The Image of the Image of the Image . . . .

By Rev. Josh Pawelek

Michelangelo’s depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel

Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where most of the members identified as Humanists, atheists or agnostics, I heard many arguments against belief in God. One of those arguments outlined the many divine inconsistencies in the Bible. God creates the world, saying it is good, then destroys it. God is the personal God of Abraham, and also God of all nations. God is a warrior who leads Israel to victory; but God also fights and kills the Israelites in retaliation for their transgressions. God is the lawgiver who punishes some but not others. God is just and terrible, loving and cruel, male and female, knowable and mysterious, present and absent. How can we believe in a God who varies so widely across so many pages of scripture?

There are many answers to such questions. We might hear that human beings cannot comprehend the vastness of God, and thus we only ever encounter one divine facet at a time. We might hear that God’s mystery requires us to believe despite the inconsistencies. My Humanist UU elders found such answers unconvincing.

Of course, we were not the first people to notice the inconsistencies. As long as the biblical books have existed there have been scholars, theologians, temple officials, priests, rabbis, ministers and imams who’ve attempted to explain the inconsistencies so that ordinary readers can fathom such a wide-ranging divine personality. Those attempts will continue as long as the God of Abraham remains God in the western religious mind.

I recently read Jack Miles’ 1995 book, God: A Biography.[1] Miles is Professor Emeritus of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Senior Fellow for Religion and International Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy.[2] I read his book because Fred Sawyer suggested it after he and Phil purchased a sermon at our 2017 Goods and Services Auction. I’m glad I read it. Miles presents God not as the God our Jewish and Christian neighbors worship, but as a literary character—the protagonist in one of civilization’s most enduring stories. In doing so he offers insights into the spiritual conflicts residing at the heart of the human condition and explains an enduring human restlessness.  

God: A Biography tells the story of God as it appears in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, which is distinct from the Christian Old Testament.[3] They contain the same books, but they order the books differently, which means as literature they tell God’s story differently. The plot unfolds differently. The character of God develops differently.

I also want you to know the difference between historical criticism and literary criticism of the Bible. Historical criticism studies who wrote a particular biblical book—where, when and why they wrote; who their audience was. The historical critic teases out the cultural and religious influences in the writer’s life—their sources.

For example, the very beginning of Genesis describes the creative acts of elohim, translated as God. Elohim creates and blesses and pronounces everything as good. He creates men and women in his image and generously gives them the entire world: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” Then, a few verses later, an entirely different creation story begins, describing the acts of yahweh, translated as the Lord God. He doesn’t give the whole world to Adam and Eve, he gives them a garden. And when they disobey him, he flies into a passionate rage, punishing them harshly. “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; / in pain you shall bring forth children….’ / And to the man he said…. / ‘cursed is the ground because of you; / in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; / thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you ….  / until you return to the ground, / for out of it you were taken; you are dust, / and to dust you shall return.”[4] The historical critic reveals these are actually two different traditions with two different Gods that have been edited—fused—into one.

The Bible is filled with such fusions. It’s not just elohim and yahweh. In Genesis 6—the story of Noah’s ark—God takes on the traits of the watery Babylonian chaos monster, Tiamat, becoming not only the creator of the world, but also its destroyer. Eventually the Canaanite sky God, el, is woven into God’s personality. El is also the common Ancient Near Eastern word for any god; it appears in the Bible in terms like el shaddai, Almighty God, whom Abraham invokes for ritual circumcision; and el olam, Everlasting God, whom Abraham invokes before the binding of Isaac. In God we find traits of the Mesopotamian personal god. He absorbs the Canaanite war God, Baal. He becomes the Lord of Hosts, the liberator, the lawgiver, the conquerer, the father god to Kings David and Solomon, the arbiter, the executioner, the protector of the poor and oppressed, the Lord of all the nations. For the prophet Isaiah he is the Holy One of Israel, unknowable, mysterious. For Daniel he is the “Ancient of Days.” Despite a concerted effort to remove all evidence of the divine feminine, traces of the Canaanite goddess Asherah persist in God. 

This fusion happened because Israel, throughout its ancient history, was becoming monotheistic. The writer known as the Deuteronomist edited the earliest books of the Bible into a monotheistic story. As Miles puts it, the Deuteronomist’s gift was to make all these distinct materials seem in combination, down to the phrase, ‘the Lord our God,’ not just plausible but inevitable.[5] The historical critic pulls it all apart, reveals the editor at work, tells the story behind the story.

Miles isn’t doing historical criticism. He’s doing a species of literary criticism that picks up all these disparate gods the historical critic has exposed, and reads them back into the character of God as the Bible’s main protagonist. Imagining God as a character, we can understand the inconsistencies not as vestiges of earlier deities, but as God’s experience of inner conflict.[6] For example, God is generous and creative. God is strict and destructive. We might not believe in such a God, but we can ask, ‘what is it like to contend with such competing impulses? And do these impulses not also reside in the human heart? As God the character experiences inner turmoil, he affirms our very human wrestling with our own conflicting impulses.

Contemplate this question: Why did God create? I typically say the biblical creation story is a metaphor for the creative impulse at the heart of all existence. God creates because reality is inherently creative. But that’s not the answer the character God gives. Miles says, “God makes a world because he wants mankind, and he wants mankind because he wants an image.”[7] He doesn’t want a servant, a friend, a spouse; he wants an image of himself.  Why he wants this is not entirely clear. We know nothing about God before creation. We might wonder, ‘is God lonely?’ If so, wouldn’t he create a spouse or friends? That’s not what he does. He creates an image of himself, which suggests that he wants to know himself more fully by observing his image. More than companionship, God longs for self-knowledge.

But he doesn’t always like his image. Adam and Eve disobey. He becomes angry, terrifying. He curses. Apparently, he can’t handle the knowledge that this disobedience lives in him. After releasing his anger, he feels regret, remorse. He wants somehow to make it up to them. The text says “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.”[8] Miles asks, “Having just inflicted labor in childbearing on her and toil in the fields on him, why should he now spare them the inconvenience of making their own clothing? Why if not because, to speak very simply, he feels bad about it?”[9] Miles identifies this moment as God’s first inner conflict, and suggests it is the beginning of western humanity’s interior life as well.[10]

As the Bible progresses, another important dynamic emerges. God wields immense power, but rarely foresees the results of his use of power. Miles calls him ignorant at times. It makes sense. Because he has no history, he has nothing for comparison. He is learning as he goes. Whenever something unexpected happens that he doesn’t like, he tries to fix it, often in a fit of rage. Afterwards he feels regret, tries to atone, restates his promises more generously than before. Then something else unexpected happens. Miles says, “his key experiences … subvert his intentions…. He did not realize when he told mankind to ‘be fertile and increase’ that he was creating an image of himself that was also a rival creator. He did not realize when he destroyed his rival that he would regret the destruction of his image. He did not realize that his covenant with Abraham … would require him … to go to war with Egypt…. He did not realize when he gave [the Israelites] the law that where there is law, there can be transgression, and that, therefore, he himself had turned an implicitly unbreakable covenant into an explicitly breakable one…. The inference one might make looking at the entire course of his history … is that God is only very imperfectly self-conscious and very slightly in control of the consequences of his words and actions.”[11] We may not believe in such a god, but certainly his imperfect self-consciousness and his minimal control of events makes him a compelling literary character and a wonderful mirror for our own internal struggles and limits.

The book of Job provides the story’s literary climax. True to form, God enters into something that doesn’t go how he expects. Job is righteous, steadfastly loyal to God. The satan, translated as the adversary, suggests Job is righteous only because it brings him wealth. Take away his wealth? He will curse God. God says ‘go ahead, impoverish him, torture him. He’ll stay righteous.’ The wager is on. The adversary tortures Job mercilessly. Job maintains his righteousness believing God will vindicate him. But then he does the unexpected. He demands God explain why he must suffer so greatly. He demands an explanation of God’s justice, because his suffering is pointless. God seems to not recognize that’s he’s won. Job has not cursed him. But God is infuriated that Job has questioned him. God speaks from the whirlwind—an ode not to justice but to raw, unfettered power. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”[12] “Will you even put me in the / wrong? / Will you condemn me that you / may be justified? / Have you an arm like God, / and can you thunder with a / voice like his?”[13]

Job responds calmly. The common interpretation is that Job hears God and repents. In the typical English translation Job says “I had heard of you by the hearing / of the ear, / but now my eye sees you; / therefore I despise myself, / and repent in dust and ashes.”[14] Miles says this is incorrect. A careful reading of the ancient Hebrew calls for a different interpretation. Job does not repent. A more authentic translation of Job’s words is, “Now that I’ve seen you / I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay,”[15] meaning divine justice is not a given for anyone; meaning God is as likely to be evil and cruel as he is to be kind and just. God didn’t expect this lesson, this wisdom. Once again he plunges into profound inner turmoil. “After Job,” writes Miles, “God knows his own ambiguity as he has never known it before. He now knows that, though he is not [a] fiend, he has a fiend[ish] side and that mankind’s conscience can be finer than his.”[16] He finds solace in the knowledge that Job is his image. He restores Job’s life and doubles his wealth. Indeed, it is not Job who repents, but God.

From here to the end of the Tanakh God is silent. People speak about him, but he speaks no more. Miles describes him as a sleeper, a bystander, a recluse, a puzzle. What are we to make of this silence? Miles wonders: “Once you have seen yourself in your image, will you want to keep looking?” “Will you lose interest in yourself … once the image has served its purpose and you know who you are?”[17]

Maybe. Maybe God lost interest. Whether he did or not, this story of  a God who could never quite choose one deep impulse over another, has shaped western moral consciousness as much as any other force. “That God,” says Miles, “is the divided original whose divided image we remain. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.”[18]

May we never lose interest—not in the things we hold sacred, not in ourselves. May we continue to encounter that restless breathing. May continue to struggle with our own inner conflicts trusting we will grow wise in time. May we continue in self-discovery, even when that discovery is unanticipated, difficult, painful. May we each have a Job in our lives who confronts us with the truth and calls us to our best and highest selves.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Miles, Jack, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[2] For information on Jack Miles, visit his website at http://www.jackmiles.com/. For information on his forthcoming book, God in the Quir’an, visit: http://www.jackmiles.com/Home/books/god-in-the-qur-an.

[3] In 2002 Miles published a follow-up book on God in the Christian Scriptures called Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

[4] Selections from Genesis 3: 14-19. (NRSV)

[5] Miles, God, p. 141.

[6] Miles, God, p. 21.

[7] Miles, God, p. 28.

[8] Genesis 3: 20-b. (NRSV)

[9] Miles, God, p. 36.

[10] Miles, God, p. 33.

[11] Miles, God, pp. 250-251.

[12] Job 38: 4a. (NRSV)

[13] Job 40: 8-9. (NRSV)

[14] Job 42: 5-6. (NRSV)

[15] Miles, God, p. 325.

[16] Miles, God, p. 328.

[17] Miles, God, p. 404.

[18] Miles, God, p. 408.

Creation Out of Nothing?

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

In his new book, A Universe From Nothing,[1] cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss attempts to definitively answer an ancient question: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” I’d like to play around with this question this morning—the question of creation. How did the universe, our planet, and life on our planet come to be? How did it all begin? This question lies at the heart of the religious imagination. This question lies at the heart of the scientific imagination. But perhaps it’s most accurate to say, simply, this question lies at the heart of the human imagination. I say this because most of us, at some point in our lives—or at many points in our lives—have experiences wherein we encounter some feature of our surroundings in a special or unique way—whether by seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting or touching—something takes us by surprise, something takes our breath away—as if we’re encountering it for the very first time—we become awestruck, and we wonder: how did all this all begin? These shining stars, this blazing sun, this waxing and waning moon, this solid, green earth, these rolling oceans, these towering mountains, this moist air, this newborn baby, these breathing lungs, this beating heart: how is it possible all this exists? I suspect most of you have asked this question in some way, have wondered about our origins in some way, at some point in your lives. How did it all begin? Why is there something, rather than nothing?

I also assume most people wonder for a few moments, ask the question—how did this all begin?—and then realize the answer is pretty much beyond the capacity of the human mind to fathom. The wondering ends as they go back to whatever it was they were doing. Except there have always been some people who, for whatever reason, can’t let the question go. They keep wondering. They say, “no, this is not beyond our ability; we can figure this out!” They try to make their human minds fathom creation. They are usually either scientists or theologians. And I notice that, for them, the question mutates a bit. It’s not just, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” It becomes “Did the universe arise out of nothing?” Or “Did the universe arise out of something?” Something from nothing? Or something from something else? The theologians argue amongst themselves. The scientists argue amongst themselves. And of course, as they argue amongst themselves, the theologians—at least the more conservative ones—contend that the scientists are utterly wrong. And the scientists—at least the more secular ones—contend that the theologians are utterly wrong.

For a traditional theological example of the debate over creation from nothing or something, if you were to open a Bible and turn to the very first word on the very first page of the very first book—and if you were reading in ancient Hebrew—the word you would encounter is bereshit. In English the typical translation of bereshit is “In the beginning.” The whole sentence is typically rendered as “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” But another translation is possible. The sentence can also be rendered as “When God set out to create the heavens and the earth.” For centuries, if not millennia, in a variety of languages, theologians have debated which version is more accurate, which version might be more akin to how the ancient Israelites understood it, or which version is more in keeping with the latest church doctrine. It might not sound like an important distinction to our modern ears, especially to those with modern liberal religious ears, but it turns out there’s a lot at stake in how one translates bereshit. In short, the more common translation—“In the beginning”—suggests the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo—creation out of nothing—the doctrine that God existed first, before anything else, and that God caused all material to come into existence in order to create the heavens and the earth. The other, less common translation—“When God set out to create”—suggests the doctrine of creatio ex materia—creation out of material, out of stuff, out of things—the doctrine that something existed before God, and God used it to create the heavens and the earth.[2]

Turning to science, consider Krauss’ book, A Universe From Nothing. Full disclosure: I have not read Krauss’ book, and I probably won’t read it unless Fred Sawyer purchases a sermon (which he has) and asks me to preach on it. I have read Columbia professor of philosophy David Albert’s recent review of the book. Apparently Krauss argues that the laws of quantum mechanics provide “a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation”[3] of the origins of the universe. In short, the universe emerged from a quantum vacuum state, which Krauss defines as nothing, hence the title of the book, A Universe From Nothing. It’s a scientific version of creatio ex nihilo. Albert, who is also an expert in quantum mechanics, flatly rejects Krauss’ thesis, saying it’s “just not right”[4]—though he doesn’t offer an alternative answer to the creation question in the book review. But fear not! Another book I haven’t read—and won’t read unless Fred Sawyer asks me to—is Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang by physicists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok.[5] They propose the “Cyclic Universe” theory which suggests “the Big Bang was not the beginning of time but the bridge to a past filled with endlessly repeating cycles of evolution.”[6] A scientific version of creatio ex materia! The universe is recycled from the material of countless prior universes.

Again, I think it’s kinda funny and even provocative that the theologians and the scientists are having the same debate within their respective fields. What they talk about and how they get there are radically different, but it comes down to the same two conclusions: creation from nothing or something.

Our ministry theme for April is creation. I admit we did not choose this theme so that we could spin our heads around theological and scientific arguments about the origins of the universe. We chose this theme primarily to match the season, the beginning of spring in New England, the time in the cycle of the year when Earth’s creative energy is immediate and sensual to us; the time in the cycle of the year when the smells, sights, tastes, sounds and the feel of new life are immediate and sensual to us: the fresh air, the first flowers pushing through the barren ground; the first buds on trees and bushes and shrubs; blooming forsythias, azaleas, daffodils, tulips and dogwoods dotting the land; soil turned over and ready for planting; bird-song chiming in the pre-dawn hours; earth worms digging; moles tunneling through our lawns; mice and voles rummaging through our basements, or garages or sheds; grease ants traipsing through our cupboards or across our kitchen floors; mud after the first spring rains; warmth after the long, grey winter. In the words we heard earlier from e.e. cummings, it is the time in the cycle of the year “for the leaping greenly spirits / of trees / and a blue true dream of sky; and / for everything / which is natural which is infinite / which is yes.”[7] It’s a heady season: impetuous, adolescent, lusty, exhilarating, earthy, feverish, sexy and creative. Yes, spring is Earth’s season for creation.

When I started putting my thoughts together for this sermon, I imagined I was going to say something different about creation. Well, not just different—something really cool, hip, clever, maybe a little quirky, but definitely unexpected and outside the box of the usual ways of answering the question of creation. In our weekly UUS:E eblast I even suggested I would offer a new question entirely. My intuition told me there’d be a new question come Sunday morning. But it never came. I don’t have a new question. It turns out I have deeply partisan convictions when it comes to the debate over creation out of nothing or something. But late Friday afternoon I was still trying to figure it out. Do you remember Friday afternoon? It was beautiful. Having already kicked the boys outside to play in the yard before dinner, I decided to join them. Intuition told me that getting away from the sitting-at-the-computer-trying-to-make-my-brain-fathom-where-the-universe-came-from mode and spending some time outside in the dirt with children might help.

The Outdoor Car Tournament Track!

When I arrived outside, Mason ask if we could hold a “car tournament.” To hold a car tournament we first have to build a track for our Matchbox and Hotwheels cars. Once the track is built, we race the cars down it one after the other. If they fall off the track, they’re out. If they make it all the way down, they move onto the next round. There are fewer and fewer cars each round. When there’s one car left we have a winner. Then we start over. When we do this outside, we build the track out of pieces of wood from an old swing-set/play-scape that I store under the shed. We prop it up with bricks, buckets and other junk we have lying around. It takes a while to build because the long, flat pieces of wood need to line up just right so that the cars can drive over them seamlessly. We really get into it. We lose ourselves in it.

 

And there we were, lost in it, building our track with the bright sun beginning to set in the western sky; dust rising around us from our busy work on the track; the azalea and forsythia bushes in full bloom all around us;  spring’s fragrant, fresh air smell in our nostrils; bees buzzing; and the sounds of other kids playing in other yards echoing around the neighborhood—an utterly different experience from sitting-at-the-computer-trying-to-make-my-brain-fathom-where-the-universe-came-from. It’s hard to find words, but I’m trying to describe a full-bodied, sensual experience—as in all five senses engaged. This is the poet cummings asking “how should tasting touching / hearing seeing / breathing—lifted from the no / of all nothing—human merely / being / doubt unimaginable You?”[8] This is a physical experience, a bodily experience, a yoga experience, an embedded experience, a grounded experience where instinct matters more than thought, where the present moment outweighs the past and the future, where the need for play subdues the need for work, and where creativity abounds—not only in our play, but in the color, the fragrance, the energy, the returning life flowing through everything around us. Spring is Earth’s season for creation. And this is what I observe: we create out of the materials at hand—pieces of wood, bricks, buckets, junk. We do not create out of nothing. And the Earth around us creates out of the materials at hand—water, soil, sunlight, air; not out of nothing. In this little dell at the bottom of our hill, where the ground is soft, where the water runs to after the rains, where moss will blanket the ground by the middle of May—in this little Eden—everything is created from something.

I don’t offer this observation in order to win an argument over the correct way to imagine the origins of the universe. I don’t need to win that argument and besides, the words imagination and correct don’t really belong in the same sentence anyways. I suspect some physicists and theologians alike may object to this, but to some degree all our efforts to answer the questions of creation are acts of imagination. So it strikes me that in addition to physicists and theologians, we also need to consult storytellers and poets for their insights. When we do that a picture of our origins begins to emerge—not a proof, not the findings of literary and linguistic Biblical analysis, not the results of rigorous tests of scientific models, not even something we can say is true in any objective sense—but a picture of what resides in the collective human imagination: creation arises out of something.

My search this week has not been exhaustive, but I cannot find a creation story from any culture—ancient or modern—where creation arises out of nothing. So often creation arises out of some massive explosion, some obliterating flood, some destructive catastrophe that ended an earlier age. I read to you earlier a brief version of “Icanchu’s Drum” from the Wichí people of northern Argentina and Southern Bolivia. The new world arises out of the ashes of the previous world, specifically out of a charcoal stump Icanchu is using as a drum. “Playing without stopping, he chanted with the dark drum’s sounds and danced to its rhythms. At dawn on the New Day, a green shoot sprang from the coal drum and soon flowered as Firstborn tree, the Tree of Trials at the Center of the World. From its branches bloomed the forms of life that flourish in the New World.”[9] In other stories, creation arises out of a kind of disordered, ominous, dark chaos. The Boshongo people of the Congo speak of a primordial, watery darkness in which the God Bumba sleeps.[10] Some of the Chinese origin myths involving the God Pan Gu speak of a big, gooey mess surrounding a large, black egg.[11] Even the Biblical book of Genesis speaks of a wind moving across the face of the waters prior to God’s first act of creation. From our story-telling selves, our poetic selves, our intuitive selves, the picture of creation that emerges is ex materia. Creativity, to become real, to have some physical result in the world, must act upon some thing. Judging by the stories we human beings have told ourselves over the millennia, we have a collective hunch that the universe arose out of something, not nothing.

Friday night one of my best friends in the world called from Boston. His wife had just gone into labor—their first child. I took the call as an affirmation, a sign, a reminder of yet another way to look at origins.  None of us came into the world out of nothing. We came as muscles began to contact; we came as a jolt, a bump, a wind, a cut awakened us from our primordial slumber. We came out of the dark, still waters of our mother’s womb. We came into the world in a gooey mess of blood and amniotic fluid.

In the end, the stories we tell of creation (as distinct from our scientific and theological analyses) are not meant to be factual.  That’s why we call them myths and poems. They are meant to tell us something about ourselves and the universe we inhabit.  But even if we’ve never heard them, our bodies seem to know: however it all began, a creative drive lives at the heart of the universe and lives in each of us; and it is, like spring, heady, impetuous, adolescent, lusty, exhilarating, earthy, feverish, sexy. When we set out to create, our bodies know even if our minds don’t, if we want our creations to be real—if we want them to manifest in ways we can see, hear, taste, smell and touch—then we must create out of the materials at hand. I’m not sure there’s any other way. We must create out of  some thing. In this light, creation out of nothing is just hard to imagine.

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Krauss, Lawrence M., A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[2] I found two blogs that explain the difference between creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex materia. Check out:

http://www.religioustolerance.org/crebegin.htm

http://www.evolutionfairytale.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=3507

[3] Albert, David, “On the Origins of Everything,” New York Times Book Review, March 25, 2012, p. 20.

[4] Ibid., p. 21. The full quote is: “But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states—no less than giraffes or refirgerators or solar systems—are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff.”

[5] Steinhardt, Paul J. & Turok, Neil, Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

[7] cummings, e.e. “I thank you god for most this amazing day” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993) #504.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sullivan, Lawrence E., Icanchu’s Drum: An Orientation to Meaning in South American Religions (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988) frontispiece and p. 92.

[10] Dawkins, Richard The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True (New York: Free Press, 2011) p. 161.

[11] Ibid., p. 161.