“God is the beginning and end of all things, and especially of rational creatures,” Thomas Aquinas says at the beginning of his Summa Theologiae. It calmly and clearly states a philosophical understanding of the concept of God that belongs in one way or another to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Implied in the statement is the understanding that God is clearly not one of those things which God creates. What kind of thing is God? He is nothing, no kind of thing at all but is distinct from all things as their source and end; in short as Creator, the principle of the being and knowing of all reality.
Junior Chapel on Monday considered the first Chapter of Genesis, touching upon the first day and then leap-frogging ahead to the fourth and fifth days. The simple but profound point is that creation is an orderly affair that involves distinguishing one thing from another: light from darkness, heaven and earth, earth and sea, creatures of the air and creatures of the land and the sea. “God saw that it was good” is the recurring refrain throughout the entire chapter. It is a powerful statement that speaks to our contemporary anxieties and fears about the natural world as if it were something evil or threatening. At issue for us is about learning how to honour and respect nature or creation. This stands in contrast to both ancient and modern fears that chaos might just be stronger and greater than order. Creation is something intellectual. As the 12th century Islamic theologian, Al Ghazali, notes, eight of the ninety-nine beautiful names of God, Allah, are all about God as Creator. The Quran echoes Genesis and John: “Originator (Badi’) of the heavens and earth. When He decrees a thing, He says only ‘Be!’ and it is” (Qur’an 2:117).
The biblical account is not primarily descriptive; it is a poetic explanation, a way of thinking about the world and, ultimately, about our place in it. We are in this story. Thus, the Thursday and Friday Chapels looked at the work of the sixth day and about the seventh day. Where do we as human beings fit into this orderly picture of a world spoken and called into being by an intellectual principle, God as Word? We are the work of the sixth day. Whatever we mean by day, and there are many different ways of marking time in various cultures such as the four day ‘market week’ in the Nigerian Igbo culture, it functions as an ordering principle and pattern in a rhythmic, liturgical and mnemonic way. Here it belongs to the unfolding or process of a world that exists for thought in its order and pattern; an order in which we ultimately find our humanity. We are the work of the sixth day.
Hexameron, literally six days, is also the term for a whole tradition of reflection on the six days of creation. Are we, as the work of the sixth day, merely an afterthought, a left-over or an add-on in the grand pageant of creation? What is our place in the order? What is the purpose of our humanity? The word, Adam, is used first not as a personal name but as a collective term for our humanity. We are ‘the Adam’ (‘adham), humans, which is a word-play on the ground (‘adhamah), thus connecting us to absolutely everything else in creation, from turtles to angels, we might say. But our humanity is uniquely said to be made “in the image of God,” and is tasked with “having dominion” over every living thing and is said to be created “male and female.”
The idea of dominion here is commonly misunderstood. It does not mean the world exists for us to do with it whatever we wish. That is a very modern concept and one which has had disastrous results of which we are only too aware. Dominion belongs to our being made in the image of God, the Lord, Dominus, in the Latin. What the creation story shows us is the care of God in calling the world into being and sustaining it in its existence. We are being called to do the same: to have respect and care for the creation of which we are a part. Most importantly, there is the sense of our connection to God and through God to the whole of creation. We have a special relation to God as rational creatures and through that relation to nature itself. The challenge in our time is to reclaim our true relation to the world, to God, and thus to ourselves. In short, the world does not exist for us but for God.
This is the radical meaning of the sabbath. It is about God resting from his labours, a lovely anthropomorphic reference (as if God’s labours were like that of humans - they aren’t!). God’s resting is his taking contemplative delight in what he has called into being. As the reflection of his glory, the created order is a place of contemplative delight for us as well, a way of being mindful of the world as for God and in God and as created by God for delight and wonder. “The invisible things of God,” the Apostle Paul will say, “are made known through the visible things of creation.” This is a completely different attitude and outlook, more meditative and thoughtful than our manipulation, exploitation, and technocratic domination of nature. The creation of our humanity on the sixth day speaks to the dignity of our humanity both in the basic division of the sexes and as being made in God’s own image.
What can that mean? All that we know of God at this point in Genesis is about an ordering principle which calls everything into being. Thus, we are to understand ourselves as made in that image. This complements the idea of humans as rational beings in Greek philosophy. We are at once connected to everything in the created order and to God, the beginning and end of all things, especially in his delight and wonder at what has been made. It means to find the truth and dignity of our humanity as within the structure of creation in its essential goodness. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” To reclaim such a way of thinking is to embark upon the path of wisdom as rational and spiritual creatures.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy