Anglicans Together ...promoting inclusive Anglicanism

Ora et labora

by the Reverend Andrew Sempell, President, Anglicans Together

'In the beginning...'

An important challenge for religion in our own time is to remain in the debate concerning the nature of the world and humanity's place within it. While science is vital in the business of understanding how things work, it has its limitations when it comes to appreciating the meaning and purpose of human life in all its complexity.

Two perspectives are at play in the business of interpreting the workings of the world. First (and now the most common) is the grouping of scientific constructs of knowledge and the interpretation of phenomena, such as those applied to the natural world. Secondly, is metaphysical or relational knowledge, which is received through disciplines such as theology, philosophy and art. The former has a goal of objectivity based upon logic and acceptance of the physical constraints of matter. The latter accepts subjectivity and tends to see the world as a complex living organism rather than as a machine. Both of these are necessary for a holistic understanding of the world and humanity's place in it.

The Reverend Andrew Sempell

The Creation Narrative

The Christian understanding of the relationship between the world, humanity and God begins with the Creation stories at the commencement of the book Genesis. The word 'Genesis' comes from Greek and means 'origin', the same book in Hebrew is called Bereshith, taken from the initial words 'In the beginning...'. The first five books of the Bible are called the 'Books of the Law' or 'Torah' and set out the story of the beginnings of the world and humanity, the calling of the people of God, and what is required of a person to live a godly and righteous life. These books are not scientific texts or even collections of facts. Indeed, an important way of understanding the nature of these early writings is as 'narrative', which is a story that brings meaning through description of the relationships between entities. Like the parables of Jesus, narrative is not so much concerned with facticity as it is with meaning and understanding.

There retains a need for integrity and intellectual honesty, however narrative sits well with the idea of relational knowledge and is comfortable with a variety of cultural approaches and interpretations. An aspect of the narrative approach to the Bible is the discovery of 'our story' (both as individuals and as community) inside God's story. Identity and meaning is to be found in the creation accounts as we identify with the representative persons of Adam and Eve, and their subsequent experiences inside, and later outside, of the Garden of Eden. Through this, the human dilemma of sin and brokenness is revealed as well as the consequences that come from gaining moral knowledge. As the Dean of Brisbane, Dr Peter Catt, wrote on this matter:

Narrative theology invites people beyond the doctrinal conundrums generated by conflicting biblical texts and the even more debilitating imposition of historical cultural expressions of being human. It allows people to discover how they might live lives that are influenced by love and allows them to be champions of human flourishing in this post-modern age. It speaks to the wise and the foolish alike, to the intelligent and those who are compromised. It allows the homeless and the barrister, doctors and cleaners to find themselves. It allows them to discover that they are unique and uniquely loved; and uniquely called to embody the faith in and through the unfolding story of their lives.

(Catt P, Telling the Story of God, On Line Opinion, Feb 2013)

Genesis chapters 1 and 2 teach that God is creator of the world and more particularly of human beings, who share in some god-like qualities themselves. The goodness of creation is also affirmed, as well as God's intent that creation was meant to exist in a state of peace and harmony. The human story turns on humanity's separation from this world of peace and its choosing to enter one of violence, struggle and death. The Old Testament then proceeds to describe the challenges of God's people through history as they lived out the consequences of being 'a little less than God' (Psalm 8:5) on the one hand, but sinful and broken on the other. This situation was to remain so until God acted to bring about a new creation through a second Adam, Jesus, who opened up the opportunity of humanity being allowed back into the Garden to discover peace and new life. Through identification with Jesus' life, death and resurrection, God welcomes us back home as if we were sons and daughters.

Genesis is not the only creation story. There are many others cutting across cultures and down through time, including Plato's Timaeus and the ancient Babylonian Tiamat story through to more modern ones such as adaption of the Gaia myth in parts of the environmental movement and even the Big Bang and Cradle of Civilisation accounts emerging from science.

An important aspect of the creation story in Genesis is that it encompasses the whole of creation, including all humanity. It is therefore inclusive and describes God's concern focussed upon all things—regardless of species, race or creed.

Causality and God

The creation narrative speaks of the place of God in relation to the world, and of humanity's place in relation to God and nature. In all of this, God is acknowledged as having power over the created order and that the world is sustained by God's providence. However, there is a dilemma; to what degree, if at all, does God act in creation to make things happen or change the course of natural processes?

Einstein said that 'God does not play dice with the universe' meaning that the operation of the natural world is based on mathematical laws that cannot be broken. He therefore argued that there are no random events in nature. Interestingly, this position has been challenged by the new physics particularly through quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Stephen Hawking's research on black holes sought to affirm the arbitrary behaviour of particles in the universe; however, the matter of the degree of randomness in the natural order remains undecided.

As science developed in the nineteenth century, and more of the natural world came to be explained scientifically rather than theologically, some Christians took intellectual refuge in what was coined 'the God of the gaps', which argue that God must control those things that science can't explain. It proved to be a categorical error to think that God operated in that bit of life that science could not describe. So, as science expanded its work of explaining the physical nature of the universe, the 'God of the gaps' retreated further and further into obscurity. What then is the relationship between God and creation?

To place too much faith in the randomness of particles would probably be another categorical error. We therefore turn to a metaphysical perspective. A way of understanding God's presence in the world is to appreciate that all existence resides in God, which in theological terms is called 'panentheism' (all in God)—this is not to be confused with 'pantheism' (all is God, which implies that God and the world is one). Panentheism suggests that, although God is greater than the world (transcendent), yet the world, in all its aspects, exists within God and God is present to it (immanent). Both scientific and metaphysical knowledge are therefore all within God and expressive of the divine nature. This suggests that there need be no conflict between science and religion; neither is there between the natural and spiritual aspects of the world. Science continues to explore and describe the natural world, yet it does not seek to explain moral, creative or relational truth.

Because the world exists within God, there is a capacity for it to be divinely influenced; but does God choose to break the physical laws of nature in a capricious manner? Why should one person be saved from a disaster and not another? These are difficult questions to answer, especially if there is an expectation of continual divine intervention on behalf of some people at the expense of others. Nevertheless, the idea of divine creation understands that God can influence or change the created order and even break into it in a significant way, such as through Jesus, but that God does not act in an erratic or haphazard manner, for God seeks to create order out of chaos.

Another perspective is to understand that the world is not in a static state and that the process of creation has not finished—a view supported by the idea of evolution. If God continues to create, then there is a place for change and transformation within the world. Moreover, the creation story in Genesis 2 suggests that human beings have a part to play in the creative process by cooperating with God as stewards of creation. Hence, God acts in nature and more particularly through people who seek to live out the divine will in the world.

Religious Anthropology

The creation narrative therefore reveals God as creator of the universe who watches over all people. Human beings have a special relationship with God and nature because of moral knowledge, which also means that they are responsible for their actions. God's nature is manifested through love, which is also present in humanity. Indeed, when we love, we demonstrate something of the divine nature present within us; however, we know that we cannot make other people love us; all that we can do is show love and hope that it will be reciprocated. In this way, we demonstrate our free will and also have an insight into how God operates in the world. Rather than controlling all aspects of human activity (as some might wish), God instead gives us the opportunity of making our own decisions; however, there is a need for such decisions to be made in a spirit of Godliness if humanity is to flourish. We therefore need to learn how to live as God intended so that we may discover peace in this world.

Relational understanding, which comes from engagement with God and each other, leads us to enlightenment, wisdom and understanding. Rather than just being a fact or an idea, relational knowledge requires us to engage with others in an effort to gain understanding and then respond morally to the knowledge received. Indeed, unlike a mathematical formula, relational knowledge is gained and maintained through communal activity and cannot be held in isolation from other human action. To know moral truth demands a response, a choice to act morally or otherwise; and in the case of the Christian faith, a choice to follow Christ or not.

The concept of salvation contains within it the restoration of humanity to a life of meaning, purpose and goodness. The image is one of being let back into the Garden of Eden, where we can live at peace with God, nature and each other. In this respect, Jesus teaches about 'new life', being 'born again' and 'living in the Kingdom of God'. These analogies give an insight into the mystery of the relationship between God, humanity and nature, and direct our attention to the process of change that is going on in our lives and the lives of those around us; indeed, it is an incomplete process.

Interestingly, in Baptism we acknowledge that our lives change and develop physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually—indeed, our lives are a work in progress. Yet, it is also recognised that we undergo this process in the company of God and others. Such truth is relational and it is reflected in the nature of God that we have come to understand as Trinity.