Genesis and earthcare

August 17, 2013 § 9 Comments

The theme for New York Yearly Meeting Summer Sessions 2013 was “Keeping Faith: Answering that of God in All Creation”. The Bible study for the week focused on the first three chapters of Genesis and what they might teach us about “answering that of God in all creation”. The facilitator, Ruth Kinsey, was the pastor of Farmington Meeting for a long time, though she now is retired, lives in Folkeways, a Quaker retirement community, and is a member of Gwynedd Meeting in Pennsylvania.

I thought Ruth did a great job of calling forth from the material a strong message of responsible earth stewardship and of reinterpreting some of the more problematic aspects of these stories. Nevertheless, many participants, I think, were deeply troubled by some of these passages, especially the verses on dominion over creation and the submission of women to men. And I have my own concerns, as well.

I think that Friends should not use the first three chapters of Genesis in defining Quaker earthcare, for several reasons. I want to return to each of these in future posts.

  • Creation. First, the creation myths in Genesis one and two are not the true story of the earth’s creation. Why would we be guided by stories that have no relation to the evolutionary processes that really produced the human race and our world, processes that we must understand and respect if we are to be responsible earth stewards? We should ground our earthcare witness in the science that reveals the mind of God more truly than this myth can.
  • God. Some would say that while the Genesis stories may not describe the true process of creation, they do give us valuable insights into the Creator, into God’s relation to creation, and our relation to God vis a vis creation. I disagree, however. I feel that these chapters either portray a God that does not exist or they misrepresent God in ways that make God irrelevant or even inimical to our earthcare concerns. We should ground our earthcare witness in the leadings that the Spirit of Love and Truth has given to our earthcare prophets, both Quaker and non.
  • Stewardship. The theology of traditional Christian earth stewardship for which these chapters are the starting point offers principles of real value and power for earthcare witness. However, I feel that ultimately, traditional Christian earth stewardship leads to a dead end. I have written a book on this subject and I don’t want to use this blog to lay out the whole book, but in future posts, I do want to discuss some of what I call the 9+ principles of Christian earth stewardship vis a vis Quaker earthcare witness. If we took full responsibility for these principles, we would embark on a truly radical witness—but we won’t. No Christians will. And even if we did, it would not be enough.
  • The Fall. The story of the Fall in Genesis two and three is the very foundation of the sin-salvation paradigm so central to traditional Christian belief. But there was no Fall. Where is the evidence for a pair of proto-humans who were living in a pure “state of innocency”, as George Fox put it, and then fell from grace, leaving the rest of humanity inherently corrupt and disobedient to God?
  • As a parable, the story of the Fall may be trying to teach us something about human nature, our situation here on earth, and about God. However, I feel that the story of the Fall distorts the reality of human nature and of the world we live in, and, as I have said before, it defines a relationship between God, humans, and the world that has a shadow side; I feel that this shadow too strongly dims any light that these verses might offer us.
  • We do have an inherent tendency to disobey and to do wrong; I’m not denying that. But we also have inherent tendencies to obey and to do good, to create, to procreate, to organize socially, to nurture our young, to wage war—sinfulness is just one of a complex and extensive constellation of human instincts or predilections, and not, i my opinion, the most important at all. Why single sinfulness out among them all as the one that truly and decisively defines the human condition and the God we worship? Well, I plan to return to this topic of what I call the sin-salvation paradigm in later posts. And I want to focus especially on how the story of the Fall actually undermines faithful earthcare.

§ 9 Responses to Genesis and earthcare

  • Patricia Dallmann says:

    Joseph Campbell writes about the right interpretation of myth providing permanent human meaning and the “blight” that has descended on the Bible:

    Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history, mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved. Such a blight has certainly descended on the Bible and on a great part of the Christian cult.

    To bring the images back to life, one has to seek, not interesting applications to modern affairs, but illuminating hints from the inspired past. When these are found, vast areas of half-dead iconography disclose again their permanently human meaning.

  • I continue to be a Steven Davison fan – I loved the way you handled the two minutes that the Yearly Meeting failed to unite on, Steve – but I find this new posting troubling on several counts:

    1. *Creation*: Steven writes, “The creation myths in Genesis one and two are not the true story of the earth’s creation.” This implies that he knows what the true story is. Any true story worthy of the name would include an account of what was in the mind of the Creator as He, She or It created the world, and therefore would have to come to us by revelation, for human empirical science and reasoning, being intellectual tools developed by mere creatures, can’t be trusted to be adequate to… to divine the divine.

    Steven writes, “We should ground our earthcare witness in the science that reveals the mind of God more truly than this myth can,” but I find the idea that science reveals the mind of God laughable – or perhaps I should be weeping, because in my own heart I hear the mind of God crying “Thou shalt not kill!” and I see scientists developing ever more sophisticated technologies of death. Science? The mind of God? Why would God have created a world where mere university book-learning qualified men and women to speak about God? In fact, I thought that the Quakers demolished that idea 350 years ago.

    Suppose the Creator, out of compassion for us blind, ignorant children, inspired prophets to compose creation myths – yes, creation myths – as the best way to explain what He-She-It was about when He-She-It created the world, providing also that the same Holy Spirit that inspired the creation myths would then *open the myths* to anyone ready for a deeper understanding of the creation. Who’s to say that Genesis one and two are incapable of being “opened” in this sense? This is not to say that the Big Bang Theory, or the Inca and Hopi creation myths, aren’t also capable of being opened by the Holy Spirit. What matters is that we ask for the Truth, make the effort to walk worthy of it, and remain open to receive it. And perhaps there’s already That within us that already knows the Truth: we just, with our conscious minds, don’t know that we know it.

    Steven calls the Genesis stories “stories that have no relation to the evolutionary processes that really produced the human race and our world.” Let’s talk about those evolutionary processes. Let’s say that random mutation and natural selection developed first mammals, then primates, then australopithecines. Meanwhile, human souls were being prepared, on the higher occult planes of planet Glorthex in galaxy X-1, to be incarnated in those australopithecine bodies, and at some point a host of archangels whisked them over to planet Earth, transforming those australopithecines into hominids. – What? You say that my story about Glorthex is only conjecture, not science? But what if it proved to be true? And can you *disprove* it?

    But reality gets even weirder – maybe: I’ve heard it argued that the process of creation started not in the distant past, but in the present; and the past and future flow, as they must, as consequences of what takes place now. If this theory has any merit, then all of our science’s understandings of the evolutionary processes that produced the human race are trash.

    An ancient and respected Indian tradition, echoed in Greek philosophy since Parmenides and today reflected in *A Course in Miracles*, holds that all this phenomenal world is but illusion, māyā, and true reality, when once we wake up to it, is inexpressible in words. So who knows what the true story of the earth’s creation is? Maybe God is still cherishing us, His darlings, in Eden, and we’re just collectively having a bad dream that we’ll soon wake from. (See below: my comments on The Fall.)

    2. *God*: Beware of trashing Scripture before the Holy Spirit opens it for you! Like Steven, I have problems with the text of Genesis. Certain verses put God in an unattractive light. On the other hand, sometimes what looks like a jealous, selfish God turns loving and compassionate on closer inspection, like the God of Genesis 3:22 who wants to prevent the man from “eating from the tree of life, and so living forever:” would you want to live forever in a world that your disobedience – no, not God’s ill-tempered cruelty, *your* disobedience – had turned into a place of pain, sorrow and toil? How much better to live forever after God had restored your innocence and awakened you in paradise!

    The Holy Spirit may also “open” a verse of scripture for you in the sense of telling you to reject the message you get from it!

    3. *The Fall*: I came to Christianity in mid-life, after having been raised an agnostic, so I had no Calvinist parents teaching me to think of all men, women and children as hopelessly depraved sinners. In fact, I was raised to think of the working class as a mass of virtuous heroes – did I ever get disappointed! In any case I *came* to a world-view that people were fallen because, without it, the world made no sense to me:

    a. We do evil, knowing that it’s evil, often helplessly, often corporately, as a whole nation or civilization;

    b. If there’s a God who loves us, then either God doesn’t love us very much, because He (She, It) hides from us when we need Him, and makes us *guess* whether He exists and loves us – either that, or *we* are responsible for this terrible, frightening alienation from our loving Creator;

    c. By now I’ve lived enough to note that, the more people justify evil behavior, the shallower, stupider and more ineducable they tend to become, as if there really is some “darkness” that sinners run off into, “lest their deeds should be reproved.”(John 3:20)

    George Fox wrote, in numerous places, that when the human race fell, they lost the divine image they were created in and took on the image of the serpent. There are many reasons why I find Fox’s understandings of the situation cogent, but I think that that subject needs developing in a blog posting of my own.

    But I think that Quaker Earthcare Witness will be the poorer if we cast away Friends’ traditional understandings of what it means to be fallen, and to stand in the light and have sin rebuked, and then to be delivered from it. To be continued.

    • treegestalt says:

      I don’t know how “effective” our witness is supposed to be.

      If people go on not letting themselves know what they know — that there is ‘something’ truly sacred at work in the world and in our very existence — Then whether they respect something called ‘Quaker Earthcare Witness’, or not — that same heedless perversity will remain in control, and people will go on ‘defiling the Earth’ despite any ‘practical’ measures they accomplish towards protecting it.

    • John, a very provocative comment. Let me try to explain how I think earth science reveals the mind of G*d and why I think that’s important for earthcare witness.

      I consider the theory of evolution to be true, in its broad strokes. So, also with the rest of settled earth science, to which we are adding all the time. These sciences describe how the world actually works. I trust the empirical evidence upon which these sciences are based. Insofar as they are demonstrable, they do not require faith.

      The traditional understanding of the creation story in Genesis one, however, is that a theistic creator-god created the world. Such a being could exist, I suppose, but how would we really know?

      It was one thing when we humans believed the world to be a flat disk under a “firmament” that separated the cosmic sea from dry land and the world beneath, but now we know the universe is billions of years old and extends across inconceivable distances—a creator-god capable of such a creation is so much vaster than those early Israelites could have imagined. And even the being described in Genesis one would be beyond my ken.

      I have no experience of such a being and I don’t think anyone actually can “know” such a being; our nervous systems would explode or something, if we came into the presence of such a being. All I could do is speculate about it and have a kind of blind faith in it. And that’s what our tradition has done with Genesis one, two, and three. But it doesn’t work for me. Such a God is too cosmic, too unapproachable, just plain too inconceivable to me. And therefore irrelevant.

      I do, however, adhere tentatively to a radical version of intelligent design. The beauty, subtlety, complexity, the synergies, the laws, especially the mathematical laws, and especially the totally improbable symbioses, of “creation” (and a host of other attributes) evince an essential characteristic of the universe—that it is intelligent. There are patterns everywhere. And these are knowable. Our mode of understanding them is science. And an earthcare that does not work in harmony with them is doomed to failure.

      This stuff is all sacred knowledge to me. This is one of the places where I find G*d—in the majesty, beauty, and intelligence of creation.

      So there’s two things happening here: The impulse to care for the earth is a prompting of the Holy Spirit. So is whatever gifts I possess that prepare me for my role as an earth care giver, and so are the ministries to which I am called in this witness. This revelation is of G*d. All that I know directly and personally about that G*d comes from these revelations.

      But the context for my earthcare ministry, the “divine” laws that express the intelligence of creation, and which my earthcare must follow to be successful, these are revealed in our earth sciences. And these I can know directly and personally, also.

      By contrast, Genesis requires interpretation—radical reinterpretation, in fact, in the face of the fact that it contradicts known science and presents ideas, like dominion and the subjection of women, that I reject. Such reinterpretation feels to me like mental legerdemain—it feels false. And ultimately, it requires faith—blind, contradictory faith, at that. I just don’t understand why I would do that. Why I would turn there for authority when I have direct revelation in the form of call to ministry and the guidance of earth science.

      Creation is the first revelation of G*d, whatever G*d means in this context. About this I have my own ideas, but they are just ideas—interesting, at least to me, even compelling, but ultimately just ideas. My ideas even include some theism, just no concept of a supreme being. But the Bible is too contradictory and problematic (especially on the subject of earthcare), too subject to differing interpretations and too malleable to dangerous interpretation, too dependent on faith, to be an authority to which I would turn instead of my own direct promptings of the Spirit and the science that uncovers the first revelation.

      • treegestalt says:

        Our nervous systems do not “explode” from knowing God; the mind/soul those systems manifest & interface is a local incarnation of “such a being” — which is the ongoing activity we call ‘Being’, “bounded in a nutshell” as that looks from our perspective. [Think of ‘know’ as in ‘I know that guy,’ not ‘know’ as in ‘I know calculus.’ At best, as in ‘I know my wife.’]

        The “authority” of the Bible, for the purpose of “witness”, would have to be based on general belief and acceptance of it as an authority, which no longer exists.

        So whether we point to the Bible as a source of our witness really depends on whether that’s where we get it from — and I’d have to agree that for most of us, we’d have to reach to dig it out of there.

        Historically, however, we find Fox quite sure that wasting or abusing ‘the creatures’, ie any of what God has created, violates the spirit of the Bible’s message. So that strain does go back to early Friends’ interpretation of the Bible.

        The raw factuality of ‘how SHe did it’, from tracks we read by scientific procedures — can tell us what will happen to us if we render our Earthly nest uninhabitable — but doesn’t offer a hint of why SHe imagined this glorious mess in the first place, or why we might be obligated to care for the place. However, as Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet” has it, we might yet be moved “in God’s name to have self-pity” in this and other contexts!

      • Patricia Dallmann says:

        There’s a radical difference between Quaker understanding of Genesis and that of other Christian traditions. One reason for that is our understanding that sin is “not for term of life,” or at least needn’t be. The binary alternative (salvation from sin or condemnation in it) before each of us is of utmost importance, and is the main topic of Scripture, which aims to support us in our move toward salvation.

        Genesis not only gives us a creation myth, but it also emphasizes the binary order starting with that first verse. The dividing of one thing from another that occurs throughout this story is about creating order: one thing goes here; another thing goes there. So, the Being in whose image we are created is an ordered being, not one who is “without form and void.” as the earth is (and as we are, who are made of the earth) without him. (That second and third verse in chapter one is a beautiful image of the experience of coming to feel God’s presence in worship.)

        Our Quaker tradition recognizes and espouses the relationship between God and man that reflects this divine order. Here’s Penington talking about the right order in Eden:

        Here was the sweet estate, the sweet peace, the sweet liberty, the sweet uniformity of all; all being kept and preserved in that life, virtue, wisdom, goodness, power, and love wherein they were made; the creatures naturally becoming subject to, serving and obeying man (man using them and ruling over them not in the tyranny, not in the lust, not in the vanity, not in the excess; but in the righteousness, in the love,in the meekness,in the moderation, in the divine wisdom,in the pure power and virtue of the life… (“That Man is fallen from God” Works, I. 403)

        That we should try to distinguish one thing from another without reference or fidelity to God and the divine wisdom is to engender disorder. This is what the myth of the Fall is about. Not only does our vie for autonomy upset our relationship with God (alienation and exile from paradise), it upsets our relationship with each other (now we have one sex or race or nation dominating the other), and it upsets the relationship with creation (we tyrannize and lust, in vanity and excess seems like a good description of what we’ve done to the environment).

        The tradition’s answer to this chaos (and Quakers’ understanding of the that tradition) is to return to the relationship with God, to fidelity to the light within, so that we may be rightly ordered in our relationships to ourselves, one another, and to our environment. Sin is thinking that we know better (without the truth within) what is good for us. Quaker values and testimonies don’t cut it; we need the living God moving upon the face of the chaotic deep of our souls.

        Our choice isn’t between some literal interpretation of the Genesis story and science. It is to use our God-given minds under the aegis of divine wisdom that will allow us, in the image of God, to distinguish one thing from another; heaven from earth; right from wrong; life from the death we have sadly manifested on the earth, by and large.

    • As for the Fall, I agree with you that sin lies at the center of our ecological crises, especially corporate sin, and by that I mean both collective sin and the sin of corporations.

      But the traditional understanding of the story of the Fall includes ideas—and they are just ideas—that I must reject. Blaming it on a serpent (let alone the Devil, who doesn’t figure in the story at all), a fruit, and a woman, for instance. That “knowledge of good and evil” would be wrong, somehow, unless it means some form of direct knowledge, rather than what I was taught, which was that the tree offered the ability to differentiate good from evil; what could be wrong with that? That distance from God, inherent sinfulness, painful childbirth, hard work, and all the other evils of human existence resulted from some specific act by some primeval, original ancestors, (I was taught as a child that there was no poison ivy before the Fall.) Etc.

      Meanwhile, the actual intention of the story, I believe, was to warn the Israelites against worship of the goddess Astarte. Eve, “the mother of all things living” was one of Astarte’s epithets. Her symbol was the serpent and the fruit tree. I have seen a photograph of a Mesopotamian statue of Astarte with her arms splayed out to the sides as the limbs of a stylized tree, with a serpent in one hand and a fruit in the other. Paradise, the garden, is thought to refer to the ziggurat temples of Babylonia, which had gardens on their terraces. This story, like so many handled by the Deuteronomic school, is a parable warning to avoid pagan worship, or, perhaps more likely, an explanation for why the people were carried off to Babylon—why they were expelled from their promised land. The “flaming sword” has etymological ties to the Semitic word for desert and may represent the Syrian desert that separates Mesopotamia from Palestine.

      So the story of the Fall probably originally had nothing to do with the source of human sinfulness in the first place.

  • I had a brief email conversation with someone this week on the topic of presentism. “In the philosophy of time, presentism is the belief that neither the future nor the past exists.” However, we can also consider presentism to be focusing neither on the past nor on the future. Our earthcare – and other aspects of our existence – falter because we have become focused on the present, and not on how we are impacting the future. There have been moments in times where we have been able to focus long-term, and some cultures do that better than others.

    Genesis 1-3 are also focused on the present, I believe. Those chapters do not help us think about the long-haul, which is unfortunately. Those chapters do, though, tell us that we have a role. We may argue about that role, but it is clear that we are meant to be part of the balance and activity on earth.

  • treegestalt says:

    “The Fall” is what this looked like to a traditional society.

    And in Jesus’ historical thinking, it had progressed to “The Prodigal Son.” [Once upon a time, a young man told his father, “I’m sick of hanging around this farm waiting for you to get out of my way and let me have some fun. How about you give me my share of the inheritance, and I’m out of here….!]

    Contemporary version — if we really thought it out? Our “Running Away From Home.” More than “Our Terrible Twos,” or even “Our Terrible Adolescence,” although these are metaphors in the right direction.

    We are, collectively, out of sync with the Spirit that continually gives birth to us — and hence, our relationship to our very selves suffers an ongoing distortion. “Running away from home” may have been necessary in developing some independent identity of our own — but that identity can only exist in relationship to the one you say “might not even exist” — which shows how far things have drifted, doesn’t it, though that has hardly made you a monster of iniquity. : >}

    People who have “made their peace with” The Old Man (or The Old Lady, the ____, the spirit living them….) don’t mess up the Earth like rampaging estranged kids….

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