The question of the Psalmist (Ps. 8.4), the biblical hymn writer, looks back to the story of creation in Genesis. The question reflects what we see before us in the work of the sixth day. Creation, we have discovered, is an orderly affair that marks the distinction of one thing from another. It is poetic and philosophical and as such provides the ground for ‘science’ understood in its different forms over more than two millennia. Creation is about a relation to the Creator, to an intellectual principle upon which the being and knowing of things depends.
The radical nature of this way of thinking is often overlooked. To put it simply, it means that the world is, in principle, intelligible. Creation is sacred but not divine nor is the natural world something to be feared and frightening; in short, something evil. As Genesis 1 makes emphatically clear, it is good in its parts, indeed very good as a whole. That sense of good is intellectual but with ethical implications. It serves as an important counter to our culture of antagonism and fear.
Last Thursday was the first of the first Chapel services. It was also the last service in the Chapel under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It was only in the early afternoon of September 8 that we learned of her death at age 96. With this Thursday’s service, a week later, all the services have entered history as being now under the reign of King Charles III. I mention these things because the concept of sovereignty, whether diffused throughout the body politic in the manner of republicanism or concentrated in the person of the monarch, is so significant. Order is paramount. Political life in its truth is not simply about power for power’s sake; it is about truth and order, about dignity and respect, about duty and service. In the Christian understanding and as echoed in other religions, the souls of Kings and Queens, of those in authority, are in the hands of God. God is the ultimate author and creation in its varied forms is God’s poetry, God’s making. The Greek word for making or creating is poesis, poetry. God in the wonder of the creation story speaks the world into being.
The creativity that belongs to human self-consciousness and life derives from the Creator. We are really secondary creators. This week’s lesson chronicles the work of the fifth and sixth day of creation. It reminds us of where we fit into the picture, into the whole order of things. We are inescapably like everything else in the created order, one with all the other created and living creatures, the work of the fifth day. But is that all we are? Genesis counters such a reductive approach to the understanding of our humanity. The work of the sixth day in this poetic and philosophical ordering of reality speaks to the question about who we are; on the one hand, created with the beasts of the earth, but, on the other hand, ‘Adam, meaning humanity generically speaking (only later in Genesis will ‘Adam become the proper name for an individual), is made in God’s image. Wow.
As such we can only create out of that understanding. All we know about God in Genesis 1 is the idea of an ordering and intellectual principle. Only about our humanity is it said that we are made in God’s image. This marks something distinctive and good about our humanity as well as something challenging. The ‘Adam’, humanity in general, is given dominion over creation. Perhaps no biblical phrase has been more misunderstood in modern and contemporary times.
It does not and cannot mean our domination of the world, using the world as just stuff for us to manipulate to our own ends and purposes. Why not? Because it is God’s creation and our being given dominion can only mean from this Genesis story the demand that we respect and care for creation as God does in creating, sustaining, and caring for creation. Creation is not a one-off; it is a continual activity but one that we enter into because we are part of that good order. The wonder and the challenge are that we are meant to understand ourselves as part of creation and not above it.
What has fallen away into opposition and antagonism in modern thinking about the natural world and about our humanity is here united in a profound way. There are three contradictory approaches to how we think nature in our modern world: first, the idea of the world as just there for us to use as we see fit, thus we are separate from the world over which we presume to control and manipulate. I don’t have to remind you about where that has led. Secondly, and in reaction to that concept, there is the idea of our humanity as simply collapsed into the world, just another part of it but without any clarity about what is distinctive about our humanity; thus, this view can provide no real accountability for human actions; we are just acting ‘naturally’. Thirdly, there is the ‘postmodern poststructuralist’ view that language is the means through which power acts to construct reality. Our words are all about us, about those in power, and have no reference to reality. These three opposed views are in conflict with one another.
In Genesis, dominion does not mean dominance and destructive manipulation; we are part of the created order, but we are said to be made in God’s image which changes and challenges our relation to the world and to one another. God speaks the world into being as something for thought and respect, for honour and care. Our words and our thinking are not about the arrogance of power and domination. They are about understanding the world as God’s creation and recall us to our place within that world. Our words are meant to reflect the divine word. God’s word creates and our words can only create anything that is good in accord with that image of God in us.
Such ways of thinking offer a new and, I hope, refreshing counter to our uncertainties and our fears, our conflicts, and divisions. We are recalled to the idea of who we are in God’s sight and given another way to think about our world and ourselves. Such is the great gift of the Genesis account. It challenges our thinking.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK TeacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy