Friday, December 12, 2008

Cosmology and Advent

Wow, I've gone a whole week and haven't posted anything. That's a sure sign of the times in itself and it says "It must be the season of Advent (or, perhaps Lent)!" From my perspective, Advent is Latin for "much to do followed by more to do." But, it is joyous work and I love it.

In the last post, we were looking at the second creation story in Genesis 2. There we see how the human (Adam in Hebrew) is a product of the ground (Adamah in Hebrew), when the God of dirty fingernails scratches out some dust of the ground and breathes life into it. The ground, then, is the primordial substance of humanity, giving us a close connection with the earth. Any biblical cosmology should reflect that inherent connection, contrary to the way that Left Behind Theology often depicts the earth as simply the backdrop for the God-human story. In Genesis 2, the earth is not simply the backdrop, it is the mediating substance in the God-earth-human story.

Let's see how the ground, the earth, continues to be a part of the human story. In the 3rd chapter of Genesis, there is the story that is often called "the story of the fall." It is when Adam and Eve are in the garden that God planted (dirty fingernails once more!) and disobeyed God's command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, this is an interesting story in its own right, deserving a lot more attention than I'm going to give it here. (A good place to see various perspectives on this story is the Bill Moyers special on Genesis that was produced by Public Television a few years ago. It is worth the time.)

For our sake, I would only point out that the ground, the earth, is implicated in this story along with Adam and Eve. Remember, the second creation story says that when God created the heavens and the earth, there was no vegetation because there was no one to till the earth. So, it is not after the 'fall' but before it that Adam, the groundling, has the vocation of tilling the ground from which he came. After the 'fall,' Adam's tillage changes from being 'work' to 'toil,' which is achieved through the sweat of his brow. Likewise, Eve's childbearing becomes 'labor' accompanied by pain and (especially for early communities) always a life-threatening situation. But, the consequences of Adam's and Eve's disobedience do not stop there. The ground also suffers because now thorns and thistles are introduced, which will compete with the plants and vegetation that Adam has been caring for. (This reminds me of Jesus' parable of the seeds and the soils in which the seed springs up into life, only to be choked to death by the weeds.)

That is to say, in the second creation story, the disobedience and punishment of Adam and Eve also includes the effects on the earth.

Theological moment: In 1750, Charles Wesley preached a sermon on earthquakes, during which he identified 3 'causes' of this deadly form of destruction. Wesley said that God was the 'author' of earthquakes, sin is the 'moral cause.' of them and he said this is in addition to whatever 'natural cause' there may be for them. Given the temper of his time, Wesley says that this 3-tiered 'causation' of earthquakes was obvious to anyone who believes the Scriptures.

With all due respect to Charles and his brother John- both of whom I generally admire, even if I am not a Methodist- I'd like to offer a different way of 'believing' the Scriptures.

First of all, I would point out that whether God punishes people or not is an open question in the Scriptures. One of these days I'm going to write a paper following the discussion throughout the Scriptures on this matter, some of which center on the ancient proverb, "The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge."

Secondly, I would point out that people who claim that catastrophes as God's punishment often point to Genesis 3 to substantiate their claim. I'd like to offer this slightly different way of reading that story: Shifting techtonic plates, spewing molten magma, hurricanes and the like ought not to be seen as God, behind the curtain, pulling levers and attacking hapless villages for their overwhelming sinfulness. Neither should a mother dying in childbirth or a child stricken with cancer or a guy killed in a car accident be seen as God inflicting punishment on bad people. 'Natural' catastrophes ought to be seen as part of the story of human life on this planet- filled with challenges and risks and hazards and work and labor and joy and choices and effects and accidents and generations and chidbearing pains, and so on. Genesis 3 invites us to see risks and catastrophes as something other than God pulling switches and punishing people. They are evidence that the earth, nature, the ground from which we are made, are all caught up in the same kind of finitude and fragility that we experience.

The story of 'fallen' humanity and the 'fallen' earth are stories that run together. In the biblical cosmology that I'm offering, that is key.

Next time, we'll see how the Scriptures depict the earth as having a kind of 'agency' rather than simply as a passive place where stuff happens, and we'll scratch our heads over what that means.

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