Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unpacking Creation ...! (Part II)

What if we were to (just for fun!) read the Creation stories through a metaphorical lens...? Would we get zapped with lightning, psoriasis, or a major flea infestation for doing so..? Would God fall of His throne...?

Or would we maybe, just maybe, find out that there another way, perhaps even a more plausible way (perhaps even a way that fits well with our spirits - and a way that honors the nature of God!), than the literal story many of us have been taught...?

Only one way to find out!

(WARNING: This will be long. Ain't no other way to unpack it. But I believe you'll be glad you stuck - stook? - it out. I'll be typing this out by hand - my kingdom for a scanner! - so please be gracious with any typos you discover ... I really do know how to spell and use grammar...!)

- A metaphorical ( and thus nonliteral) approach to these stories is not new. In the third century, a Christian biblical scholar named Origen, commonly seen along with Augustine as one of the two most brilliant theologians of the early church, wrote:

What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first day, then a second and a third day, evening and morning, without the sun, the moon, and the stars? [sun, moon and stars are created on the fourth day] And that the first day -- if it makes sense to call it such -- existed even without a sky? [the sky is created on the second day] Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human gardener, God planted a garden in Eden in the East and placed in it a tree of life, visible and physical, so that by biting into its fruit one would obtain life? And that by eating from another tree, one would come to know good and evil? And when it is said that God walked in the garden in the evening and that Adam hid himself behind a tree, I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meaning by using a historical narrative which did not literally happen.

(Preach it brother Origen...! A literal belief is on the level of what children believe, noncritically and nonquestioningly, when their parents tell them something is so ... if we remain spiritual children, if we never critically question that which we've been taught, we're merely parroting the traditions of man ... spiritual propaganda, and nothing more. Further, we miss the deep and rich meaning that the metaphorical rendering contains.)

- In popular language, "myth" is a dismissive term. To call something a myth is to dismiss it; one need not take it seriously. A myth is seen as a mistaken belief, a falsehood. But the term means something very different in the study of religion. Myths are metaphorical narratives about the relation between the world and the sacred. Myths use nonliteral language; in this sense, they do not narrate facts. But myths are necessary if we are to speak at all about the world's origin and destiny in God. We have no other language for such matters.

(Well, duh. I mean, who was there, "in the beginning" to take notes...? We're human, we're limited, we're groping in the dark most of the time ... caught up in our five senses, having this human experience, out of touch with the true spiritual nature of our beings. So too have we been mesmerized by the modern worldview and reliance upon *facts*. In the past 500 or so years, facts = truth. Mysticism has been largely ridiculed ... and yet the Kingdom of God is mystic, spiritual, and "does not come by observation." Perhaps 'tis time to forsake our love affair with facts, or at least to flesh them out with a deeper understanding of the many truths hidden. metaphorically, within myths ...?)

- Myth and reality go together, myth being the language for talking about what is ultimately real. Myths are true, even though not literally true. To cite another definition: "Myth is a form of poetry which transcends poetry in that it proclaims a truth. Myth is poetry-plus, not science-minus.

(YES! Another case for both/and rather than either/or...! What a wonderful all-inclusive God we have! How we limit His speaking to our hearts, how we limit His revelations all around (& in!) us, when we insist upon a literal understanding, and demand that others do so as well...!)

- To the extent that there is a literal affirmation in ancient Israel's creation myths, it is simply this: God is the source of everything that is. The only literal statement in Genesis 1 is "God created the heavens and the earth." God is the source of everything that is in every moment of time. Affirming that God is creator is not primarily a statement about origination in the remote past; rather it is a statement about the present dependence of the universe upon God. If God ceased to vibrate the universe (and us) into existence, it (and we) would cease to exist. The contemporary "big-bang theory" of the universe's origin, which speaks of a moment roughly fifteen billion years ago when the present universe began, is quite compatible with thinking of Creation as historical origination. Indeed, some have seen the primordial "cosmic flash" of the big-bang theory as strikingly similar to the first act of creation on the first day of the Genesis story: "Let there be light." Twenty years ago, a scientist wryly observed:

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the highest mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

(Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Even as many theologians/Christians have spent decades striving to climb to the top of the theological ladder, only to discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall..! Ahhhh, we're all in for some shockingly-delightful surprises! I read an old book, "Genesis and the Big Bang," written by a Jewish astrophysicist - his view is that both science and scripture are right ... that the universe was created in "6 days" or over the course of eons, depending on where one was standing in the universe at that time - due to how time "bends". Having not been there, and not having a astrophysical degree, I'm inclined to take his word for it..! I do adore Borg's view of God being the Source of *every*thing, and the on-going Sustainer of all that is ... for I've come to see God in everything - panentheism... which is not pantheism. Look it up if you're curious. Speaking of curiosity ... I do have to admit that mine is piqued with Borg's mention of "this universe" ... wondering, are/were/will there be there others? whether in location or in chronology...? Hmmm...)

- This way of thinking of God as Creator is compatible not only with the current big-bang theory, but also with whatever scientific theory might (and almost certainly will) replace it. Indeed, thinking about creation this way means that the affirmation of God as "maker of heaven and earth" is compatible with any scientific account of the universe's origins. At the level of ultimate origins, there need be no conflict between Genesis and science. The two do not directly compete.

(Whew! Get the word out! We can stop all this caterwauling and in-fighting...! Scientists can embrace those suppressed experiences with God, and believers can stop playing stupid about science...! Truth is truth, whether expressed through sensual evidence, or metaphorical experience...! Sheesh, I almost typed "sensuous evidence" which is an entirely different blog-post, but another great passion of mine!) ;)

- Just as there are two ways of thinking about creation, so there are two models for thinking about the God-world relationship -- that is, the relation of God as creator to the universe. The first is the "production" model. Namely, like an artisan or artist, God makes the universe as something separate from God's self. Once created, the universe exists separate from God, just as a house or a painting exists separate from the builder or artist who produced it. This model is associated with a particular concept of God. Known as "supernatural theism," this way of thinking about God conceptualizes God as "another being" separate from the universe.

(This is what I was taught to believe: "God is holy and wholly Other. God is Way Up There, and you, mere wretched bit of humanity, are way down here. Further, the separation cannot be breached by your efforts - all attempts are futile. So, you need to accept Jesus as your Savior - nevermind that the phrase to "accept" Jesus cannot be found in scripture - and THEN you can get on the treadmill of exerting your own effort to make sure that God continues to like you... because He doesn't really like you, wretch that you are, He only puts up with you because of Jesus. Ok, I'm using hyperbole to make a point -- this is metaphorical, you understand ... no one ever literally laid it out like that to me. But, honestly, is that not an approximate characterization of something that most of you have been taught..? Can you relate to it? To put it succinctly - oops, too late! - I no longer believe in that separation ... and Borg will help me out by getting to that.)

- The second way of thinking about the God-world relation has been called a "procreative" or "emanationsist" model: God brings forth the universe from God's being. Because the universe comes out of God's being, it is in some sense, "God-stuff." This model does not identify the universe with God,for God is more than the universe; rather, it sees the universe as being "of God" and "in God." (In other words, the model is panentheistic. To quote a passage from the NT, God is "the one in whom we [and everything] live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28)

(YES!!! I adore finding my own dangerous-to-status-quo and thrilling thoughts put forth by another author...! The joy! God keeps whispering the darndest things to my heart, and my spirit jumps up and down in exuberant recognition of truth, even while my "must. maintain. equilibrium." brain hollers all manner of "yeah-buts"..! This transformation business is tough! I've lost sleep, hair, and all manner of friends and ministries! But I've gained GOD...! And peace! And joy! And excitement! I'm becoming ok with morphing into a bald, friendless insomniac..! I mean, well-behaved women so seldom make history...)

- The differences between these two models for thinking about the God-world relation matter. The production model suggests that the universe is separate from God and that creation happened in some past moment. The procreative model affirms the presence of God within and beyond the universe and fits the notion that creation is an ongoing process, not simply a past event. Finally, whereas the production model and it's association with supernatural theism emphasize God's separation from the world, the latter model leads to a much more intimate sense of the closeness of God to the world - indeed, of the presence of God in the world.

(Another Yes! I was reading this morning, and canNOT wait to share it with y'all, in Richard Rohr's book, "Everything Belongs" - get it! read it! - how he sees the world as "enchanted" ... beautifully filled with the Presence of God -- God showing up in all the places He's not "supposed" to. Reminds me of a little plaque I bought this weekend at the art show, spending nearly as much money as I made - and if I've already shared this just smile and metaphorically/indulgently pat me on my lil' head. The plaque read:

I found Jesus.

He was hiding behind the couch the whole time.

LOL! Love it! He's everywhere, and *right there* where we least expect! We go looking all over tarnation for Him, thinking we have to perform all manner of rituals to get Him to "show up" and He's always been *right there* - behind the couch of our heart..!)

- Obviously, the Genesis stories speak of creation using a production model. In short, God is portrayed as creating a universe separate from God. But because this is the language of myth and metaphor, the way we think about the creation stories need not be confined to a semiliteral reading. To cite an analogy, the Bible often speaks of God as a person-like Being; this is the natural language of worship and devotion. But that does not mean that we must think of God as a person-like Being. In any case, whether our thoughts of creation follow a production model or a procreative model, the central truth-claim of the myth remains: God is the Source of everything.

(Wondering if you, like me, almost immediately think of several dire situations, that I cringe to think of as being sourced in God ... crimes, rapes, child-abuse, war, murder, injustice, genocide, etc. Hang on - that gets addressed...!)

- Central to Genesis 1 is the refrain repeated each day of creation: "And God saw that it was good." This does not mean that everything that happens is good. But whatever exists is good.

(I see this as a crucial distinction. I also see that it's critical to realize that we, as limited-humans, are incapable of declaring a thing "good" or "evil". The crucifixion of Jesus, had we witnessed it, would be declared to be "evil" - and yet we now know, in historical hindsight, that it was "good." We're also told that ALL things work together for our good. All things - no exception. We just get stuck-in-time, rather than seeing it from God's POV. Ask any woman if the transition stage in labor is good or evil, the first time she goes through it. Unless she's drugged out the wazoo - and don't get me started on drugs in childbirth! - she's likely to label the experience as "uberly-evil". And yet, as soon as that baby gushes out with that wondermous-wet-wiggle, her world is transformed from abysmal to glorious. The next time she's in transition she'll have a reference point, knowing of the great-good that is about to come. So, too, with the hindsight of experiencing the heart-of-God, we can come to see how the pain we're currently experiencing can be transformed/birthed into joy. Knowing God, we can have our minds renewed with His perspective -- which changes EVERYthing...!)

- The creation story is strikingly world-affirming. Indeed, the Jewish tradition as a whole has consistently been world-affirming, in spite of the horrendous sufferings that Jews have experienced. The affirmation is also central to Christianity, although popular Christianity, with its emphasis on the afterlife, has sometimes seen the world (especially the "flesh") as highly problematic, something to keep at a distance, a place to get through on the way to one's heavenly home. But against all world-denying theologies and philosophies, Genesis affirms the world as the good creation of the good God. All that is is good.

(Getting back to my "other passion" this mindset shows up frequently in the realm of sexuality - largely thanks to Augustine, who clearly needed some Prozac. We see it as "of the flesh" and therefore "bad." But "flesh" is "ego", or "carnal nature" not "body". Jesus affirmed the body by taking one on. That should settle the issue. As for God's view of sex, read Song of Songs/Solomon from the view of an understanding of Hebraic poetry - yes, there are plenty of books out there on the issue. God goes "so far" as to use sexual intercourse as a metaphor for our connection, surrender, and union with Him...! For those who want to delve more deeply into a renewed-mind-view of sex, complete with transparency and humor, check out "Sheet Music" by Kevin Lehman.)

- According to Ancient Israel's stories of Creation, we are the climax of Creation, created in the image of God and given dominion over the earth. Yet we are also "dust creatures," people made of earth. We do not know what ancient Israel meant by affirming that we are created "in the image of God." But whatever it means, it is clear that ancient Israel thought there was something special about us. The paradoxical juxtaposition of our status is expressed in the familiar words of one of the Creation psalms. In the first half of Psalm 8, the author addresses God and reflects on our insignificance:

3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

Then the author affirms:

5 You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings [c]
and crowned him with glory and honor.

6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet

(Now catch what Borg goes into next ... depending on how much you've questioned traditional thinking, this may come as rather shocking to you...)

- The term "the fall" does not occur in the Genesis story of creation. As a description of the events surrounding Adam and Eve's expulsion from paradise, it is largely a Christian label; Jews typically do not speak of "the fall." Within the Christian tradition, "the fall" has commonly been understood to mean "the fall into sin." It has also been associated with the notion of "original sin," which is not simply the first sin, but a sinfulness that is transmitted to every individual in every generation. This latter notion, which goes far beyond what the Bible says, is usually attributed to the brilliant but troubled theologian Augustine around 400 CE. Although the term "the fall" does not occur in the story itself, the story of Adam and Eve's accepting the temptation offered by the snake points to something having gone wrong. The consequences are vivid, evocative, and thorough, Adam and Eve find themselves living east of Eden in a world that must endure toil and sweat for one's bread, and pain and suffering in childbirth.

(just a quick note from me ... in another Bible translation, which relies heavily on documents discovered within the past 100 years - documents ignored by other translations - the word is not "child-birth" but in "child-rearing" ... as in, we will suffer in raising children in this world of perceived separation from God. Further, I no longer see this as a "curse", as in a punishment from God, but a consequence due to our distrust in God, and our perceived separation from Him.)

- But what went wrong? What action, desire or deed, led to such pervasive consequences? The language of the storyteller is evocative, not precise. It does not clearly point to a particular reading. Thus, over the centuries, a variety of understandings of "what went wrong" have emerged.

(Borg then goes into several different theories that humans have come up with...)

- The Primal Act as DISOBEDIENCE: God gave them a command, they disobeyed it, and that was that. For this view in it's most elementary form, it would have made no difference if God's prohibition had been "Please don't eat the daisies." This view typically leads to seeing sin in general as a matter of disobedience: God gives us commands and rules and laws and we break them. The human problem is thus disobeying God the law-giver.

- The Primal Act as HUBRIS: Hubris is a Greek word meaning pride - exceeding one's proper limits - giving to one's self the place that belongs to God alone - making one's self the center. This view focuses on the first half of the serpent's temptation: "You will be like God, knowing good and evil." The desire is to become Godlike. Sin - the human problem - is thus hubris, understood as self-centeredness.

- The Primal Act as SLOTH: It doesn't mean laziness in this context, but "leaving it to the snake." Letting something else author one's existence. It means uncritically accepting somebody else's ideas about how to live one's life. In this view, sin - the human problem - is heteronomy: living the agenda of others.

- The Primal Act as BIRTH OF CONSCIOUSNESS: "Knowing good and evil" is understood broadly to mean having knowledge of opposites, a capability that is intrinsic to the birth of consciousness. Consciousness involves distinguishing one thing from another; above all, it involves the self-world distinction, the awareness that the world is "other" than one's self. This is something we all experience; all of us become aware of the self-world distinction very early in life. Thus we cannot avoid the primal act. Indeed this understanding emphasizes not the disobedience and sinfulness of "the fall" but its inevitability. All of us begin life in the womb with an experiential sense of undifferentiated unity; we begin in paradise. But the very process of growing up, and the birth of consciousness that is intrinsic to it, propels us into a world of division, anxiety and suffering. Living "east of Eden" is intrinsic to the experience of being human. We all go through "the fall" and live in a state of exile and estrangement; it cannot be avoided.

(Selah ... pause and think on that. Wow ...! I've come to believe that, even before reading it here. This rings so *very* true within me. It changes everything, for everything is founded on how we frame the Creation narrative in our minds. What story do we tell ourselves? Do we tell the story that God had a wonderful Plan A, but that we humans blew it, and now God is pissed, and we're being punished, and we have to accept Christ - Plan B - so that God can tolerate us again? What is the fruit, the consequence of that story we've believed? Do we have to continue to believe what we've been told, what we've told ourselves? Can we try on another story, and experience the results/fruit of it? Would how we see God, how we see ourselves, how we see other humans *change*...? Would that change be helpful, or harmful? Is what we believe now helpful or harmful? The questions could go on and on ... get alone with God, and a notebook, and see what you come up for yourself. See what answers come out of yourself... in that spirit/Spirit intersection that is who we really are.)

- These various combinations can be combined. For example the birth of consciousness typically leads to hubris, understood as being centered in one's self. Moreover, centering in one's self intensifies the sense of separation from the world, deepening one's experience of exile. The process of socialization leads to sloth understood as heteronomy - we internalize and live in accord with the agendas of others, including parents, culture and religion. Most of the time, most of us live "east of Eden."

(Sounds a bit like the Creation stories are "everyone's stories" ... just as Rohr says about the Bible as a whole ... the unfolding of awareness ... a metaphorical account of the human experience ... unfolding throughout history ... the macro-story of our own still-being-written life-narrative.)

- Given the richness of meaning that a historical-metaphorical reading of Genesis reveals, the creation stories strike me as profoundly true. Critical thinking leads to an understanding of why the details of Genesis are as they are and also makes clear that their truth is not to be understood in literal, factual terms. Rather, their truth is expressed in the nonconceptual language of myth and metaphor, and no particular reading can exhaust their meanings. But I can hear their central claim: "This" - the universe and we - is not self-caused, but grounded in the sacred. "This" is utterly remarkable and wondrous, a Mystery beyond words that evokes wonder, awe, and praise. We begin our lives "in paradise," but we all experience expulsion into a world of exile, anxiety, self-preoccupation, bondage and conflict. And yes, also a world of goodness, and beauty; it is the creation of God, But it is a world in which something is awry.

The rest of the Bible is to a large extent the story (and stories) of this state of affairs: the human predicament and its solution. Our lives east of Eden are marked by exile, and we need to return and reconnect; by bondage, and we need liberation; by blindness and deafness, and we need to see and hear again; by fragmentation, and we need wholeness by violence and conflict, and we need to learn justice and peace; by self- and other-centeredness, and we need to center in God.

(Beautiful! Inspired! For we all are, indeed God-breathed, inspired. I don't for a minute believe, as I did for a very long time, that we were literally/sp ritually separated from God in "the fall" ... though I do believe that we humans, as a result of experiencing our own "fall" in early life, come to believe that we're separated from God ... the problem, as Paul puts it in his epistle, is that we're enemies *in our minds* ... and as a man thinks in his heart/mind, so IS he. The problem is our perspective. The problem is the lies we believe ... both those we've been taught, and the conclusions we've come up with ourselves. The solution is to experience the reality of God; to have those lies replaced, experientially, with truth. To awaken to ultimate reality. To come to know God as God really is, which is synonymous with knowing ourselves as we really are.)

Tomorrow I plan to share a bit about perspective -- about how our lenses shape how we experience the world around us, ourselves, others, and God.

Shalom, Dena

1 comment:

MysticBrit said...

You utterly hilarious and irresistible human being. Oh, and you're a superb writer too.

This has a permanent place in my collection, as in my experience it's the best refutation of literalism and affirmation of the powerful, tender works of God, which he expressed in the finest poetical and metaphorical imagery of Scripture.

And I pray you get a scanner sometime soon, too;)