In there beginning there was…
“Tohu wa bohu” is the Hebrew phrase, which roughly translated means “formless and empty” (or so my father tells me). The most interesting portion of the Biblical introduction to my mind has always been “and darkness was over the face of the deep,” which I imagine to describe the primeval universe as one vast, dark ocean, inhabited by currents both ancient and terrible. An infinite womb containing the seeds of all creation, the ageless conscious of an enigmatic God.
But poetry aside, what does the Genesis 1-3 creation account really tell us about the beginnings of reality?
This is a question that few Christians (the reasonable ones at least) truly want to answer. All of us have had various arguments in the back of church busses or late at night at some youth conference, arguments involving barely-understood geology, or cosmology, or (more recently) biology.
And very few of us have come to real conclusions.
I say this because I’ve recently become aware of a startling fact, one that I think merits discussion. That fact is that we, as Christians, no longer preach about our own creation story.
My grandparents are literalists. They believe in a six-day creation, and a global flood, and a physical Garden of Eden. To them (to borrow an analogy from the dubious Rob Bell) the Genesis account is a series of bricks stacked atop each other in a teetering structure of interlocking doctrine. The removal of a single brick would be a death-sentence to their entire perspective, and therefore no point can be conceded.
My father sometimes teaches about Old Testament at an institution of higher learning. He is not a literalist. He has to be careful what he says around my grandparents.
The fact is, we can no longer afford to treat Genesis as a literal narrative of the beginning of the universe (and one has to wonder why we ever have). It doesn’t fit with the science, it doesn’t fit with the empirical data, and it’s not even internally coherent. Most sources agree that Genesis 1-2:3 constitute one cosmogony while 2:4 onward is an entirely different creation narrative. This is not (for those who rush to conclusions) reason to reject the Genesis accounts, but simply an undiplomatic analysis of the facts.
An undiplomatic analysis that would have my grandmother challenging me to a ‘serious conversation’ if she knew what I was writing.
As someone who dabbles in writing fiction, and has even produced the occasional cosmogony, I have always found a strictly literal interpretation problematic. The ancient post-Exodus Hebrews were a stone/bronze age society without the understanding or jargon to understand a literal narrative of the beginnings of reality. Why would God inflict such a meaningless narrative upon them? Why should we expect a narrative of significance in that context to be directly applicable to our modern world-view?
The reason is, of course, the Fall. Our theology can survive a reinterpretation of the creation account as long as the important bit (God as complete and only creator) survives, but it is hard to imagine a Christian tradition in which the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is never desecrated. Without the Fall there is no Original Sin, no explanation for the evils of the world, and no need for universal redemption.
The Fall necessitates Jesus upon the cross. Without it, the theological sweater quickly unravels.
I have a friend who is a strict Young Earth creationist. I get the impression that he doesn’t necessarily want to be a YEC, but feels that any admission of theological flexibility is the first step down the wide road to cardigans, pop music, and agnosticism. He’s an incredibly smart individual whose witness is compromised by his insistence on living his intellectual life in the diminishing shadows beyond the sphere of accepted empirical knowledge.
The earth is not 20,000 years old. Of course it could be, but such an argument necessitates a God who is actively trying to deceive humanity. It also seems (at least according to the latest data from the Human Genome Project) that humanity also can’t be traced back to a single male-female pair, although there is analysis still to be done.
As I said, Christians don’t like talking about Genesis 1-3 in the practical sense. Heck, I don’t even like talking about it. It opens the door to questions challenging the last hundred years of church doctrine. It opens the door to challenging questions about faith itself.
If you are reading this and have something to add to the conversation, feel free to do so. Whether it be a link, a comment, or simply an anecdote, I would appreciate the guidance.