25 May 2008

On Transcendence: The Creation of the World (2 of 6)

Nearly every civilization has relied on some form of creation myth to explain its system of morality and to justify its religious system. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this creation myth has played a part in ritual as well as scripture for millennia. The most renowned book of scripture in the tradition begins with accounts of creation which set the stage for the remainder of the tradition. The accounts of creation should be understood as coming from two sources as recognized in biblical sources as the “Yahwist” author and the “Priestly” author. Because of the importance attached to these accounts, one might wonder how a creation story such as that pieced together in Genesis could change how we relate to the world around us. This question would soon lead to transcendent qualities that creation myths narrate themselves.

We read in Genesis 1 that “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1, KJV; all Biblical references are to the KJV unless otherwise noted). Similarly, Genesis 2:4 states that “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” Both of these verses speak of beginnings, but to take this theme of beginnings as our starting point would ignore the presuppositions that precede that theme. Although both creation accounts commence with “beginning statements,” they both suppose existence prior to this state of creation described during the remainder of the stories. The phrase “In the beginning” begs the question ‘the beginning of what?’ leading our thoughts to consider the purpose of the creation story. Neither attempts to scientifically or philosophically account for a creation ex nihilo, rather, they recount the beginning of humankind. These “beginning statements” illustrate that the story picks up in the middle of things and recounts the founding events, the transcending creation of life that happens in every person’s life at some point (or points) in time. The “deep” mentioned in Genesis 1 already existed. Similarly the Yahwist’s account of creation makes no attempt to explain the origin of matter; rather, it tells “the generations of the heavens and of the earth” (2:4). This beginning involves the introduction of certain differences between Creator and creature/creation. Such differences can illustrate some of the transcending qualities of creation. When united with the account of the “fall” of Adam and Eve these differences also show human nature and potential.

The seventy-fourth Psalm, recognized as one of the earliest documents discussing creation, describes the creative act as “working salvation” (Psalm 74:12-17). This act of salvation seems to also allude to a previous existence from which humankind can be saved through the conditions initiated by this creation. The salvation referred to in Psalms could also allude to the battle against chaos often represented in ancient traditions through some reenactment of the battle at the outset of each new year. The account of creation and the additions of the “fall” seem to indicate that this redemption or salvation from chaos remains uncertain due to the separation inherent between Creator and creation.

Inherent in this theme of battle and conflict is the relationship between the profane and the sacred. The conflicting forces in the battle and conflict seem to represent these polar opposites. Thus, a dual nature is associated with life, the inner self juxtaposed with the natural self. In such a dual state, the reflective person will find conflict that can only be resolved through the type of salvation prototype set forth in the Psalm. Without such an act to work our “salvation” from the inherent conflict in our creation, the life created will never reflect the potential within it.

Creation myths seem to set forth the distinction of sacred and profane. Although these topics may be discussed and compared in depth, for the purpose of examining transcendence we may be justified in leaving a more extensive discussion of their natures to a later time. For the present, we note that the sacred experienced as sacred gives cause for reflection and worship. Although a precise definition may elude the reflective thinker, sacredness might be described as experience that goes beyond the temporal, physical nature of living common around us (the profane). Thus, when we experience the sacred, we cannot suggest that we cause it. Such experiences seem to give themselves to our perception. We cannot create sacred experiences. Attempts to do so inherently are profane as we attempt to force our temporality and momentary desires onto the sacred, which has no permanent connection to such things.

Despite this lack of permanent connection, many traditions engage the sacred through establishing sacred space. Such a space would feel exempt from time and from the profane. By setting up sacred spaces, communities distance themselves from the mundane, worldly life that typically engages them. They set boundaries to temporal existence. The lack of permanent connection between sacred and profane might suggest that crossing such boundaries would be impossible; however, when the communities enter their sacred space, they bring with them their temporal self. This suggests that the experience with the sacred (whatever is so designated) becomes a marking, transcending experience. In Creation stories, the sacred and profane are set up as different places entirely: the biblical Eden versus the fallen world correlates with the sacred opposed to the profane.

Memory corroborates this designation of transcendent experience as experience which crosses the bounds of the profane and enters the sacred, connecting the two. Both private and collective memories seem to be informed and shaped by the experiences that seem to transcend the profane and delve into the profound depths of sacred existence. Private memories are marked, shaped by our perception and also by what we choose to remember. Since memory is such a rich topic for discussion, I will only say that private memory seems reciprocally defined by private forgetting. Whenever we realize that we have forgotten something we are, in reality, remembering our forgetting and plumbing the depths of our memory to prevent such forgetting. As we experience sacred events, such as those resembling Creation, we can either remember or forget. In either instance, the event, be it private or collective, seems embedded in memory, leaving the constant (or, more commonly, the intermittent) remembering or forgetting to the one having the experience of the sacred giving itself.

The Creator, titled “Elohim” by the Priestly author and “Yahweh” by the Yahwist author carries out the creative acts as recorded in the first chapters of Genesis. Each act represents a degree of separation. Before recounting the works of each “day,” I emphasize that to create inherently is to separate. To create requires a Creator distinct from creation. Thus, the myth of creation begins with this presupposition. The presupposition informs all subsequent events. By recognizing the assumption, we can acknowledge that by separating Creator from creation, we establish a theme for the remainder of the creative events. The Creation proceeds from this supposition with the separation of heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1). The next action (as recorded in Genesis) differentiates light and darkness (1:3), separating the two. The Priestly author states that “God divided the light from the darkness.” The succeeding event involves the difference and separation of waters; “God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament” (1:7). And so proceeded the creation with separation of land and waters (1:9-10), of each “kind” of plant life from the other kinds (1: 11-12), of the lights governing day and night in their several degrees (1: 14-19), and of all animal life “after their kind” (1:20-25). Finally, God separated man from all other creation and formed him “in his own image” (1:27) and out “of the dust of the ground” (2:7).

The beginning referred to in these accounts does not attempt to pinpoint the absolute beginning of all things; instead, these creation myths recount a primordial beginning prior to the biblical narrative that treats of a specific group of people. The events of the creation myths (by myth I mean a story of beginning rather than a fictional fable) as well as of all events from Genesis 1-11 seem to point toward the beginning of the history of the Hebrew people—toward the story of Abraham. Because of the nature of this beginning, the creation story intends to set the stage for a history, rather than to begin the history. Setting the stage with a creation performed by God (Yahweh) makes the historic events of Abraham’s life and Israel’s subsequent history fit together with the conception that the people had of God. The events depicted in the primordial history (Gen. 1-11) seem to lead to a beginning in time, whereas these same events appear almost independent of time. This independence creates problems for those who would calculate geological or anthropological history according to the Bible because the events set the stage for the beginning of the “covenant” people as introduced in the story of Yahweh’s covenant with Abram (Abraham—Gen. 12-24). The problem disappears when the events are considered in this context of primordial history. The events set the stage for the beginning, not of time or of the sacred, but of a people.

Following the observation that the Creation story refers to a beginning, but not to any version of ultimate beginnings (could such a beginning be imagined by either the religious or the scientific person?), we note that “the Spirit [חור] of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen. 1: 2). The Hebrew word for Spirit is used to signify the English equivalent of spirit, breath, and wind. Thus, the account of creation leads us to the breath of life (or the breath of God), which later enters Adam and Eve (the same word is used in both instances). Because we later read that God created Adam and Eve in His own image and likeness, we receive from this account both a story of prehistory and an introduction of the characters in our narrative of life. The narrator portrays God as having life, breath (spirit), and personality. The earth is formed from its previous formless state (again suggesting that the story is not intended to answer the question of when the beginning was and what was prior to the beginning) in Gen. 1: 2 and this formation is succeeded by the declaration “Let there be light” (Gen. 1: 3).

When the narrative proceeds to recount the divine declarations constituting the creative acts, the absence of the narrator in the story seems significant. The reader, in evaluating the source of this creation myth, notices that the narrator does not purport to have been present in person as the events unfolded; nevertheless, the myth gives itself to us in narrative form. By using this narrative format, the requirement of the reader to establish some relationship with the text itself (and by extension with its author as well) seems to lead the reader to the issue of faith. In order to take the text seriously, which the text itself requires (otherwise the purpose of the Bible would be merely to add to a body of mythico-religious writings, not to separate itself from the body and establish a new identity), it is necessary that the reader have received some background knowledge or belief. This belief may come through experience with the sacred or through trust in one who has introduced the reader to the sacred; however it comes, the relationship with the text informs the reading, just as the reading informs the developing relationship with scripture.

The narrative proceeds with God’s word constituting the creative power and act. By declaring “let there be light” (Gen. 1: 3), God initiates the process of creation. Significant to the Judeo-Christian tradition is the symbolism of light. By beginning the creation drama with its creation, the stage is set for all else to be seen. Since light sets off all non-lighted things as ‘dark,’ the initial act of creation separates light and darkness and also implicitly establishes opposites as the basis of creation and life. This theme of opposition brings meaning to individual lives which may experience intermittent times of difficulty and ease, of pleasure and pain, of joy and sorrow. Since the narrator presents a narrative based on this theme and the separation inherent in it, the trusting reader is led to look forward to unification and to the triumph of the Creator. Thus, the theme of salvation enters shortly after the creative act begins on the first day. Likewise, the threads of the narrative weave the reader into the middle of the primordial history with the reader’s fate intertwined with that of all creation. In the obedience of the elements to the word of the Creator, the concept of obedience implicitly attaches to all of creation.

The second day involved similar processes, but initiates a new theme. During this period, God separated the waters above (called the Heavens) from the waters below that covered the Earth. Thus, the dual nature of existence opposing Heaven and Earth continued the theme of separation and opposition. In like manner, creation (and with it the fundamental aspects of life) continued in obedience to God. Unique to this event, however, is that the dual nature of existence, yet the subjection of this existence to God, seems to suggest that one is subordinate to the other. Thus order becomes a founding principle of life and existence. Similarly, God giving the waters above a name, “Heaven,” (Gen. 1: 8) indicates the importance of heaven, associating it with the other named things present to this point in the creation drama: God, heaven, earth, day, night, waters, spirit, darkness, and light. Interestingly, these named things all are associated with either heaven or earth. Earth experiences day and night as a result of God’s action of creating light and of its counterpart through the concept of opposition, darkness. Some of the waters were separated to form the heaven. Thus with earth, we associate day and night, light and darkness. The waters are separated, some remaining part of the earthly things and some becoming the foundation for heaven. The presence of water, spirit, and God in both heaven and earth suggests a connection between the two, despite the separation inherent in the creative act.

In like manner, the division of heaven and earth resembles the spiritual and the physical realms of existence. Since the waters above that form heaven evidently are meant to refer to the clouds, the gaseous, substance of all that is of the heaven differs from the solidity of the physical that remains on the earth. Likewise, life turns on the recognition of things that are not as readily observable. By including the separation between heaven and earth, the author of the creation drama (and the Creator, Himself) draws attentive readers into the story, directing them to the resolution of the tension inherent in such a separation. The theme of duality carries into the remainder of the story, yet by leaving God present in the creation as connecting heaven and earth, the drama suggests that the recognition of the unobservable hinges on the recognition of God that a careful and faithful examination of the earth’s primordial history reveals.

Following the separation of heaven and earth, the drama turns to the further separation of the earth into dry land and seas (Gen. 1: 10). In paralleling the separation of heaven and earth, the narrator turns the reader’s attention again to duality. The elements obey the command of the Creator as before, yet in this instance, the difference between the nature of the land and the seas seems more obvious and compelling. God divides them so that the desirable qualities of each can be enjoyed due to their uniqueness. Similarly, the duality points the careful reader ahead to the creation of humankind from the earth (man, “אדם” [adam] from earth “אדמה” [adamah]). The addition of the breath (or spirit) of life brings the man formed from the earth to life. In this manner, the creation drama presents a trajectory towards the ultimate creation which finds its life in both physical and spiritual. God is portrayed as the Overseer of both elements of creation, bringing the duality in harmony and resolving the tension remaining between the two varieties of life that might seem in conflict.

The following episode in creation involves the giving of life by God to the vegetation of the earth (Gen. 1: 11-12), to animal life (Gen. 1: 24-25), and ultimately to humankind (Gen. 1: 26). Beginning with vegetation, the general life-giving theme of this period of creative activity, the vivid color imagery adds to the feel of the creation drama. The colors associated with light, dark, earth, and seas generally seem to be black and white, with shades of grey or brown mixed in. With the creation of vegetative life, a vibrant green is added. Since green is generally symbolic of fertility and reproduction, the color adds a theme to the creative act: namely that creation involves the sharing of that which is sacred with others. This theme seems to be embodied in an idea of consecration that has been a common element in many religious communities from antiquity through the Christian communities of the New Testament and beyond. That the notion of consecration enters in the life-giving of Creation suggests that the principle extends beyond any and all instances of attempted implementation of it.

Likewise the addition of animal life contributes to the theme of consecration and life-giving. The creation of animals with variations and differences brings into relief the vast spectrum of creation, including many instances of giving and ordering. God’s commands are obeyed, bringing added order and adding to the level of existence and enjoyment in the creations. The variations reflect the personality of the Creator, offering a glimpse of His eternal vision and care.

Between these two life-giving aspects of the creation, God set in order the lights of the heavens. He gave dominion to one to rule day, to others to be present and rule the night (Gen. 1: 14-19). This idea of dominion later arises again with God’s giving the man and woman, Adam and Eve, dominion over the remainder of creation (Gen. 1: 28). In such an act, God seems to establish a hierarchy. But in doing so, God does not designate any position within creation as inherently superior to another. This ordering of things seems merely to indicate that all creation is subject to something else. The man and woman, despite their dominion, are subject to their Creator. In setting up such a system, God teaches that a seemingly hierarchical system may, instead, allow for recognition of something superior, something sacred. This recognition, and the resultant opportunity to submit to that sacred thing, highlights the principle of sacrifice. The creation is not compelled to act by those to whom dominion is given; rather those with dominion are more responsible to sacrifice all to the Creator. Thus, all creations have meaning in their lives, no matter where they may fit into a perceived hierarchical structure.

At the conclusion of these creative acts, God saw that all that He had created was good (Gen. 1: 31). This implicitly suggests that it was not evil. The opposition of good and evil involved in calling creation good allows the reader to reflect on the meaning of the word good. In the Hebrew language, the word for good, תוב or “tov” initially meant fulfilling the purpose for which one was created. By using this word to describe all that God had created, the narrator brings the reader, also one of God’s creations, into the description of being tov, being good or of at least being capable of being so described. The creation portrays all created things subjecting themselves to the commands of the Creator. The narrative technique employed allows this realization to become apparent because God is not portrayed as molding and shaping all of His creations; instead, God commands and the command comes to pass.

Having presented a brief understanding of the creation drama, the themes of separation and salvation become evident. Their transcendent qualities might require more explanation. The Hebrew language used to connect these primordial events uses the vav-connective to join the stories into one account of primordial history. This connective also appears in dramatic presentations, suggesting that the creation story could be presented as a drama rather than as a special case form of narrative. This may seem trivial, but when acting a part becomes intertwined with the theme of origin, one can find oneself inseparably connected with the events depicted in this drama. One reading the account might actually find that the Creation drama includes a role for the reader. Such connection overcomes the separation so strongly emphasized in the story itself. One can see the world very differently when the founding events seem to portray us speaking with God face to face as though we were Adam or Eve. Similarly we find meaning in the salvation that God’s creative acts afford us from the impending and looming chaos around us. Surely these aspects of the Creation drama involve a transcendence that adds meaning to our lives.

In like fashion, we each have our own beginning. The founding events of our life form the connection between us and the part of Adam or Eve that we play as we relive the Creation. None of us find ourselves present at the beginning of our lives (can anyone seriously claim to remember their birth?) just as the Creation myths recount events for which no eyewitness exists other than God. Because of such similarities, we find that founding events or primordial histories fit very well with our nature. Thus, the coincidence that creation stories abound in cultural traditions becomes logical in establishing a foundation for each tradition through recounted primordial events that explain one’s relationship with the world and with its Creator, identifying principles upon which each individual can establish this relationship and strengthen it. Likewise, the transcendent themes carry over beyond times of beginning, allowing for continual reinterpretation of the founding events informing our choices and behaviors. Thus the cycle of being informed and changed as a result of our beginning and our reflection thereon continues in our reevaluation of this experience as informed and changed by the event itself. The hermeneutic circle indicates that the event and its participant can be mutually changed through considered reflection on the impact each has in distributing meaning and interpretation to one’s life. When considered as such, stories of origin or of the Creation add to the body of transcending experiences. Seeing their pattern repeated in ordinary life suggests that one is acknowledging their transcendence and importing that quality to one’s own life as a source of meaning and inspiration.

The stories of how other groups originated or of how ideas, patterns, or even life itself originated reflect the same values and themes apparent in this analysis. Our reflection on and identification of these themes, and the meaning that flows from them, indicates the value of a study of origin to the educated person in establishing the fundamental principles of mutual understanding and meaning sought in much public discourse. As such aims are met, the value of a study of transcending experiences becomes even more apparent.

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