The Beautiful Risk of Creation:

Posted: June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

Genesis 11: 1-9       John 14: 8-17

Pentecost 1 15.5.2016

 

The Beautiful Risk of Creation:

 

Twenty-six attempts preceded the present genesis,

all of which were destined to fail.

The world of man has arisen out of the chaotic heart of the preceding debris;

he too is exposed to the risk of failure, and the return to nothing.

 

‘Let us hope it works’ exclaimed God as he created the world,

and this hope,

which has accompanied the subsequent history of the world and mankind,

has emphasized right from the outset that this history

is branded with the mark of radical uncertainty. (Talmud)

 

That introduction is the compilation of a couple of quotes from Jewish thinkers and the Talmud and I want to explore them a bit today. In doing so I am taking on a huge subject and foolishly trying to make a single sermon of it. To do this I want to just throw up some huge topics as background in the hope that you will be able to link what I say back to these topics without a lot of detail. Of course I am happy to try to answer any questions along the way should you want to interrupt.

The first assumption is that there are two ways of talking about the power of God. One being the almighty power of God, the interventionist absolute God and two, the weak force of God, the God who is not ‘being’ but rather that which is to be, the God who is not in charge but rather the God ‘within’ who shares all the struggles, risks and joys that we do. This is not a new argument but in this instance is centred on the issue of power.

This also is a huge ask because you and I live within the world of a God that is intrinsically linked to powerful images. One of the most powerful images in Western literature, and one of the most memorable verses in world literature for anyone who can read, is surely the majestic opening verses of Genesis: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Out of nothing, simple as that. Where there was nothing, now there is something or rather everything in an instant. Here we have sheer, clean, lean, perfect, stunning, uninhibited power. We have absolute archical omni-power, perfect sovereign power, pure and simple. Fiat!

The task for this sermon is to come up against this huge claim and to say that there such a thing as “sacred anarchy” and it suggests that the force of God is a “weak force”

The challenge is to explore a theology that goes against the mighty display of cosmic power on the part of the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth? That is the biblical music this sermon faces, so it is with a degree of fear and trembling, that I ask the questions. I do not claim to know the truth but I will try to ask the question that a number of you have asked me before. Is it possible to create something out of nothing or should there be something before that? I will try to follow John Caputo’s deconstructive process through our reading from Genesis and grapple with his take on Derrida’s analysis that says that “before the ‘world,’ before creation, before the gift and before being, there is a perhaps.

The first thing to say is that we must read the text literally without falling into the trap that many evangelicals and fundamentalists do. Such a reading should only give access to the site of the events harboured by the words.

In the beginning, things had already begun. That is easily forgotten in all the use this text has gotten over the centuries. In the beginning, something was always already there, before the beginning began. As translations of these texts the NRSV proposes In the beginning, when God created, when God began to create as two alternatives. These alternatives, which ultimately go back to the Middle Ages, especially to the suggestion of Rabbi Rashi, a medieval rabbinic commentator, have gained the ascendancy in the literature. Caputo offers a translation by Catherine Keller in her book ‘Face of The Deep’ where she reads it as “When God began to create”: in medias res, in the midst, not of “things,” exactly, for that is what God was beginning to create. at that time. She continues suggesting that it is best understood that the earth was something desolate, like a desert, something arid, barren, uninhabited, and more abstractly as an emptiness. Here we have the suggestion that it actually “has nothing to do with ‘chaos’ and simply means ‘emptiness’ and refers to the earth which is an empty place.” Caputo goes on to suggest that this sounds a bit like the “wild” in English, but a barren wild, not wildlife. It is not the opposite of creation but the not-yet inhabited earth, and it is not quite a desert either because it seems to be covered by the waters of the deep. ‘And darkness covered the tehom, the deep, the ocean, the face of the churning salty waters, over which a wind (ruach) swept, and then God said, “Let there be light.” Thus, in the beginning, things had already begun. As the rabbis like to point out, the Tanach does not open with the first letter “A” (aleph, alpha) but with the second letter “B” (bet, beta), bereshit, “in the beginning,” something was already there. Even in English, “beginning” begins with a “b” not an “a.” Something has already eluded the “bereshit,” got there before it. As André Neher writes, history is open not only on this end, as we head into the future, but on the other end as well, in the beginning, stretching back to time immemorial. So if this is correct, Genesis does not begin at an absolute beginning.

Elohim begins. Elohim the Priestly author’s God’, begins where he finds himself, with co-everlasting but mute companions: a barren earth, lifeless waters, and a sweeping wind. Elohim has to play the cards he is given, to work with the materials at hand, after which it will turn out he will even need a rest. He must work with these elements, with wind and water and wilderness, first to differentiate and then to populate them. So first he separates off the empty expanse of earth and sky and water, and then he fills them up with living things. And Caputo makes the claim that time was also already there— not the time of day and night, of course, but the primeval time of the immemorial ticktock when God presided over the elements, when he began to create, according to this grammar of creation. The beginning had always already begun, before the first verse of Genesis began. One begins where one is, in the middle of a context, and there is no outside-the-context, even for the Creator God of Genesis. The pure beginning, an absolute “origin,” is an ever-receding horizon;

Caputo then offers us a mythopoetic scene to consider. In the beginning, ‘they’ are there, wind and waters and land, barren and lifeless, the wind sweeping over the deep, everywhere darkness, like the dark side of some distant desolate planet. There they are, just there, without a word, the only noise being the heaving of the seas, the blowing of the wind. It is almost as if they are sleeping, as if they are laid out like some great giant, some massive body whose only sounds and movements are the heaving and sighing of a sleeper, and Elohim seems to be just watching them sleep. Then Elohim was moved to speak to them, and by addressing them to bring them to life, to awaken life in them, to make life stir through their massive limbs the way one calls a sleeper to awake. He calls them into life; he does not bring them into being, because the whole point is that they were there all along, from time out of mind, in a drowsy state deeper and more dreamless than any sleep we can imagine.

Genesis is not about being, but about life. Bare barren being is there, it was what was already there. The astonishing thing is that God brings being to life. That is the wonder, and that life that God breathes in them is what God calls “good,” which goes a step beyond being.

In the sharpest contrast to what a later metaphysical theology would say, the primeval elements have been there from the beginning, from time immemorial, from time out of mind. “Anonymously,” by which is meant that they do not speak, that while the deep has a face, it is only a surface (face), not a countenance (visage). Hence, while there is a kind of rumble or roar of the wind, or the chopping of the sea, there is no language there. In these narratives, the elemental stuff of the world is there, like it or not. “There is.” It always was. No one disputes that, certainly not Elohim. The elements are his everlasting, aboriginal companions, silent partners, wordlessly pre-given, presupposed, from time out of mind. God is not responsible for the fact that the elements are there, but for making them stir, making them live, by staking out great expanses that God fills up with living things.

This, suggests Caputo, that Creation is not a movement from non-being to being —but from being to beyond being, from a mute expanse of being to the bustle of living things, from barrenness to the bloom of life, from silence to the word that makes the empty full and the barren buzz with life. Where there was once a dumb factuality, now there is meaning, signification, interpretation, valuation, differentiation, and above all— life. Where there were facts, now there is an articulation and an interpretation.

What is significant here is that this is a reclaiming of the literal approach to the text but one without the metaphysical overlay. It is a huge challenge in that the official story the so-called theological orthodoxy that Catherine Keller calls the “power discourse of creation from nothingness,” which has, alas, taken these narratives and turned them into a tale told by a metaphysician. Metaphysical theology has turned this Hebrew narrative into the tale of a pure, simple, clean act of power carried out on high by a timeless and super-sensible being. She suggests this is a very Hellenic story that also goes along with a top-down social structure of imperial power flowing down from on high. There is order and majesty here no doubt, but the story is, upon closer reading, “much messier,” as Keller says, more complicated — not creation as a single clean powerful act, but a concert of forces, one active and formative and the other more open-ended, free-floating, fluid and unformed. A poetics of creation from primal, untamed, unwieldy, watery elements, as wily as the wind and as slippery as water, elements that tend to resist fixed order. In all, a tricky business. It took twenty-six tries to make it stick, the Talmudic author quips, and even then, all God could do was hope for the best.

And Caputo reminds us that with the classical account of strong theology, Jesus was just holding back his divine power in order to let his human nature suffer. He freely chose to check his power because the Father had a plan to redeem the world with his blood. But if his Father had changed his mind, those Roman soldiers would rue the day they were born, as they will certainly rue it in eternity.

This seems to confirm for me at least, the idea of God as a weak force, vulnerable and intimately present. It also seems to confirm that Jesus was being actually crucified, not holding back anything; he was nailed there and being executed very much against his will and the will of God. And let’s remember that he had never heard of Christianity’s novel idea that he was redeeming the world with his blood. His approach to evil was forgiveness, not paying off a debt due the Father, or the devil, with suffering or with anything else. His suffering was not a coin of the realm in the economy of the kingdom. Further still, the kingdom is not an economy, and God is not in attendance at this scene as an accountant of divine debts or as a higher power watching the whole thing from up there and freely holding in check his infinite power to intervene.

This also claims that the need for an interventionist God is fantasizing about an orgasm of power— if not power now, then power later, when we can really get even with those hateful Romans. Let’s be careful here also. The weakness of God is not a deferred power that will be visited upon one’s enemies at a later time. God is in attendance as the weak force of the call that cries out from Calvary and cries out from every corpse created by every cruel and unjust power. The logos of the cross is a call to renounce violence, not to conceal and defer it.

The effect of situating God on the side of vulnerability and unjust suffering is not, of course, to glorify suffering and misery, but to prophetically protest it, to give divine depth and meaning to resistance to unjust suffering, to attach the coefficient of divine resistance to unjust suffering, which is why suffering is the stuff of dangerous memories. The call, the cry, the plaint that rises up from the cross is a great divine “no” to injustice, an infinite lamentation over unjust suffering and innocent victims. God is with Jesus on the cross, not as a gesture of sympathy or some sort of friendly committment, and God is standing with Jesus rather than with the imperial power of Rome, God stands with an innocent persecuted for calling the powers that be to task. The name of God is the name of a divine “no” to persecution, violence, and victimization. Accordingly, as we have just argued, God’s traditional top-down “transcendence” must be reconceived in such a way that all of its resources are deployed on behalf of lowliness and the despised. The effect of speaking of God’s transcendence is not to support and top off presence with a hyper-presence, but to disturb presence with difference and to allow the lowliest to rise in divine splendour. Amen.

 

Caputo, John D The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) Indiana University Press.

 

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