Genesis 1

The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut once helpfully outlined the basic types of stories one finds – a surprisingly small set of thematic structures – and for the Bible I suppose we might expect him to categorize it as the ‘V’ type: Starting out high, a big crash, and then clawing its way back up to end on a promise of hope (wherever one wishes to find that ‘end’). Genesis certainly starts out well; but not, perhaps, in the way we tend to read it today given the historical blinders we have been taught to don.

From the NJPS Tanakh: 1.1-2: “When God began to create [a footnote: Others “In the beginning God created.”] heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from [another footnote: Others “the spirit of.”] God sweeping over the water – ”

This is not the creatio ex nihilo (‘creation from nothing’) we have learned from our places of worship or heard about here or there; rather this is far more in line with the older notion of ex nihilo nihil fit (you guessed it: ‘nothing comes from nothing’). God/“God”* has not hereby conjured up the cosmos, rather it** has given shape to that which was already there: the unformed earth, the deep, and the water. This is rather astonishing to realize, and it takes some time to sink in given how we typically breeze (a pun there) right over these opening verses. The process theologian Catherine Keller has made much of this wording in her Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003), and the philosopher John D. Caputo has in many of his own books as well. The notion is a challenging one, a provocative one, and the more so since in the centuries that the idea of ‘out of nothing’ has been in play (seemingly settling into Christianity in the 3rd century CE, not until the 10th for Judaism, and while essentially there from the start of the latterly developed Islam interestingly not without controversy), the presumption of it has become so ingrained that even luminaries like Abraham Joshua Heschel simply take it for granted. In my view, it certainly ought not to be.

What does it do to us to think God/“God” as having to work with what was to-hand (in the ‘tool’ Heideggerean sense)? Of course such is a limiting factor, and to reason in terms of truncated possibilities feels absolutely foreign when it comes to questions of this ‘central character’ of religion. Yet I think that is absolutely what we must accustom ourselves to if we are to move forward out of simple dogmatic fideisms and into living faiths that truly honor this sense of the numinous which has dominated human existence from its outset, from our first forays into creating communities, cultures, civilizations; if not even prior to that. Creating: ‘in the image of’, as the text states we human animals have been made vis-à-vis God/“God” (verse twenty-seven)? More words from Genesis that might take on fresh meanings, relevance, and intuitive associations if we can but get over the massive weight of reading-in-this-way-only.

One more nugget, from 1.29-30: “God said, ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, (I give) all the green plants for food.’”

Were we then, and with us everything else that is sentient, meant for vegetarianism? Oh what a look around tells us now. As Vonnegut would no doubt conclude: ‘And so it goes.’ Yet it does not have to.

*I note that in these pages I’ll use the formulation God/“God” to maintain a tension between the being-hood of divinity and the idea of divinity; a matter about which I wish to leave any conclusion open since I find that what we think about the divine is far more pertinent than arguments over what the divine ‘is’. I think too that at least in this case there might be a line to be drawn and applied between existence per se and existentiality per category (conceptual or otherwise), but that is a massive topic and far afield from the present.

**I will also use the impersonal pronoun for God/“God” to avoid gendered language, which although I think is wholly fitting for living organisms on this Earth of ours despite typical English usage (why not call a cat, cockroach, etc. a ‘she’ or ‘he’? they are not objects…), such has no place with the divine. If the divine does have a being-hood, surely that is neither a ‘masculine’ one nor a ‘feminine’ one: the traditional assignations here I find actually lessen the divine.

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