Sermon preached at Evensong, Hertford College, Oxford.
In the beginning, in the darkness God said, “Let there be light”, and there was. And God spoke some more and thus made land and sea and stars; and creatures that swim and those that fly, and even those that crawl and walk. And finally on the sixth day, God mades human beings: male and female, God created them. Thus says the Book of Genesis, the first chapter.
Or: In the beginning, God made the earth and the sky; and on that same day, God made a man, and a garden to put him in and animals to keep him company. And then when God discovers that animals won’t do the trick, God made a woman: flesh of the man’s flesh, bone of his bones. Thus says—the slightly creepy and sexist— Book of Genesis, the second chapter.
Or: In the beginning, there was a monstrous sea of chaos—or a dragon, or a beast called Leviathan, or one named Rahab—and God subdued it to bring about peace. This tradition is hinted at in tonight’s psalm, which has God stilling the roaring of the seas, and also occurs more prominently in other psalms, in the prophecies of Isaiah, and in the Book of Job. Even in Genesis 1, God’s Spirit hovers over the formless watery void, from which the order of creation emerges.
People like creation myths. As far as we know, every culture has them, with the possible exception of the Pirahã people in the Amazon. But they also seem to have no sense of history beyond living memory, no social hierarchy, and no words for numbers, so who knows what’s going on there.
The Pirahã aside, psychologists think that our affinity for creation myths and for religion more generally is a product for our evolved tendency to think in social and instrumental terms. Children intuitively assume that natural objects like rocks and waterfalls have some kind of function, just like artefacts do. Rocks are pointy so that dinosaurs can scratch their backs, waterfalls exist so that animals can take showers, that sort of thing. They gradually grow out eventually, but some residue remains into adulthood. Even scientists slip into functional language, like when we talk about how nature selects for eyes, as if she had a choice in the matter. Our metaphors are inescapably functional and, by extension, social and personal.
Because we have rich mental and emotional lives—thought and feelings, desires and dislikes—we assume that other things do too, including our pets, our computers, and as in the evolutionary case, Nature. Whether we meant to or not, we have a tendency to anthropomorphise things, including God.
This is bad news for theologians.
Not because psychological theories about religion somehow undermine theological claims. But because if we’re right, then theologians are fighting an uphill battle against a view of God that they consider to be deeply mistaken.
People intuitively believe that God is very much like them, but better and bigger and more powerful. Theologians, on the other hand, have always insisted that God is absolutely nothing like any created thing: in fact, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians have agreed for centuries that the God who creates must be wholly other from the created. Even the idea that God is “better and bigger and more powerful” than creatures is idolatrous, because God and creatures cannot be comparable in that way.
When we say that God created the world, we are not saying that God is the first in a chain of causes, because that would be to list God among other things. Nor are we saying that God is an “Intelligent Designer” as if God were an extremely clever and powerful nerd. Rather, the Christian doctrine of creation is simply the claim that the world is utterly dependent on and indebted to God, who freely gives it its being. It is therefore about the self-sufficiency and otherness of God, and not really about how and when the world began. The doctrine of creation is a theological assertion, not a scientific theory.
I guess it goes without saying that I disapprove of literal readings of biblical creation myths. There is also plenty of evidence now that these myths were never really intended to describe how the world began at all, but rather to contrast the Hebrew God from the deities of neighbouring civilisations. Unlike the Babylonian Marduk or the Canaanite Baal, Yahweh did not have to struggle with the forces of chaos to bring about order: instead, God speaks, and things leap into being.
This interpretive principle—that biblical texts mean primarily to say something about God and not history—also helps us to make sense of the miracle narratives in Luke’s gospel. Just as the creation myths are not about what happened at the beginning of the physical universe, the miracle narratives are not about what happened in the Middle East two thousand years ago. This is not to say that they are necessarily fictional—maybe they are; maybe they aren’t—but the question of historicity or facticity is more or less beside the point.
At last, then, we come to the gospel reading:
In the first story, Jesus is rudely awakened to calm the treacherous waves. In the second, he casts evil spirits out of a naked man, and into a herd of suicidal swine.
As the putters together of the lectionary realize, Luke means to call up memories of the creation narratives in Genesis. Like God, Jesus too subdues the stormy waters, and thus takes the side of the powerless against impersonal brutality. Furthermore, in the next story, the references to “the abyss” and the lake to which the evil forces are banished also echo these creation myths; and the naming of the demons as “Legion” implies a critique of Roman military might.
Taking both these stories together, we also get a contrast to the story of Jonah, in which a xenophobic prophet is annoyed at God’s tendency to transgress ethnic and religious boundaries out of love. Jesus, like Jonah is asleep in the storm, and wakes up to still it. But unlike Jonah, Jesus willingly enters into foreign territory—the sort of place that has unkosher beasts hanging about—and while he is there, he makes all the difference in the world to a despised and marginalised man.
Thus, in two short stories, Luke associates Jesus closely with God; subverts physical and political power; and reminds us of the boundless love of God.
As ever, things—texts—are not what they seem at first.
The world of ideas is full of creation myths that are not about the beginning of things; and miracle narratives that are not about prestidigitating prophets. There is poetry, and not just propositions; there are stories, and not just soundbites.
And so it is with the Christian faith, and its sacred text.
The Bible speaks, frankly, about unbelievable things, but they are not unbelievable because science or historical scholarship say that they are.
The absurdity of the Christian faith runs deeper. Its claims are about an incomprehensible God who makes the world for no reason out of love, and—even more incomprehensibly still—dies in the world and at the hands of the world for much the same reason.
What to make of all of this?
But those of us who want to make something out of this return to these stories and songs, again and again. We are never really done with them. And, thank God, they are never done with us.