What do Christians mean by creation? Here are seven ways people of faith refer to life's origin.
Some years ago my colleague Bob Russell, testifying before a congressional committee on environmental issues, stressed the importance of protecting "creation." Immediately upon hearing this word, physicist and atheist Carl Sagan said "I object. The word creation is a theological word. We're talking about nature, not creation." Sagan was correct: the word creation expresses one's faith that the world is more than merely nature. It is the gift of divine love. In his TV series Cosmos, Sagan had said that nature, the cosmos, "is all there is, all there ever was, and all that ever will be." Now, Sagan's secularist ideology was demanding that federal language use nature, not creation. How should we speak in the public square? How should we speak within the church?
Before saying what we should do, let me explore what we already do. I find at least seven different references to the word, creation. Whether we're speaking in church, Congress, or a less contentious arena, we might pause to ask ourselves just what we mean. Let us explore these options.
1. Creation is where we find ourselves.
When we wake up and are conscious, we find ourselves already in a world — somewhere, in some specific place and time. We become aware of what philosopher Martin Heidegger meant by the sense of Geworfenheit or "thrownness." We simply find ourselves being in a world.
We could adopt one of three attitudes toward our world. First, we could ignore it. We could simply think of ourselves as the center of our own little phenomenal world and disvalue everything that surrounds us. We could occupy our thoughts totally with our own feelings, identity, interests, and advancement. We could live a life of narcissism. If we follow this path, creation will be invisible to us.
Is our earth alone big enough to house our concept of creation?
The second path would be to complain about having been thrown into this particular time and place. When one of my daughters was a teenager and we delivered the disheartening news that we could not afford to buy dresses she saw at the mall, she sighed and said: "I wish I had been adopted into a richer family." (She has since grown beyond this stage, Gott sei dank.) If we follow such a path, we might decry the world surrounding us as inadequate, discriminatory, unfair, out to get us, even evil. Creation would be underappreciated by us.
The third option is to perceive our world as a gift. Our time and place is not something we have control over. We are dependent on it. Our world and our relationship to it make it possible for us to exist, live, grow, and feel that we belong. Our world is a treasure box waiting for us to caress its sparkling jewels. Saints such as Francis of Assisi looked at the flowers and birds and rejoiced at the copresence of God's love. If we follow this path, it will be adorned with the beauty and grace of a divinely appointed creation.
2. Creation is the magnificent theater playing out God's drama.
How big is the world into which we've been thrown? The size of Lake Wobegon? Of our nation? Or the size of our entire planet, just big enough to overcome the bigotry of parochial neighbors, polluting businesses, sexist employers, racist friends, patriotic jingoists, and everyone else we deem myopic? If we revere Mother Earth or planetary society or global justice, will our world be comprehensive enough?
The third planet from the sun, said Sagan, is but a "pale blue dot" when viewed against the horizon of outer space. This dot would be virtually invisible from planets orbiting any of the other four hundred billion suns in our Milky Way galaxy, let alone those in the other 50 billion galaxies of the universe. Astronomers can now see back nearly to the beginning of our astroworld perhaps 13.7 billion years ago. When we think of creation, how big should we think?
Our earth could not exist by itself. It is held in orbit by gravitational forces and is dependent upon the sun to provide it with warmth. The earth receives energy every minute, year after year, millennium after millennium. Without the sun's warmth for more than four billion years, the creation of higher forms of order could not have taken place and life could not have evolved. Is our earth alone big enough to house our concept of creation?
3. Creation is what God did.
"God created me together with all that exists," wrote Martin Luther in the Small Catechism. What is striking to me is how Luther puts "me" first and then adds our earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, and everything else. No matter how much the creation dwarfs us in size, our heavenly Father can find us and know us and care for us.
Yet, another point is central to our discussion: creation is what God did. In sharp contrast to what any creature can do, God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. God speaks, and out of nonbeing something comes into existence. To create is the provenance of God alone.
Some contemporary theologians think differently. Process panentheists think of the relation of God to the world in analogy to the relation of our mind to our body. If this is the case, God is as dependent on the world as the world is on God. No beginning ever happened. God is continually creative, but not out of nothing.
Feminist postmodern theologian Catherine Keller rejects ex nihilo because it connotes masculinity and domination. In the Bible's Priestly creation account in Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, she places creativity not in God's word but in the tehom, the watery chaos over which the Spirit of God was blowing. Tehomic creativity connotes the feminine, the connected, the relational. She believes in divine creativity but rejects the traditional view that God drew the existence of the world out of nonbeing.
Christian theists have long affirmed creatio ex nihilo, but do not base this position exclusively on Genesis. Hebrew, unlike Greek, did not sharply distinguish being from nonbeing. When Jews and Greeks translated their Hebraic understanding of God into Greek, they felt only creatio ex nihilo would be adequate. Romans 4:17 is an example: "[God] gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist." The theistic tradition within Christian theology has followed this interpretation. So do I.
4. Creation is what God does.
Did God create the world once back at the beginning? Is creation a past activity? If you answer affirmatively, I suggest that you think "archonically." I made up this word. It's based on the Greek arche, which means both beginning and governance. In English archaic means old while monarchy means rule by one king. We humans like to think archonically — essence is determined by origin.
One can hold together creatio ex nihilo applied to the beginning of creation's history while also holding that God's creative activity is ongoing, creatio continua.
However, the God of the Bible does "new" things (Isaiah 43:19). God's creative activity was not over and done in the beginning. More is to come. Astrophysicists tell us that our universe is not eternal. It had a beginning, the big bang. It is constantly changing. New stars are born every day; while older stars morph through phases and die. The entire cosmos is expanding. It is likely that in the future the universe will wind down to a state of equilibrium and virtually die. Reality is not fixed. If we are to think of this universe as creation, we must think of it as a story, as a history, replete with change.
In the dialogue between science and faith, theologians such as the late Arthur Peacocke and Robert John Russell stress continuing creation, creatio continua. One can hold together creatio ex nihilo applied to the beginning of creation's history while also holding that God's creative activity is ongoing, creatio continua.
5. Creation is what we do.
We can thank Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner for designating the human being as the "created co-creator." God alone creates from nothing, yet we creatures of God are mandated by God to transform the world we find ourselves thrown into. Creatio continua includes human contributions to the world's development.
In my childhood my father woke each morning, dressed, and drove to General Motors. As an engineer, he would try to invent something new, something that hitherto never existed. When he retired he had his name on 22 patents. He thought he was simply earning a living yet his birthing of new designs is a marvel. In its own small way my dad's engineering is part of God's creative plan that tomorrow be different than yesterday; and we created co-creators have been enlisted by God to help make that happen.
|Other books by Ted Peters
- Anticipating Omega (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht/Eisenbrauns, 2008)
- The Evolution of Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Life (Pandora, 2008)
- GOD — The World's Future (Fortress, 2nd ed., 2000)
- A Theological and Scientific Commentary on Darwin's Origin of Species (Abingdon, 2008) which he co-authored with Martinez Hewlett.
6. Creation anticipates New Creation.
Our Bible is filled with visions of a renewed reality. Isaiah 11:6-9 offers a prophetic vision of the peaceable kingdom in which "They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain" (v. 9). In the apocalyptic vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:1, "The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them" (v. 3).
The present creation is filled with disappointment, suffering, and death. Everything that lives dies. Yet, Jesus rose from the dead, the "first fruits" of those having fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20). Jesus' resurrection is the prolepsis of the New Creation. As Jesus rose on Easter, so also will the present creation rise into the peaceable kingdom or the New Jerusalem. That is the biblical promise.
7. Creation is an ethical call to care for our earth.
If and when we humans awake in consciousness and find ourselves thrown into a world made by God, we will not take our surroundings for granted. We'll appreciate them for their contingency, their giftedness. If we take seriously our role as God's created co-creators, we will feel a responsibility toward the creation of which we are a part. The health and well-being of our planet and of the creatures with whom we share creation will call us to an ethic of care.
We will look at today's world in light of our vision of tomorrow's new creation and hear a call now to heal, to seek peace, to seek justice, to seek flowering for human life and for all of life. Christians will join with others of good will in protecting our planet from further degradation and enhancing our planet's capacity for sustaining healthy life.
Now, is this universe that includes our planet as well as each of us as individuals merely natural? Is the life-giving capacity of Planet Earth merely a chance event within an otherwise impersonal set of natural forces? Or, is our life-world a gift from a gracious God who placed us under the starry heavens as created co-creators? If the latter, then perhaps we should use the word creation whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.
Ted Peters is an ordained pastor in the ELCA and professor of systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is currently serving as the Martin E. Marty Professor of Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and is coeditor of the journal Theology and Science, published by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.
This article appeared in the November / December 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 6).