What would it have been like to be present at the moment of creation? Could our five senses have comprehended the event? Would it have been beautiful, majestic, and grand like gazing upon creation from atop a mountain? Would it have been small, hidden, and quiet like the conception of a child in its mother’s womb? The answers to these questions are illusive because none of us were present at the moment of creation. In fact, it would have been physically impossible for any of us to be present at this event. So how do we explore our genesis? The next generation of professional telescopes hope to glimpse the measurable aspects of these events with us safely separated from their ferocity by distance and time. However, this will only explore one aspect of our beginnings, leaving hidden the non-material reality of creation. Nevertheless, this exploration will ask us once again, “Where did we come from?”
These thoughts came to me while reading C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms. In one section, Lewis explores how mythology approaches creation in contrast to philosophy and Judeo-Christianity. Lewis asserts that mythology presents creation on a superficial level, similar to enjoying a theatrical play based solely on the sequence of events from the time you enter the theatre to when the curtain falls. Though these stories may be enjoyable, we instinctively know that there is something missing when reading creation stories at this level. Any creation story worth reading will do more than make us wait for the story to end, but should leave us wondering, “Where does our story begin?”
Lewis asserts that philosophy and Judeo-Christianity ask fundamentally different questions than does mythology when approaching the subject of creation. Using the metaphor of theatre once again, philosophy and theology prefer to ask questions about the origin of a thing, wanting to know first how the play originates or comes into being? This approach implies questions that would pre-date the play’s actual performance such as, Who was the author? Who was the director? How was the staging put together? Are there other people behind the curtain we can’t see that are essential to the play? Was there a previous text that was edited for this performance? and Do the events carry symbolic significance beyond what the performance of the play indicates? Lewis explains that when we enjoy a play, most people seldom ask these questions, preferring the simple enjoyment of a performance from beginning to end. However, these questions are important if we want to go beyond a superficial understanding of a play and get to the essence of the message being communicated through the performance. When applying this metaphor to Biblical texts, we can see that asking about the origins of a creation story makes the reader explore the essence of creation that is foundational to the story’s existence. It also points to an important interpretive key when reading Biblical accounts of creation: Should these stories be read as a sequence of what did happen at the moment of creation or should they be read as expressions of what we have come know about the essence of creation and its Creator, straining to communicate these eternal truths through the limits of human language and experience? [This summary of C.S. Lewis was taken from Reflections on the Psalms. (Harcourt, Brace and Company: New York) p. 79]
The cynic may consider this whole exercise pointless given our inability to get firsthand knowledge that “a moment of creation” ever happened. I might even be presented with the old runaround of, “If a tree falls in the woods, but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Similar to how the laws of physics are not contingent upon people being present for them to operate (the tree falling does make a sound), so, too, can we affirm that our very existence points to the fact that creation happened, the metaphorical “tree of our genesis” has fallen and the “sound waves” from that event continue to resonate in creation to this day. Yet, we still look for the “tree,” trying to answer the question that gives the cynic’s protest its validity: How did creation happen? Or, perhaps, we should refine our question based on C.S. Lewis’ reflections and ask: How does creation happen?
What do we discover when we apply this reflection to the book of Genesis, specifically the first two creation stories? If we reduce our interpretation of Genesis to the events of the story, we can quickly get hung up on the inconsistencies between the text’s presentation of creation and what we know scientifically of the created world. However, if we ask how the story of Genesis originated or came to be, we would then need to compare it to other creation stories of its time. Sometimes, people get nervous with this approach, fearing that it will reduce the Bible to merely one text among many that contain “opinions” about God (unfortunately, some have tried to do this very thing). However, authentic historical exploration of the text is meant to ask questions about its genre, the audience who will hear it, other ancient texts that may have contributed to (or are in opposition of) the Bible, the cultural context of the people of the time, and many other aspects ranging from the original languages that were spoke to the nature of the people’s worship. One of the common historical comparisons is to look at Genesis 1-3:24 in contrast to a series of ancient scrolls called the Enuma Elish. When comparing these texts, we find some clear differences that point to two, fundamentally different concepts of creation. One of the clearest distinctions is that Genesis points to a disposition of peace between God and creation in that God creates through a Word Act (Word Act capitalized to emphasize the presence of Jesus with the Father and Spirit when creation occurred) in contrast to the Enuma Elish that presents a polytheism of jealous gods being at war with one another, bringing about creation through violence (this being a trend very common to many mythologies). This distinction brings us to a fundamental truth of how creation happens according to Genesis: Creation is accomplished through love from a God who is not at war with us or Himself. [This reflection was drawn from The Collegeville Bible Commentary: Old Testament. (The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota 1986) p.38]
Continuing this distinction, if we read Genesis 1:14-16 on a superficial level, we can get stuck on the visual of the sun and the moon traveling around the earth, contrary to our current understanding of the Solar System. If we ask, instead, how this “day of creation” originated and what it is trying to communicate, we find that the sun and moon are called “lights” to clarify that Judeo-Christian belief sees them as part of the material world in contrast to the pagan religions of the time that worshiped both sun and moon as gods. Much more can be explored in this “comparative religions” approach to the texts (such as the Christian affirmation of free will and the pagan disposition toward predestination), but, for the sake of time, we will simply point out that asking how the stories of Genesis originate can reveal to us truths of who God is, how God relates to us, and how we are to relate to God and the world. [This reflection is taken form the footnotes of Genesis 1:16 found in The Jerusalem Bible. (Doubleday: New York 1966)]
When we explore the origins of these stories, it can feel like you are part of an exciting mystery, pealing layer after layer of the “onion” of truth. When I first bought my copy of The Catholic Study Bible back in college, I, unfortunately, skipped the background section, eagerly wanting to get into the text. Thinking the introductions were boring, I did myself a true disservice by not understanding the context of the stories I was reading. Instead, I should have struggled to learn the different sources of Genesis we call the Yahwist (J), the Elohist (E), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly Source (P). I would have learned that the first creation narrative in Genesis 1-2:3 (a “P” source) is actually “younger” than the second creation narrative in Genesis 2:4-3:24 (a “J” source). Therefore, Genesis 1-2:3 is composed in light of Genesis 2:4-3:24, emphasizing in the “first creation story” what can get lost in the “second creation story”: That the human person is created in God’s image and likeness, we are fundamentally good, despite our sinfulness, and live in a fundamentally good creation which, despite us being bound to labor and toil upon after the fall, is to be approached from a standpoint of stewardship and not exploitation. Further, the poetic symmetry in Genesis 1-2:3 in which day one corresponds to day four, day two corresponds with day five, day three corresponds to day six (look it up to see what I mean), displays a literary structure that is more poetic and hymn-like, pointing to the “end” of creation as the “eternal day” of the Sabbath. [These reflections were drawn from The Catholic Study Bible: New American Bible. (Oxford University Press: New York 1990) RG47 – RG61]
This final reflection on how Genesis points creation to the Sabbath can tease out another layer of exploration: Is the creation story about history or is it a text about liturgy? This question of creation and worship was a central theme to a collection of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s homilies (back when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) that appears in the work, ‘In the Beginning…’ A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.
The creation accounts of all civilizations point to the fact that the universe exists for worship and for the glorification of God. This cultural unity with respect to the deepest human questions is something very precious. In my conversations with African and Asian bishops, particularly at episcopal synods, it becomes clear to me time and time again, often in striking ways, how there is in the great traditions of the peoples a oneness on the deepest level with biblical faith. In these traditions there is preserved a primordial knowledge, which serves as a guidepost and which links the great cultures, and that an increasing scientific know-how is preventing us from being aware of the fact of creation. [‘In the Beginning…’ A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan 1990) p.28]
Having gone through this brief (and insufficient) explanation of Genesis, ending with Pope Emeritus Benedict’s thoughts on a creeping “scientific know-how” that is preventing us from being aware of the fact of creation, let us return to C.S. Lewis’ play. Can we not see that trying to impose a superficial understanding of creation upon the book Genesis is missing the central point the text is trying to communicate? Can we not see that to understand these texts properly, they need to be read in light of how creation originates instead of fixating on the when the “drama” begins and ends on the stage of our imagination? Do we not hear a call to all of creation to worship, in love, the God who loved us into existence? And do we not see, in this Inspired text from Genesis, the very creative and fecund nature of God, allowing us the sacred privilege to contemplate these divine mysteries and participate in God’s creation? Is Genesis in opposition to science? Read superficially, yes, but not if you explore how this text came to be and the theology behind why it is considered an Inspired text. Put another way, Genesis is a work of theology, not a work of science.
Will we ever find a way to experience the moment of creation? Unless it be given by God’s grace, my guess is no. However, let us walk together in charity, trying to understand why our world was created so that we may someday experience, God willing, the end our beginnings point us toward: the Kingdom of God.