A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Another look at creation

My children are always in the mood to hear stories. Doesn't matter what they're doing, if I tell them I have a story to share, they stop in their tracks and wait with keen anticipation. The stories they like best are generally recollections of myself as a child. Funny thing about childhood memories though, I may only have one crystal clear image of something from my past and in order to make a story of it, must embroider in all the missing details, whether accurate or not.

A few years ago, my uncle had a tractor he was in catch fire and burn up along with the planter behind it, though fortunately he escaped, unharmed. This image captivated Jonathan's imagination and he would ask me repeatedly to tell him the story of "Randall and the burning tractor". I did my best with the known details, but still had to fill in considerable gaps with my own imagination. Even now, only a few years later, time is clouding my memory. I'm not entirely sure the tractor was pulling a planter or maybe some other implement. And if Jonathan someday tells this story to his children, more details will be lost, replaced by new creative imaginings. If this family story survives through several generations it will slowly move into folk lore or myth and perhaps the only factual piece to survive will be the memory of a fire and an earlier ancestor's fortuitous escape. The rest of the facts will go by the wayside. And yet, the story will still be true. It will still transport its listeners to a time in the past when fire threatened to engulf life and lost. And this is the most salient detail of the story. If this piece survives, we still have truth.

One of our links to every culture that has ever been in all of human civilization is a longing to understand our genesis, our beginning. And every culture has its own set of creation myths which attempt to pin down some aspect of truth. These creation stories are not factually or scientifically accurate. But that isn't the point of story, much less creation stories. Facts are rather lifeless. Factual evidence sucks mystery and creativity right out of the equation. Once something is nailed down as fact, there isn't any room left to embroider around the edges and more often than not, some of the most powerful truth is found in the innocent fabrications. When we talk about genesis (little g), we need the creative mystery that story embodies. It's the only way to get a good hold on the topic.

While facts reveal a certain kind of truth, so too does story. I view this creation story from the book of Genesis as myth, at least in small part because it is immediately followed in Genesis 2 and 3 by a completely different creation story. Still, these stories are rich in theology and convey many profound truths. For example, in the first creation story, from Genesis 1, we learn that God has no fixed image in male or female but is reflected in both. We learn that God has a unique covenant and relationship with humanity. We learn that creation, God's creation, is good. This myth is full of truth.

The rift between science and religion seems due to a lot of willful misunderstanding on both sides of the issue...and maybe a misplaced faith as well. In truth, the scientific process isn't so far different from the religious quest for truth. Science involves far more interpretation than most people allow for. Science does not have all the answers. In fact, the more science discovers, the more it comes to terms with how little it knows. English astronomer Sir Martin Rees once said, "It's embarrassing that 90% of the universe is unaccounted for."

Neither is science purely logical and clear. Einstein has this to say about Galileo. "Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality. Because Galileo says this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics--indeed, of modern science altogether." Galileo was also forced to recant much of his scientific beliefs before agents of the Inquisition and spent most of his latter years under house arrest.

Physicist and theologian, John Polkinghorne, writes, "I believe that science and religion are intellectual cousins under the skin. Both are searching for motivated belief. Neither can claim absolutely certain knowledge, for each must base its conclusions on an interplay between interpretation and experience. In consequence, both must be open to the possibility of correction. Neither deals simply with pure fact, or with mere opinion. They are both part of the great human endeavor to understand."

Polkinghorne goes on to say that science works to answer the question, "how?". While religion wrestles with "why?". We run into problems then when religion tries to have a say in "how", because the Bible doesn't have much to say on this front. The two creation stories don't say anything about how God created. They simply state that God did so. However, if we look at why, the Bible yields more insight. The creation story implies that once God got going, God was pleased at what was taking shape. It was good and so God continued. The Bible as a whole suggests that God created because God yearned for relationship and so formed humanity and the environment in which humanity could live.

I read a wonderful book awhile back called, "The Whole Shebang" by Timothy Ferris, a physicist at the University of California. It's exceptionally well written. Ferris works to take quantum physics and cosmology and articulate it in a way accessible to everyone. Despite his best attempts, too much of the material still went right over my head. But I am fascinated with the ways in which physics and religion intersect on the topic of genesis. First, the universe is beautiful. From a subatomic particle level on up, this universe is structured with an inherent and breathtaking beauty. God's creation is good. Second, there is a constant battle between the forces of order and the forces of chaos. This is a recurring Biblical theme that finds voice in every aspect of existence. Third, the vast majority of cosmologists subscribe to some version of the Big Bang Theory. And most of these scientists believe that what we know of today as the universe began as a single particle or subatomic element. Which means, in the beginning, all was one. All was unity. This was a period before time and space. Interestingly, I can't even formulate this concept without using the ideas of time and space. And perhaps our universe still holds this unity in its memory which may be why everything is so completely interconnected.

Ferris writes, "The quantum universe may be thought of as the other side of the coin from the spatiotemporal, relativistic universe that has, to date, dominated cosmological thought. We humans, having come along when the universe was already billions of years old and being rather big creatures, able to see stars in the sky but not atoms in an apple, naturally got into cosmology from the large-scale side of things--by observing galaxies and developing theories, such as relativity, to interpret their behavior. But the universe was not always big and classical. Once it was small and quantum, and possibly it has not lost memory of those times. It may well turn out that over there--or, more properly, inside and underfoot, marbled through the very fabric of the space that is in turn marbled through every material object--the universe remains as it was in the beginning, when all places were one place, all times one time, and all things the same thing."

It I switch to theological language, I might say that the universe is bent on reclaiming this unity of purpose, of mind, of being. Further, whenever we find this unity, we see the face of God. The Reign of God is all about making God's unity, God's love visible in this realm of existence. I love the idea that we were created with an intuitive memory of the unity that once was and a yearning for that unity to be made real once more.

Unfortunately, science cannot prove the existence of God anymore than religion. Let's say the universe was once small and quantum and one. What or who made it that way? This is a rabbit hole of inquiry with no end. Ferris, who never makes a claim to be religious, states that to believe there's nothing there takes every bit as much faith as to believe in God. And here we come up against faith.

And faith leads me back to story. Throughout all of human civilization, we see faith illustrated in the myths, stories of each individual culture. Story upon story indicates belief in a God who always was and always will be. Alpha and Omega. In this, I see truth. We were created to be people of faith who yearn for relationship with our Creator. And so along with Matthew, may we find assurance in Jesus' words, "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

No comments: