The Revd Brutus Green
There are two facts, two doctrines if you like, on which Christianity, as a philosophy, a religion, a world-view, depends and takes all its meaning. The second isthe birth of Christ, the Incarnation, but despite all the blue lights on Connaught Street we’ll leave that one to next month. The first and most definitive fact is the Creation, or more precisely, creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing. This separates Christians from two sets of other belief. On the one hand are the pantheists and pagans. The modern religions have managed to root out most Zeuses and Aphrodites along the way but a few pagans still persist and every now and then there’s a revival. So Spinoza brought back pantheism briefly in the 17th century and today environmentalists like James Lovelock usually toy with the idea that the earth or the universe is some sort of goddess or Gaia of which we’re all a part.
The main problem with this philosophy is that nature is so mindlessly cruel - as the people of the Philippines (not to be confused with the Philippians) know - it is nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as Tennyson put it. If Voltaire couldn’t stomach that a good God would allow the earthquake of Lisbon, how much more awful would it be to worship the creature that made it happen. It is those like Edmund the bastard in King Lear who proclaim ‘Thou, nature, art my goddess’, who invert morality, ‘Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take/ More composition and fierce quality/ Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,/ Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops.’ There is a resonance here with Milton’s Satan who cries ‘all good to me is lost;/ Evil, be thou my good; by thee at least/ Divided empire with Heaven's King I hold’. More prosaically, the ‘selfish gene’ hardly sounds like an edifying morality and it is only the most terrifying regimes which have indulged in promoting ‘natural selection’.
The other set of belief is that of atheists in agreement with Bertrand Russell who famously said, ‘I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all.’ The problem atheists suffer though is one of plausibility. In this scenario they are forced either to acknowledge that the universe had a beginning and to be left in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why a universe would suddenly spring into being - which without God will always sound peculiar; or they have to hold that the universe has always existed. This is implausible for two reasons. Firstly, it makes time very hard to conceive of. If there was an infinity of time behind us, how would we ever have reached this moment? The second reason is that absolutely everything we know that exists has a beginning and an end. From that observation it seems rather more likely that everything does have a beginning, which would mean that the universe cannot have always existed.
Now there are - no doubt - more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy, but such thoughts lead to three conclusions. Firstly that God exists as a necessary being that creates and sustains creation. Secondly, that God is entirely different to everything that is created. He is not some superman up in space, or part of the infinite nexus above, below and within, God must be of an entirely different nature to… nature, and all things created. But thirdly, since all creation is created by God by nothing else, it must in some way be like God, since it was created by nothing other than God.
The creation narratives all try and get this across. The Bible actually gives us three narratives. These accounts are intended as pictures. The first chapter of Genesis, sung and read today, describes how God created in the beginning. God’s first act then is to make light which brings order out of chaos. ‘Confusion heard his voice, and wilde uproar/ stood ruled… Light shon and order from disorder sprung’. The Hebrews are not idiots and they understand that the light by which we see comes from the sun, the moon and the stars, which are created only on day four (and obviously that days and nights are somewhat dependent on these same heavenly movements). The point is that God doesn’t just create matter; he forms matter. Creation is at once embedded with meaning. The author of St John’s Gospel is also very keen to get this across: ‘In the beginning was the Word [the logos, the meaning]... and all things were made through him’. God doesn’t just make stuff; God forms creatures with meaning; he calls everything into being.
This is what the poems of the creation narratives are trying to get across, just as it makes sense to use music, another inherently rational system, to describe this. Music also makes order out of chaos, with varying degrees of success. Milton gave the capital of Hell the name Pandemonium, which to modern ears just means a great deal of noise and confusion - or chaos, or the name of a Pet Shop Boys album. It is said that when Milton was describing the conclave of Hell at the beginning of Paradise Lost he had in mind the House of Commons. If you enjoy PMQs you can guess that this has ever been a fit analogy. But music, like grammar, like logic has the intention of forming the stuff of the world into something that makes sense.
And so, as you have by now ascertained, the world and all creation must have been created by an uncreated, necessary being. This being, which we shall call God, is no earthly tyrant, superman or martian but of an entirely different order of being. And yet creation, being God’s, must bear some likeness, some reflection of its creator, shown by its sense of order, that its creatures have meaning and can reason about their world.
There is one final conclusion to be derived from this fact, this doctrine of creation for which we are tonight giving thanks. And that is that it is a gift. What is created only exists for a time and it need not exist at all. Along with this, everything comes from God; there is nothing we can give back to God which is not also from God. Since God in eternity must be self-sufficient, it can only be that creation is a mark of the divine desire to extend itself, to create another with whom to be in relationship with, to love and be loved. From which it is reasonable to say that to not believe in God is nothing more and nothing less than being ungrateful.
Genesis is consistent throughout in describing creation as good, just as Haydn’s creation extols the ‘marv’llous work’,‘delightful to the ravish’d sense’, the ‘sweet and gay’ flowers, the ‘charming sight[s]’, the ‘splendour bright’ of the ‘wonder of his works’, with ‘th’immense Leviathan sport[ing] on the foaming wave’. ‘The World is charged with the grandeur of God’. What’s not to like? In these troubled times nature is so often described as something dying, or as the enemy, or as a time-bomb ready to go off. Well, maybe. But as Christians we should first see it as a gift, and in receiving this gift we may come to learn something of its creator, who has formed us in God’s image, as meaningful gifts to one another.