Monday, June 16, 2014

Method and Meaning

I remember vividly the first day of my class in 9th grade biology.  The teacher approached the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and in silence wrote out the letters G O D.  He stepped back, looked at it for a while, moved down the blackboard, and then wrote ‘Evolution’.  He let a moment or two pass for reflection then moved back to the board and drew a line between the two words he had written, indicating that the two concepts were separate and mutually exclusive.  After more silence, he picked up an eraser, moved to the board, and wiped away the word “God”.  Those of us with faith protested vehemently and he took great delight refuting the best arguments we thirteen year olds could muster.

Fast forward to my senior year at a Christian college where a group of my friends – devout and conservative to the core – ran the school newspaper.  Given this platform, they launched an assault on the school’s science department, accusing them of being too dismissive of creationism (a term that, in 1982, I had never heard before).  I remember one professor – a God-fearing, church-going man – standing before a student forum and with great angst confessing that he had read all the creationism material and, try as he might, could not embrace it.

Creationism, it seems to me, is grounded in a belief that holds if the bible is not infallible in all things then it cannot be trustworthy in anything.  From their perspective, if creation did not unfold over six days (just like it says in Genesis 1) then what in the bible can you believe?  It is the same reason why some people look for a wooden ark at the top of a mountain, Egyptian chariots at the bottom of the Red Sea, and any example of a person being swallowed by a whale and surviving.  For them, the more you can nail down a specific detail of the bible the more confident you can be of the whole bible.  It is an all or nothing approach and in some respects, the biology teacher came to the bible in the same way, the only difference being he chose ‘nothing’ over ‘all’.

We Episcopalians hold that every word of the bible does not have to be literally true in order for God to speak to us through it.  Take this morning’s beautiful reading from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  I am moved every time I hear it, especially if I lay aside what it says about the method of creation and listen intently for what it says about the meaning of creation.  What it says about meaning is not diminished even if what is says about method is not entirely accurate.  If you listen to the story so as to derive from it a “God-revealed method” (as creationists do), then you quickly move from hearing to trying to get a round biblical peg to fit into a square scientific hole.  But if you listen for meaning, the story opens up into something rich and wonderful.

As we listen to it in this way this is what we begin to hear:

¡ God exists as the sole creative force moving in and through all creation.  We rightly affirm this in Eucharistic Prayer C when we say,

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. 

By your will they were created and have their being.

Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking may believe that everything came about out of nothing and there is no need to posit the existence of God to explain reality, but we hold different.  Every masterpiece is painted by an artist, every great music score has a composer, and every breath-taking poem has an author.  Our faith is that something critical is lost when you ignore the Producer and only look at the product.  

¡ If we listen carefully we can hear that creation itself is part of an unfolding and surprising drama.  “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good.”  There does not appear to be a blueprint.  With each day and each act, God pauses, reflects, and evaluates.  It is as if God must survey the impact of each step.  And seeing the results, God is pleased.  With each day and each new act, God appears to take it all in.  One act begets another.  There is a certain connectedness to what God creates, with each building on what has come before.

¡ Of all that is created, humanity holds a unique distinction in that we are made in God’s image and likeness.  Being thus made, we are able to fulfill God’s command to have ‘dominion’ over all creation.  The Hebrew word for ‘dominion’ (rada) implies care-giving and nurturing, never exploitation.  God entrusts to humanity the on-going care for and development of what God has brought into being.  The journey continues and the future is largely in our hands.  We are entrusted with the care and keep of all things.  It is within our power to protect the earth and all living things and it is within our power to damage or to destroy them.

¡ When God surveys all that has come about in creation God sees that it is “very good”.  Creation is not perfect.  Nothing, short of God, is.  But our fragile island home is a good place, filled with God’s blessing.  Through human work and effort the journey of creation continues to unfold in magnificent and wonderful ways.  We are blessed to have an abundance of food, shelter from the elements, access to healthcare, recreation, and the arts.  We have the ability to ensure that every human being can share in these blessings, but it takes work: the work of world peace and developing economies so that each person can benefit and grow from the fruits of his or her own labor and efforts.  The earth will support us all if we manage it well, strive for peace, respect the dignity of every human being, and treat others as we would like them to treat us.  Wendall Berry, the Kentucky farmer and poet put it best: “Treat the people downstream the way you would like the people upsteam to treat you!”

These are some of the things we hear when we listen for meaning embedded in the creation story.

This morning we heard God’s first command to the human family: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion.”  In the Gospel reading we heard God’s last command: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  As we listen for meaning we are called to proclaim meaning.  This is precisely where we differ from creationists.  They listen for method in order to proclaim method.  It matters not if a person believes God created the world in 144 hours (six days).  What matters is how God calls a person to be a part of creation. 

Today we celebrate the Creator God who has brought into being all that is and given it into our hands.  We people of faith believe there is a right way to use this gift, to express our divine nature, and to honor the God who has entrusted it to us.  We proclaim our faith to the world, both through our words of worship and through our daily actions.  Rather than pursue an antagonizing debate about the method of creation we focus on the meaning, embracing insights derived through technology and our God-given reason, but always knowing that the works of our hands and minds will never tell us about the intent and purpose behind all that is.  Only the Master Painter, Composer, Poet, Author of all that is can lead us down the path of this pursuit, the pursuit of meaning.