In the beginning

It is a time of new beginnings: in the secular world a new year has begun, in the academic world a new semester has begun, and in my world a new class in Old Testament survey has begun. So we begin with the beginning, in this case a meditation on the beginning, with some contemporary sidetracks in [] and some personal reflections that go well beyond survey classes..

The beginning lays the foundation for all that follows. But we must read the beginning from the point of view of the author, who was not there in the beginning, but who has an interest in the beginning. “When God began to create the heavens and the earth . . .” (CEB) there are two things: God and matter. In the beginning matter was a mess, a swirling unformed mass of all that is, useless for anything – but it was matter and it is there as the curtain goes up. We have to go to Hebrews to discover that God created the matter, for that does not interest our author (and may be outside his philosophical comprehension). What is important to him is that it is matter, for unlike the nations around them, they Hebrews, including our author, do not believe that matter was divine. This is not the body of a mother goddess, or any other deity, but just stuff, undifferentiated stuff, and God is present with that stuff: a divine wind sweeps across the deep darkness.

“And God said . . .” God is pictured as a king and the king speaks (the court will appear more clearly in the royal “we” of Gen 1:26); when he speaks things happen. It is not that there are no intermediate agents. But the agents are not important (and in the Hebrew world might have been worshipped if described, just as we worship images, powers, scraps of cloth, and even sports). They rush from his presence to carry out his will, but it is his will.  Our author is also not concerned with how God created – his worldview does not need the debates about science and Scripture that have often occupied us (I have tried to diagram the worldview model that our author is using in my commentary 2 Peter and Jude, and plan to publish another version in my Biblical Theology of the General Epistles, since it is used by 2 Peter) . For him the point is that God created, that only God created and that there is only One who is God, whatever agents or means that God may have used.  That God forms a world capable of being inhabited – that is catalogued in a three-day structure.  That God, in a second three-day catalogue, fills the world he has formed with animate creatures, starting with the heavenly bodies and ending with the creation of humanity.  No tree god, no sea god, no sun god appear.  The one God made it all. He does create humanity in his image, which means as a viceroy to oversee and run the world he has created. But the human being remains a viceroy; he/they never receive(s) independent “title” to the world. Whether the human being in Eden or Israel in Palestine, it is God who retains title. God even retains title to the life of the human being, for in the so-called second creation story we discover that the human is mortal but receives a “sacramental immortality” through the tree of life, as John Goldingay has pointed out. That human being rules all, rules as male and female (there is neither dominance nor subversion until late in Gen 3), but does this under God and is depended on God, including being dependent for life itself.

However long the human beings, that is, the two of, live in this dependent relationship, whether it be eons or centuries or years, that is not a concern of our author. His concern is that this dependent relationship did not last forever, or, perhaps, that it was not the present situation of the human race.  Genesis says that the human being chose independence, chose to take over rule for themselves. “I can make independent judgments – I can say what is right and wrong, what is good and bad. And I believe that this tree is good, even though you said it was bad.”  We have of course been judging ever since. We make judgments about what is right and wrong in the world, and we make judgments about our fellow human being, whether they are right or wrong. We have, in the words of Genesis, become like God, or at least we have made the attempt.

And so, if in the beginning God created, and if in the beginning human beings attempted to take over God’s role and throw off their dependence, then in the beginning (or at least as the story of the  beginning plays out) came alienation and violence. That is content of the rest of the “prehistory” of Genesis (as I call Gen 1-11). But of course there is another side of the story as well, for the One God will call the creation, and especially the human creation, back to himself. He will – in the end – not use violence, but instead absorb the violence of others and so break its power. Indeed, in the Christian story when the God-King returns he speaks a word rather than flashes a sword, for as in Genesis his word is enough, and by his word he reorders and re-creates the world. But that of course is the end of the story, not the beginning.

But the beginning tells us about the tensions of our world. We want to take the world for ourselves, either individually through capitalism or collectively through socialism. [The politics of the right often re-enact Gen 3 in individualistic terms, while the politics of the left do it in collective terms; both have this or that correct, but are wrong in their core assumption of human sovereignty; even Karl Marx was, in some ways right, but without God he could not go back to the beginning, so ends up with humans trying to play God, which results in violence. He seems to know, as we would expect from a man of his age, Paul’s principles, “From each according to his ability to each according to his need,” but he does not have Paul’s Spirit to work out those principles, and without the divine Spirit he gets humans playing God, with predictable results. The right side of the spectrum does no better.] But God has not given up title to the world, for he made it and it is his; we possess nothing, for we are at best viceroys, not kings.  Both of the “isms” (and reds and blues and quite a few other “isms,” slogans, and political principles) belong to the principalities and powers that Paul says rule this present age. Our other human tendency is to deify the world, to make it independent of God. So we speak of Mother Nature or just Nature or natural laws as if they existed or could exist without the creator. [Next time you want some fun, listen to a scientific naturalist, such as Richard Dawkins and see how long he speaks before verbally “deifying” one of the natural forces he believes in.]  Furthermore, because human independence leads to alienation and violence, we see our security in violence or the threat of violence, whether it be our personal security in our personal armament or our collective security in our collective armament systems. [As the Psalmist would say, there is mocking laughter from God and his agents when he hears the words “national security” uttered by some human being in some nation of the world.] We pretend we can be safe and yet live independently of God, that is, independently of the dependence in which he created us and for which he created us. This tension, of course, will be worked out in the rest of Holy Scripture, both in terms of the result of human independence and in terms of God’s solution in bringing human beings back to dependence, which solution ultimately uses a cross and an empty grave.

In the beginning of my day I want to go back to the beginning. The most important things that I do take place in my study. I do Morning Prayer, which places me under Scripture in dependence on the One who is creator.  [My wife and I complete the day with Evening Prayer, the other half of the Daily Office. We will to end our day under the authority of God and in dependence on the creator.]  After prayer, I sit in apophatic meditation, hands open on my lap. I release all to the creator; I grasp nothing for myself. I sit silently in the presence of the One who is, letting go of all images and letting the sharp arrows of love and dependence pierce “the cloud of unknowing” (although often the struggle with my “monkey mind” takes up all too much of the time). Hopefully, this will not just be a pious start to my day but will shape my whole day and how I live every moment of it. Hopefully, I am being transformed into the viceroy (or to use other biblical language, “slave of God”) I was intended to be. All too often the process is too slow (in my eyes); I again grasp for security in something other than him. But in the timing of God, whether it be the timing of eons or of years or of days, I believe a new creation is taking place in me.

In my class we spend a long time in Genesis, or so it seems in relationship to the time that we spend on the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. (There is a bit of hubris in pretending that we can adequately grasp the vastness of the Hebrew Scriptures in one semester, but we do the best we can.) In my life I try to constantly return to Genesis, to retake, by the power of Jesus my King and through the Spirit, the position God created me for. I have not yet arrived “in the beginning,” but Jesus my Lord tells me that I will. I hope to come closer in this life, but in the re-creation of the world, in the resurrection, in the renewal of this earth, I know I will, for in my resurrection I will be part of the new beginning that my Lord has already in part begun.

New Year’s “Prophecy”

Someone else will blog about quite useful and scholarly issues on Monday, our usual theology day. I offer this weekend meditation triggered by New Years as something personal in the light of the coming term.

New Year’s “Prophecy”

New Years is itself something of an arbitrary time. The New Year for the (Western) church started on November 30 with the beginning of Advent. The New Year for Judaism and Islam will start at other times during the year. Chinese New Year will be on yet another date. The solar New Year took place with the winter solstice on Dec 21. January 1 is, in a sense, entirely arbitrary (it comes from the day that the Roman consul entered office in the late Roman Republic) although its use predates the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar (created in 1582, but adopted in various countries over a several century period). For the church Jan 1 is the Feast of the Holy Name, for being the 8th day after Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth (itself somewhat arbitrary in that Jesus was probably born in the spring, if Luke is correct that shepherds were in the fields), it is the celebration of when Jesus was officially named – his circumcision. In fact, it comes in the middle of the 12 days of Christmas, which officially end on Jan 6 with Epiphany, the beginning of a new season in the church year. But even if New Years is arbitrary and in the middle of a season, it is a time in which at least in our culture we look forward and often think about what might happen in the coming year.

Ironically, given the propensity to look forward on New Year’s, the past year ended with a rash of prophecy of one type or another. We had the pseudo-prophecy of doom connected to the Mayan calendar (which would probably have puzzled ancient Mayans, since for them the ending of the calendar was, like for us, the starting of a new cycle, not the end of everything). We had the prognostications about the school shooting in Newtown, CT, in which various people, such as Mike Huckabee and James Dobson (a decent popular psychologist but a dubious prophet and theologian) claimed to speak on behalf of God about the meaning of the event (as did the prophets of the Hebrew Bible) and perhaps hint darkly more would follow if the USA did not repent of the particular sins they identified. Such prognostications were denounced by many in the church, let alone the world outside the church, as both “news to God” and insensitive to human beings. On the other hand, we had, of course, those who looked back rather than forward and who therefore realized that the (Western) church remembers another slaughter of 20 or so (male) children on Holy Innocents, Dec 28, 3 days after Christmas; others pointed out that the US has had a string of school attacks, not just the recent string since Columbine, but one that reaches long before that, the worst in US history being a school bombing in 1927. Historians and theologians, then, point out that we have a faith that began with tragedy, so to speak, and live in a country with a history of such tragedy.

We look forward with more voices claiming the know the future, although they may not call themselves prophets. There was the talk of the “fiscal cliff” and what it might mean, and and now what the solution and the ensuing struggles in Congress might mean. There is talk about other scenarios, real and imagined (such as those in the “end-times” scenarios scattered around the internet, which are taken seriously people I know) . Some of these scenarios will happen, not necessarily because they predicter is accurate, but because the chances are high (statistically, if you predict that Jesus “must” return on a certain date often enough, someone will eventually be correct, assuming that the New Testament is correct in claiming that he will return). For instance, I can with reasonable certainty predict that HBU will field a football team and with somewhat less certainty also predict that the first season will likely not be a winning one, although it will be a win for the university as a whole. This takes no prophetic powers, but only the knowledge that playing football is planned, some of the players and coaches are basically in place, and that virtually all first seasons are not winning seasons, even if they are exciting and historic because they are first seasons. With less certainty I can predict that HBU will be approved to start a PhD program. That is the plan (so I have a basis for the prediction), but of course we could submit all the paperwork required and get turned down either because of a error on our part (which I doubt will happen) or because of the vagaries on the accrediting system. I doubt it, but being neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (and having some experience of the failures of human systems) I cannot be sure. I do not need the voice to God to make such predictions.

I may indeed have heard the voice of God on a matter – I believe I have from time to time – but mostly these have been about immediate concerns to me, guiding me when I was making a decision about something that I could not have foreseen. However, these occasions have not been frequent. Most of the times the heavens are silent, so to speak. And that is just as well. When I sit day by day in the presence of God in my meditation time, it is not so that I get “a word” (although I would not complain if I did since it would be His choice), but so that I can be with the One who is beyond speech and imagining, who is true beyond all truth (a far beyond our feeble apprehension of whatever is true), who is real beyond reality (and especially beyond what we call reality, since it is mostly our construction). Real life is about being and relationship, not about information. When I look forward to the year, it is not because I know what will happen (other than “more of the same,” the same things that have happened over the past centuries). If I did know, then I would have at least a modicum of control and that illusion could corrupt me. No, I look forward because I know the One who does rule, who does have control. I go forward with that One, and because of that I can live in trust and peace, knowing that whatever happens, as the archdeacon in Charles Williams’ novel War in Heaven says, “This also is Thou.”

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