, p. 32.
[5] I Corinthians 1:25.
[6] Genesis 1:31a.

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