This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.
The first reading is probably familiar to you. It is from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible, in the poetic King James translation:
1 “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
13 And the evening and the morning were the third day….”
The second reading is from the Mahabharata, the central book of the Hindu tradition, in the new University of Chicago translation:
Poets have told it before, poets are telling it now, other poets shall tell this history on earth in the future….
When all this was without light and unillumined, and on all its sides covered by darkness, there arose one large Egg, the inexhaustible seed of all creatures. They say this was the great divine cause, in the beginning of the Eon; and that on which it rests is revealed as the true Light, the everlasting Brahman. Wondrous it was and beyond all imagining, in perfect balance in all its parts, this unmanifest subtle cause that is that which is and that which is not.
From it was born the Grandfather, the Sole Lord Prajāpati, who is known as Brahmā, as the Preceptor of the Gods, as Sthāṇu, Manu, Ka, and Parameṣṭhin. From him sprang Dakṣa, son of Pracetas, and thence the seven sons of Dakṣa, and from them came forth the twenty-one Lords of Creation. And the Person of immeasurable soul, the One whom the seers know as the universe; and the Viśve Devas, and the Ādityas as well as the Vasus and the two Aśvins. Yakṣas, Sādhyas, Piśācas, Guyakas, and the Ancestors were born from it, and the wise and impeccable Seers. So also the many royal seers, endowed with every virtue. Water, Heaven and Earth, Wind, Atmosphere, and Space, the year, the seasons, the months, the fortnights, and days and nights in turn, and whatever else, has all come forth as witnessed by the world. Whatever is found to exist, moving and unmoving, it is all again thrown together, all this world, when the destruction of the Eon has struck. Just as with the change of the season all the various signs of the season appear, so also these beings at the beginning of each Eon. Thus, without beginning and without end, rolls the wheel of existence around in this world, causing origin and destruction, beginningless and endless.
There are thirty-three thousand, thirty-three hundred, and thirty-three Gods — this is the summing up of creation.
[Mahābhārta 1.25-39, trans. J. A. B. van Buitenen in “The Mahābhārta, vol. 1: The Book of the Beginning”, University of Chicago, p. 21.]
Recently, I realized that I have never given a sermon addressing creationism or “intelligent design.” I never saw the need to do so. There’s no real need for one Unitarian Universalist to stand up in front of a bunch of other Unitarian Universalists and state that intelligent design, or “creation science,” or whatever they’re calling it these days, is nothing more than religious dogma barely covered with a thin veneer of alleged science. Everyone here knows that “intelligent design” is not science. If a proponent of intelligent design says to us, “But evolution is just a theory,” we all know enough to say, “Yeah, and the theory of gravity is just a theory, but if you throw yourself at the floor it’s going to hurt all the same.” For a Unitarian Universalist to preach a sermon against intelligent design is about as sporting as shooting fish in a barrel.
At the same time, those creationists — sorry, those proponents of intelligent design — are so loud and insistent that they tend to drown us out. Something like a third of all adults in the United States believe evolution is false, and although we take great joy in pointing out that all those people are perfectly willing to take advantage of the advances of medical science, which are firmly based on evolutionary theory, the fact remains that all those people are injecting their dogmatic theology into our lives. And that forces us to spend quite a bit of our precious time debunking the Bible, to the point where we often get sick and tired of the Bible. We get so sick of hearing people say, “But God created the earth in seven days, it says so right in the Bible, so the scientists must be wrong” — that we just want to do away with the Bible altogether.
So although we don’t need a sermon debunking creationism, I do think it’s worth preaching a sermon about the value of religious creation stories. I’m not going to try to convince you to read the Bible, but I am going to try to convince you that the creation story contained in the Bible is a worthwhile part of our religious inheritance.
1. To begin with, let us be clear what the Bible is, and what it is not. The Bible is a collection of books which includes many books full of stories. The book of Genesis contains several dramatic and arresting stories: the story of Noah and the flood, the story of Abraham and Isaac, the story of Joseph and his technicolor dream coat, the story of Eve and Adam,– and the story of how God created the universe. All these stories are strung together in a more-or-less coherent narrative that begins at the beginning, and winds up with the establishment of the people of Israel as the chosen people of their God.
When you think about it this way, it’s obvious that the book of Genesis has more in common with a novel than with a collection of scientific treatises. The creation story in Genesis is not a systematic scientific explanation for how the universe came to be; it’s a story that reveals something about the character of God and humanity. It is not a book full of precise scientific proofs. The philosopher Aristotle tells us that it is the mark of an educated person “to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.” [Nich. Eth. I.2, 1094b] We know that it is foolish to read the book of Genesis looking for the kind of certainty science can bring to certain subjects; but we should be equally clear that the Bible can reveal to us something of the poetic truth about our human selves, and something of the poetic truth about our place in the universe; topics which do not allow the same kind of precise scientific knowledge.
Religion is meant to help us find meaning in life (among other things). A scientist might be able to look at a flower and tell us its place in a taxonomic scheme, reveal to us its place in the wider ecosystem, show us its inner anatomy; we may well feel a sense of wonder at this but we are unlikely to feel enough emotion that we need to wipe tears from our eyes. A poet can look at the same flower, and write for us a poem that will cause us to weep, or to rejoice, or discover profound feelings or thoughts about that flower; and we may well need to wipe tears from our eyes after the poet speaks to us. But the poet and the scientist do not contradict each other; they only reveal to us a different aspect of the same flower. Religion is yet another way of knowing the flower: religion may help us to look at that flower and know our relationship to it, and so help us to understand our place in the universe and the flower’s place in the universe; not through the precise taxonomic understanding used by the scientist, nor through the metaphorical and emotional understanding used by the poet, but through an understanding of how everything is connected and bound together. The book of Genesis locates that connection in the personage of God; the New Testament locates that connectedness in the Kingdom of Heaven; but we could simply call it the Web of Life through which we are connected with all that is living and non-living.
That, in fact, is what the creation story in the book of Genesis tells us. Genesis tells us about a God that created everything, including us human beings. Genesis tells us that we are connected through God to all that is: the sun and moon and stars and sky and plants and animals and the other human beings. A literal reading of Genesis would try to tell us that there is a literal personage called God who created all these things; but such a literal interpretation of God immediately runs into all kinds of logical inconsistencies; such a literal interpretation tries to turn Genesis into precise scientific knowledge, when it is really religious understanding.
An equally literal reading of Genesis would dismiss the whole book out of hand because it does not conform to scientific facts and theories as we know them. Many of the Bible-debunkers who are active today fall into this intellectual trap; they accept the arguments made by creationists and literalists that the Bible is literally true. Such literal interpretations try to turn Genesis into science, when it is really religion. It would be far more accurate to understand God, not as a literal personage, and not as a scientific explanation, but as the Web of Life through which we feel and know a deep connection to all life and to all that is.
2. We can gain a deeper understanding of the creation story in Genesis if we take the time to look at other creation stories from other world religions. I happen to love the imagery in the creation story of the Mahabharata:– the one large Egg which arose, from which time began, and out of which came everything in the universe. From that great Egg came Brahmā, and from that came all the gods, and the ancestors, and the seers and sages;– and “Water, Heaven and Earth, Wind, Atmosphere, and Space, the year, the seasons, the months, the fortnights, and days and nights in turn, and whatever else, has all come forth” from that Egg.
In this Hindu story of creation, just as in the creation story in Genesis, we learn of the connectedness of all things. The details of the Hindu creation story are quite different from those in the Hebrew creation story. But both tell of the Web of Life that connects us human beings with the earth and sky, with water and wind, with all beings including all human beings.
Back when my mother was teaching Sunday school in a Unitarian church in the 1950s, there was a curriculum called Beginnings of Earth and Sky, which presented a number of different creation stories to school-aged children; and today we still teach our Unitarian Universalist children a variety of creation stories. We do this for good reason. Of course we want our children to know the creation story in Genesis, a story that is central to our own religious inheritance; but we want them to know other creation stories as well, so they can begin to understand how all religions begin with a sense of wonder at the universe, a sense of how everything is interconnected through the one Web of Life; indeed, we want them to have a sense of how all religions are utterly different while remaining deeply connected. All these creation stories, all these religions, are different, but each can help human beings to understand who we are and where we are situated in the universe, and so lead us to find meaning and connection in our lives.
3. I said that we are open to learning the creation stories of other cultures and other religions. That raises an interesting question: Do we need a creation story of our own? Quite a few people would respond that yes, we do need a new creation story that is all our own. A year ago I heard two Unitarian Universalists, Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, speak about a new creation story that they think Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals should adopt. They want us to adopt a new creation story put forth by a fellow named Brian Swimme, who tells a creation story founded on modern science, a creation story that links contemporary astronomical theories about the beginnings of the universe, with evolutionary theories about the beginnings of life on this planet.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Anyone can sit down and write their own creation story. And for some people, Brian Swimme’s creation story has become an important part of their religious understanding. I’ll admit my bias: I’m not enthralled by this or other similar modern creation stories. I’m not particularly interested in mixing my religious creation stories with science; especially considering how science has a way of evolving and moving forward; and for me science has its own beauty that will is diminished by mixing it with story-telling.
More to the point, none of these modern creation stories is anywhere near as lovely as the Genesis creation story, or the creation story in the Mahabharata. You’d have to be a pretty good poet to compete with the beauty of the poetry of the King James version of Genesis, and frankly Brian Swimme and other creators of modern creation stories are not a particularly good poets. And you’d have to be a pretty good storyteller to compete with the generations of people who told and retold and polished both the Hindu creation story and the Genesis story before they were finally set down in writing. If you’re going to come up with your own creation story, you’re facing an uphill battle to create something to equal the beauty of these age-old stories. For that matter, you’re facing an uphill battle if you’re going to compete with the beauty of scientific theories that have been honed over the decades by a whole community of scientific researchers. So if you want to create, or find, a new, modern creation story, more power to you — but I don’t give you a very good chance of making a success of it.
Personally, I prefer to stick with the creation story in Genesis. Even though the creationists and the other literalists and fundamentalists have done a pretty good job of wrecking Genesis, it has one deep strength. The central theme of Genesis, as with most of the Hebrew Bible, is the theme of justice. Genesis aims to hold us to high ethical and moral standards. Those high ethical and moral standards have been perverted at times by being inappropriately associated with guilt and shame; the same literalists who say that Genesis tells us that God created the universe in seven days also try to tell us about “original sin,” a phrase that appears nowhere in Genesis, and which is simply a figment of their imaginations. But in spite of these perversions of Genesis, it remains a book founded on the principle of equal justice for all human beings.
The real creation story in Genesis tells us that we are connected through the Web of Life with all that is; it is through this connection t hat we know our inherent worth and dignity, and thus our right to equal justice no matter who we are. Furthermore, the creation story in Genesis can give us what we’d now call an ecological approach to justice. We can read the creation story in Genesis thusly: Earth was given as a garden to human beings, and indeed to all beings. And if Earth is a garden, then we are the gardeners who are supposed to keep things growing well. As gardeners, we nurture and help things grow; and in so doing we are connected with the cycle of life and death. As gardeners, we are ethically and morally responsible for nurturing the garden so that all beings have access to life and the means for life; we have a moral responsibility to facilitate the interconnectedness of the Web of Life.
So it is that I don’t yet want to abandon the Genesis creation story. Even though the creationists have twisted Genesis to their own purposes, that doesn’t affect the true meaning of the story. Even though science presents a different truth to us, that doesn’t do away with the importance of the Genesis story. The creation story in Genesis tells us about our responsibility to nurture all life and respect all beings; through its poetry it tells us that we are connected to the entire Web of Life.