Monday, 31 October 2011

In the Beginning 2

It's been a while since I posted on this subject (here). I had an appeal hearing over my sick benefit - which I won - but I got extremely stressed over it. Any time that happens, my CFS gets the better of me, and I find stuff like academic commentaries too much to handle. However, I'm more or less coping now.

I got as far as the third day, when God gathers the water together, leaving the dry land. There's no creation ex nihilo in this; we read that into the text from later tradition. As I mentioned before, creation out of nothing is a later idea; as far as I'm aware it's first mentioned by Tertullian, a century and a half or so after the Crucifixion. He rejects it; creation is from matter, which is assumed to be pre-existent.

There's a problem here; the church likes to claim that its ideas are based on the Bible, then it imposes its own ideas on the text. In one way, that's valid, or we'd still be stuck with a 1st Century mode of thought. On the other hand, I'm not comfortable with claims that those ideas are in the text. They're not; they're interpretations. When it comes to creation, science, of course, maintains that it wasn't ex nihilo. It was from whatever was there before the Big Bang, and being no sort of physicist (my background is in geology, biology and theology), I'm not going to attempt to describe it. Contra Tertullian, it wasn't matter. However, it was matter's precursor, so he wasn't far wrong.

What we have is a description of God bringing order out of chaos. First he divides the waters,  then he gathers together the waters below, and limits their extent. Something like the world we know appears, but it's still lifeless. There's light and darkness, but no sun, moon or stars.

But we haven't finished with the third day yet. Immediately after separating land and sea, God calls vegetation into exisence. Once again, he's not creating it out of nothing.

Genesis 1:11 Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so.

The author's interest is in fruit trees and seed bearing plants; that is, plants which are useful for agriculture. The land is empowered to 'bring them forth' in a way which sounds very much like spontaneous generation. This is a very old idea; maggots, for instance, were believed to be generated in meat. This, of course, is the generation of the organic from the inorganic, but the difference is only one of degree, and I'm not sure whether people would have been aware of it when Genesis was written.

On the fourth day, we return to the heavens.

Genesis 1:14-19 And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. God made the two great lights-- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night-- and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

It's a long and elaborate description, suggesting that the 'lights' have a particular importance to the author. Sun and moon, of course, were important deities in the region; the difference here is that they are now created objects, and are not explicitly named, perhaps to avoid identification with their respective deities. Their purpose is to 'rule' over day and night, to divide them, and to give light. Once again, God is separating what had been confused, bringing order out of chaos. The lights are for 'seasons, days and years'; not hours, as these are a human invention which may not yet have raised its head, but the obvious, natural divisions of time. And, they are for 'signs'. The calendar is set by reference to the heavenly bodies; passover, for instance, takes place at the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

They can also be signs of other things. Matthew uses a star as a sign of Jesus' coming; Josephus mentions a 'star shaped like a sword' as one of the portents which presaged the outbreak of the First Revolt. Astrology may be seen as rather dodgy nowadays, but at the time, it was taken for granted.

The whole scenario is clearly geocentric. The heavenly bodies are there to serve earthly purposes. The ancients, or at least the educated minority, weren't as ignorant as often supposed; Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the Earth, accurately, around 200 BC, which rather gives the lie to the idea that they all thought it was flat. The heliocentric theory, which says that the Earth revolves around the sun, was first proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd Century BC, but nobody believed him. Geocentricity, the idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe, was taken for granted until the early 16th Century, when Copernicus used observations of the movements of the planets to demonstrate mathematically that they orbit the Sun.

It's not surprising that the people who actually wrote Genesis would have taken a geocentric universe for granted; everyone did back then. The question is, what do we do with it now? Any 'literal' interpretatin goes out of the window once we start looking at the text seriously; not even the most extreme fundamentalist argues that the Earth is the centre of the universe. Tentatively, a theological geocentricity might be possible. Deuteronomy 7 maintains that God chose the Israelites, the weakest of peoples, because he loved them. Perhaps we could argue that he chose this insignificant planet as the centre of the cosmic drama, the bearer of his image, no less, because he, somehow, loved it? However, there's a gamble involved. If we then discover life elsewhere in the universe, we could be in trouble. Theologies are relative; they're produced by specific communities, in their specific times, places and cultures. None of them is ever fully satisfactory; no mere human can comprehend God in his fulness, after all. The trouble is, we then absolutise them, claim they apply universally, and, if we can, try to impose them on everyone. How exactly would we cope theologically with extraterrestrial life, I wonder? Is the alien in his flying saucer also made in God's image? Is a dalek of the Devil, or is he capable of redemption? Do bug-eyed monsters have souls? One day, we might seriously be looking for answers to qustions like this. It's possible that geocentricity in any form may prove to be mere hubris.

I think that's enough for one post; more later.


  1. How exactly would we cope theologically with extraterrestrial life, I wonder? Is the alien in his flying saucer also made in God's image? Is a dalek of the Devil, or is he capable of redemption? Do bug-eyed monsters have souls?

    Do aliens billions of light years away from us have to proclaim Jesus as Lord?

  2. Good question! Since they're finding Earthlike planets around the galaxy now, it's one we may end up having to consider seriously. I think the answer depends on which bits of the Bible we go for - we're always very selective - and how we interpret them. The church has a long history of exclusve readings, backed up by theology which said that there's no salvation outside the church. You could confess Christ all you liked, but if you weren't baptised, original sin remained, and you went to hell. So salvation depended on belonging to the church community.

    I think there's still a lot of that around - but what would we end up with if we looked for an inclusive reading?