Sunday, November 19, 2006

Genesis I, 1-5

1. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
4. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

In ancient times, people everywhere of course wondered how the world they knew came to be, and they made up various stories about the creation. Most people imagined some powerful being or beings as the creator, but unlike the Hebrews, they did not all see this creator or creators as continuing to rule over the creation.

Nowadays, we know that the Hebrew creation myth explains the creation of a universe that does not actually exist. The world the ancients were trying to explain was the one perceptible to their senses, but their senses were playing tricks on them. In the first five verses of Genesis, we can already note several errors.

First of all, saying that God created the heaven and the earth is like saying that God created the earth and a single atom of carbon off the coast of Madagascar. The assumption that everything we see when we look up, and everything we find around us on the earth, are of roughly equal importance, seemed to make sense to people who had no idea how far away are the sun and the moon, and especially the stars. The sun is one of 100 billion or more stars in our own galaxy, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies within the observable universe. The earth is as close to nothing as anything can be.

What is more, the earth, we now know, came into being around 9 billion years after the heavens, more than three quarters of the time from the so-called Big Bang until now. (I do not like the term Big Bang, which is highly misleading. I prefer to call it the Initial Singularity, the IS, which is scientifically accurate. I don't know why cosmologists don't do the same.) So the earth, sadly, gets a demotion in time as well in space.

Some people try to say that the creation myth in Genesis is at least metaphorically consistent with reality, if we presume that the "days" may have been, in fact, of any arbitrary length, including billions of years. It is true, according to our most credible theories, that the universe was originally opaque to light. Photons were not able to travel freely through space until about 380,000 years after the IS, when the universe cooled sufficiently. (The so-called cosmic background radiation is the relic of that moment.)

However, that obviously does not accord with the biblical chronology, for the earth, the sun, and indeed all of the stars did not yet exist. On the other hand, if the myth is held to refer to the light of the sun, that existed before the earth came into being. And even people who do not choose to believe all that will concede, I presume, that darkness and light are not "divided." Rather, day and night result from the rotation of the earth; the sun shines continually, and it is always day on half of the planet, and night on the other half. This was true throughout the development of the earth, by accretion of smaller objects.

Some religious people do accept the scientific version of cosmic and geological history, but nevertheless hold to the idea that the creator God inspired the biblical belief in a guided process of creation, however crudely the ancients may have mis-imagined it. Surely a creator is necessary, else where did all this come from? But that just begs the question. The moment described in Genesis cannot be the beginning after all, for God already existed. Where did God come from? And what was God doing before the creation? Eternally contemplating his own non-coporeal navel? Or playing with other universes? God the creator is no answer to the mystery of the cosmos, but only kicks the question down the road.

Nor, of course, is the Initial Singularity an answer. Scientists will be the first to admit that they do not know why it happened, or where the stuff of this universe came from. They can only observe what is around them and make deductions about its history. But scientists, at least, have that humility, along with the ambition to find answers. They are not content with ignorance, but inspired by it.

In contrast, people of faith are at the same time,arrogant enough to think they know everything, and sufficiently feckless to be, not just content, but proud to be utterly ignorant about the object of their greatest obsession, the imaginary God.