Autumn. Churches (remember them?) mark harvest festivals and creation.
Churches are stuffed with flowers. My eyes water and my nose streams (it runs in the family).
Churchgoers bring gifts to their god and place them at the front of the church – home grown produce like tinned fruit, vegetables and soup, and packets of rice and pasta. Preachers tell how fortunate we are to be so favoured by the prodigal generosity of Creator God, but stop short of saying that therefore those whose harvests fail must be being punished by the irascible sky pixie.
The keen reader will deduce that I hate harvest festivals. I hated them as a child in Methodist Sunday School and I hated them as a vicar. Most years I managed to avoid having to preach at harvest by inviting somebody else do it. I was able therefore to listen to the infantile platitudes of others.
A friend with whom back in the day I worked at the University of Nottingham is now one of the editors of Southwell Minster (Nottinghamshire’s cathedral) magazine, and given this wonderful time of year, and my background in medicine, zoology and theology, she asked me for an 800-word piece on creation. Here it is.
The earliest Biblical “creation” story is in Genesis 2 and 3: earth, Adam and his rib, Eve, garden and talking serpent. It’s a myth – that is to say a story that expresses profound truth. Actually, I don’t think it’s really about creation. I think it’s an explanation of why humans cock-up. In short, we put on fig leaves to hide our fears, shame and insecurities and big ourselves up, the fig leaf being the first fashion accessory hiding the reality beneath. Herein lies the origin of egocentricity.
The Genesis 1 story – “In the beginning God …” – came later. It is a glorious panoramic vision of the origin of the cosmos from big bang onwards. It is rich in meaning, with strands reaching back to even more ancient myths. You’ll see that the order of appearance of living things is pretty logical: plants, aquatic creatures, birds, land animals, then humans appearing at the last minute. In this there’s more than a hint of progressive evolution.
There is another snippet of a creation story that for me is spine-tingllng. Read Psalm 104 (preferably the Coverdale Book of Common Prayer version) and Proverbs 8 especially v 22 onwards (any version). Another character is introduced, lady wisdom, Sophia in Greek. Divine wisdom, the pre-existent Christ, present alongside the creator at creation, the unformed stardust of which the universe is made. If this Christ-wisdom is the stardust of the universe, Christ-wisdom is in every one of us. This is marvellously beautiful imagery: don’t take it literally, but let it work on your imagination.
I said above that the first creation story hints at evolution. Of course writers of Hebrew scripture knew nothing of modern notions of evolution, but given that I do not accept Biblical creation stories as historical fact, I see no incompatibility with what they try to explain and what modern science tries to explain. Did you know that the first few days of mammalian development (yes, we are mammals – apes in fact – get used to it) are a kind of speeded-up evolution as things like tails appear then (usually) disappear, to give but one example. As the 19th/20th century zoologist Haeckel put it, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (look it up if you’re interested).
The Biblical stories are poetry, allegory. No more. They attempt to explain what we observe and experience. They are rich sources for speculation and reflection, particularly in relation to Greek and Roman myths and folk tales of all cultures.
Some people believe them to be scientifically accurate, despite the fact that they were written in a different language by humans with a different world view in a different cultural milieu from today’s – people who believed that the sun orbited the earth and that there were seas under the earth and above the skies. I can tell you that some “Bible-believing” medical students were aghast to discover that women and men have the same number of ribs. The idiocy of fundamentalism.
Arguments about creationism versus evolution are not worth wasting your time on. If people want to insist the Bible is a scientific manual, that the earth was created about 6000 years ago, and that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, good luck with that. Don’t bother me with it, and stop abusing children by teaching it.
What is much more important is something that I’ve already touched upon: “If this Christ-wisdom is the stardust of the universe, Christ-wisdom is in every one of us” and indeed in every living thing. We humans are creatures of this earth, no more and no less, along with “all things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts” and – note this – plants and fungi and bacteria and archaea – and viruses.
Unfortunately we’ve got this out of kilter, and I’m sorry to say that our reading of the Bible must take the blame. In Genesis 1:28 God reportedly tells humans to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”. The way we have interpreted this amounts to a criminal misrepresentation of the Hebrew. The message should be that we are to be responsible for, to nurture, to be good stewards of, to enable the earth and its creatures to flourish. The idea that the earth is ours to plunder as we like is utterly evil.
As a race, humans have a woeful record in this regard. We see around us the fruits of our unbridled greed and arrogance.
In the coming season of creation and harvest, stick that up your smoke and pipe it.