One of my friends has been asking me questions about the Creation stories lately. What’s the value, she wants to know, in reading them? In their neat, tidy rendering of the world, what connection do they have to actual life here, in its complications and messiness? They don’t give us a scientific rendering of the origin of the world, obviously. But what do they give us? So I’ve been mulling over this question for a while, and this is what I’ve come up with.1
A significant message in these stories is that Creation is good. In early Christianity, this point was particularly emphasized in contrast to Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that matter was evil, and that the world was actually the work of an evil Creator God—the God of the Old Testament, they believed, was a different God than the one revealed in Christ. They thus rejected the Old Testament, and grounded their hope in ultimately escaping matter and Creation. In contrast, early anti-Gnostic Christian writers argued that Creation was good and God was one.
LDS thought, of course, also emphasizes the goodness of Creation. One reason this matters, I think, is because it shapes our orientation to the world: is it something to be escaped or at least ignored, or something that calls for our engagement? The point that matter is good is especially relevant for Latter-day Saint, given our belief that matter is eternal; this is precisely the opposite of the Gnostic view that matter is illusory. Our hope is not in escaping matter—in particular, in escaping embodiment. We do not reject the body as evil, or see physicality as inherently problematic.
Another significant point is that it is in the Creation story that we learn that humans are created imago Dei (in the image of God). As I was just discussing in a recent post, in the history of Christian thought there have been a variety of ways of conceptualizing the imago. Though the traditional LDS read has to do with the literal divine potential of humans, I think it can be helpful to think about other perspectives, because the statement in Genesis does not actually refer to a a parental relationship between God and humans; rather, it is a statement about what it is to be human. We tend to use the language of children of God (and I do not mean to downplay its power), but I find this a poignant reminder that each person, regardless of other factors, also bears in some fashion the very image of God.
Creation is usually talked about as an event (or, to be more precise, as a week-long series of events). Deists have left God there: the watchmaker who set things in motion and then stepped back. In contrast, some Christians describe what is called a creato continua, which emphasizes God’s continuing creative activity in shaping and sustaining Creation. The Creation stories, in other words, are not meant to only refer to a distant past; we are connected to God moment by moment. In the words of Paul, “In him we live, and move, and have our being.”2 In thinking of this picture of the universe, I am always reminded of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who describes the world like this:
And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed this it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.”3
The world is a little thing, like a hazelnut, and seems in danger of falling into nothingness—but God created it, and loves it, and sustains it.
In considering our relationship to Creation, I find it fascinating to note that so many people, religious or not, speak of the natural world as giving them some connection to the divine, or to some sense of spirituality. We often take that for granted—as if of course the wonders of nature would lead us to contemplate the possibility of something beyond us. But it is worth raising the question of why that is. Why does the natural world resonate with us so deeply?
Two examples, from the poet Mary Oliver:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.4
How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly
to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.
But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing
in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.
If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.5
I remember a particular day a couple of years ago when I was running along the San Francisco Bay. I was in a very bad place psychologically. Not only I was feeling the all-too-familiar drumbeat of depression, my life felt like it was completely coming apart. I had no sense of direction, nowhere to escape from a relentless sense of bleakness.
And I noticed that in contrast to my mood, it was a gorgeous day. I didn’t feel any great spiritual epiphany, but it occurred to me that no matter where my life went, the rocks jutting out into the bay would still be here, that I could still find some refuge in the natural world. I was too depressed for it to feel comforting exactly, but there was still something about the idea that I liked—that even if I never figured out how to handle the host of life problems bearing down on me, I could still go hiking and look at wildflowers.
But I realize that I’ve been going on and on about the positive aspects of Creation, and the basic question remains: does any of this really speak to the problem of the darker aspects of life? Do the depictions in Genesis have anything to do with the world in which we live, in which nature is also cruel and destructive, in which sometimes it’s hard to see that anything at all is good?
The easy answer to this is—well, the world we live in isn’t the world of the Creation. It’s the world of the Fall. But the question that comes up, then, is why learn about the Creation? As I have argued here, one reason is that despite the Fall, some elements of the Creation as originally good have persevered. With its ultimately positive view of the world and of human beings, the stories of Creation gives us a reason to hold life sacred, and to take the world seriously—not just as the site of a test we are taking to get back to the right degree of heaven, but an experience that we could only have here.
Another significant reason has to do with the Fall. Thus far I have focused here on the Creation without mentioning the Fall. But I’ll go ahead and make the obvious point that we have to have the Creation story for the Fall story to make any sense. How do we label sin as such? On what basis do we label things as wrong, as evil—how do we know that something is desperately off in this world? In its contrast to the current state of the world, the Creation story gives us the necessary context for what it means for things to have gone awry.6
And from the other side, the story of the Fall gives us perspective on the role of the Creation accounts. Given our situation in an ambiguous world, why do we talk about this idealized version of reality? One response is that the Creation stories are a way to describe our longing for something better. As one theologian puts it, “Genesis does not contrast the way things are with the way they once were, but the way they are and ever have been with how they ought to be. The garden is the dream, not memory.”7 In conjunction with the Fall, the accounts of Creation are not so much about the past, but rather about the tensions of our present situation. Creation and Fall, like sin and grace, are a dialectic: we cannot understand one without the other.8
On a final note, I want to touch on the meaning of redemption. From the way I have set this out, it may seem that redemption would mean the return to an un-Fallen world. But redemption does not erase the suffering that we experience in this existence. To quote yet another theologian, “Jesus does not come promising that God will turn back history, restoring our innocence in the garden of Eden as though nothing bad had happened in the interim. Rather . . he simply is the promise that something radically new is about to break in.”9 Rather than eliminate half the dialectic, in other words, redemption promises something altogether different.10 While the Creation stories have something to say about the nature of our current situation, redemption goes beyond what we can imagine.
- For the first half of the post, I’m thinking primarily of the account in Genesis 1; in the second, the account in Genesis 2-3. I realize that mashing them together like this is irresponsible, and someday I’ll write a better post. [↩]
- Acts 17:28 [↩]
- Julian of Norwich, Showings, Ch. 5 [↩]
- Mary Oliver “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems [↩]
- Mary Oliver, “What is There Beyond Knowing,” New and Selected Poems, Vol. 2, p. 23 [↩]
- As Lehi says in his oft-quoted blessing to Jacob, if Adam and Eve had remained in the Garden, “they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.” (2 Nephi 2:23 [↩]
- Stephen J. Duffy, “Our Hearts of Darkness: Original Sin Revisited,” Theological Studies 49, no. (1988): 619 [↩]
- To push this even further, some theologians have turned to the future, seeing the Creation in eschatological terms. We truly understand Creation only from the perspective of the coming Kingdom of God. The two “are partners in the formation of reality. The future decides the specific meaning, the essence, of everything by revealing what it really was and is.” (Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 60). In other words, the Creation is what it is because of what it will be; we cannot understand it except through the lens of the eschaton. [↩]
- David H. Kelsey, Imagining Redemption (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 33 [↩]
- I see this reflected in the LDS notion that it is the terrestrial world, not the celestial, that is similar to Eden. [↩]