Monday, June 12, 2017

Care of Creation

We read this morning one of the most beautiful and influential pieces of literature in all the world – the Genesis one story of creation.  “In the beginning…” 

We want to know who we are, where we come from, and why we are here.  To learn these things we have to go back to the beginning.  As human beings we have an insatiable thirst to discover how we got here.  Until recently, Genesis one provided all the answers to how.  There are some who still believe it does.  You can visit the Creation Museum in Kentucky if you want to encounter a vivid defense of Genesis one’s accuracy (and notice I said ‘accuracy’, not ‘truth’ because something can be inaccurate, yet still true.  For example, a thermometer may read 1000 and be off by 50, so it is not accurate, but that doesn’t change the truth it is hot outside).  So let’s spend some time this morning exploring the truth of Genesis one.

The Old Testament contains at least seven different creation stories.  The two best known are at the very beginning – Genesis one and Genesis two (the story of Adam, Eve, and the apple).  Some of the details of these two stories don’t mesh together neatly.  For example, in Genesis one, God creates plants and vegetation on Day 3 and humans on Day 6.  In Genesis two, God creates the human out of the dust of the earth before there is any other living thing on it.  God plants a garden as a place for the human to live only after creating the human.  This and other differences raise the question of accuracy – which version is correct?  Is either version accurate?

The two stories even have different names for God.  Genesis one uses the word Elohim, which means “the powerful ones” (which is why the text has God saying “Let us make humankind in our image.”  The plural may not be a reference to multiple gods, but simply a way of magnifying the glory of the one, true God).  Genesis two names God as Yahweh. 

All of this is to say the bible is not the definitive resource on how the world came to be and how we came to be.  Trying to make it give these answers turns it into a biblical game of Twister.  But this does not mean the bible does not have something to say about why we are here and what it means that we are here.  So let’s dig a little deeper.

Hollywood loves to remake a classic film that did well many years ago.  If you go back and look at the old version and then compare it to the new release you can learn a lot about the times when each was filmed.  Well, it just so happens the Genesis one story is a remake of a much earlier Babylonian story of creation.  That story is called the Enuma Elish, a name derived from its opening line, “When on High…”  The story was carved on seven stone pillars prominently displayed in Babylon when the people of Israel were in Exile.  One of those exiles, who must have been a tremendous theologian, poet, and scholar, reworked the story, infusing it with details characteristic of Hebrew thought.

The Enuma Elish is a story of numerous gods battling it out for supremacy.  One god is slain and cut in two.  The fluids running out of the body creates the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  Another god is killed and smashed into pieces, which the victorious god then uses to create human beings.  These and other details in the story reveal the Babylonians believe the world is chaotic and violent.  Human beings are an afterthought of forces far greater than we can conquer.  We are created out of the remnants of a god with little or no purpose beyond being sport for the gods.  We are reduced to making constant offerings to the gods in order to elicit their support and favor or to appease their darker impulses.

The person who wrote the Genesis one story (who scholars refer to as P.) has a very different perspective.  First, there is one God who is majestic, thoughtful, and generous.  This God brings forth creation in an orderly fashion by speaking a word and creating.  God acts and sees that the action is good.  God pauses and reflects, then speaks again.  Finally, God creates humankind in God’s own image.  Male and female are created in the image of God.  God blesses the human family.  God gives the creation to us.  We are to have dominion over it.  God rests at the end of creation, thereby hallowing one day of rest every seven days for all people.  God cares about us and is concerned for our well-being.

What are the truths Genesis one tells?

First, the creation is the orderly result of the activity of a Supreme Being.

Second, there is a goodness infused into the fabric of all that is.

Next, this Supreme Being is thoughtful, generous, and caring.

In addition, we humans share these traits with the Supreme Being.

Fifth, the Supreme Being has entrusted us with the care and keep of all creation.

And finally, the Supreme Being has set for us an example of Sabbath rest.

Now, more than ever, the fifth truth is one we must explore.   As a human family we have done what we were told to do.  We have been fruitful and multiplied.  I have been digging around in my family’s genealogy.  I have traced one line back into the 1500’s – my 13th Great-Grandparents.  Do you know how many great-grandparents you have at the 13th level?  8,192!  It is mind-boggling.  Well, me and my lineage, you and your lineage, and all the other lineages around the world have multiplied to the point where we cannot multiply much more without overwhelming “this fragile earth, our island home.”

And when it comes to dominion, we have dominated the creation to its breaking point.  We can no longer continue to exploit our planet’s resources without doing great harm to it and to ourselves.  Dominion now looks like care and conservation.  It saddens me that some in the Christian tradition are the most ardent critics of climate change and global warming when we have a theological and biblical mandate to be the ones most concerned about it.  That the climate is changing and that global temperatures are rising is an undeniable fact.  It is accurate.  Now, we can debate why it is happening and what, if anything, humans can do about it, but we people of faith need to be alarmed by the phrase “species extinction”.  Just as God paused after each act of creation, observed its effect, and saw that “it was good”, we need to pause at this moment in our history, examine the consequences of our dominion, and acknowledge “it is not good.”

Perhaps like me you grew up singing, “…and they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.  Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  To this witness we need to add, “…and they will know we our Christians by our care of creation, yes they will know we are Christians by our care.”

I am pleased Virginia is one of several states, along with numerous cities, to embrace the goal of the Paris climate agreement to cut emissions by 28% of the 2005 level in the next three years.  As an economist, I view pollution as an immoral method of passing on the cost of production from the company to the community as a whole because it diminishes the value of our community assets of land, air, and water.  As a theologian I view pollution as defiance of God’s command to have dominion.  Dominion does not give us permission to run roughshod over creation.  It tasks us with the responsibility to be stewards of creation.  As people of faith we need to ask how our every individual and collective action can be a reflection of our understanding of the stewardship entrusted to us.

Some in our Christian tradition subscribe to a rapture theology and while there are several different versions, each holds the faithful will be whisked off this planet while the faithless will be damned by remaining in a hellish existence abandoned by God.  If you believe this, then it is easy to care little about the condition of the planet because ultimately you will not be here and those left behind will have to figure it out.   A much less spectacular end-of-times theology (but one also grounded in the teachings of Scripture) holds God’s new kingdom will be established here on earth – new Jerusalem descends from above and inaugurates a new era of God’s presence with us.  This theology motivates us to care now for this place because it going to be our home for eternity. 

I am not going to tell you to go outside and hug a tree or to make your next car a Prius.  I am suggesting it is our obligation as a Christian to educate ourselves, to reflect on what it means to be a steward of creation, and to act as faithfully as possible as a person with dominion.