Sunday, 7 October 2007

Creation is grace: a sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

I wonder what comes into people’s minds when they hear the word “creation”. If you’re a Christian I’m pretty sure that most folk would think of the opening chapter of Genesis, which indeed the Good News Bible entitles “The Story of Creation”. But then when you read Genesis 1, or hear it read as we did this morning, what then comes into your mind?

If you live in America, I can tell you what will come into a lot of people’s minds: the issue of evolution. “Issue”? Rather what you might call not the Revolutionary War but the Evolutionary War – the issue is that contentious, pitting Christianity against science in a life-or-death struggle. The first shot fired in this particular cultural conflict was the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, but the war soon shifted to the US, where it fizzled down over the next 75 years as the Genesis literalists – the so-called “creationists” – made public fools of themselves, not least in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (memorably made into that great Spencer Tracy film Inherit the Wind).

However the battle has re-commenced with a vengeance, with the anti-evolution forces now having both a traditional “hard” wing, those who stubbornly cling to a 6000 year-old earth and reject entirely Darwin’s well-demonstrated mechanism of natural selection; and a new, “softer”, more science-friendly wing, those who advocate what is known as the theory of “Intelligent Design”. Needless to say, this war, like most wars, is a war that should never have been fought, and is only sustained by zealots from both sides, the notorious Oxford professor Richard Dawkins being the most belligerent commander of the anti-creationist forces that are hell-bent on a scorched earth strategy against Christianity and religion as such.

So much for creation and evolution, for I suspect that when “creation” is mentioned in the UK, folk are more likely to think of cosmology than evolution: that is to say, they are more likely to think of the origin of the entire universe rather than of just the earth and human beings. I am sure that you have all heard of Einstein and the theory of relativity, and of the physicist Stephen Hawking and ideas such as the Big Bang, black holes, and perhaps even the latest mind-boggling speculations on so-called “string theory” (which I won’t try to explain to you because it would give us all severe migraine!). Most of the warfare in cosmology, I am happy to say, seems to take place among cosmologists themselves rather than between scientists and believers. Me, when I read about the latest astronomical discoveries, see extraordinary colour photographs of stellar phenomena zillions of miles away, or get an update from a doctoral student friend about work on the new super-duper particle accelerator being built in Switzerland – which will run experiments that will take us back very close to the moment of the Big Bang – I just gawp in wonder at the world.

Many people will have yet another thought on their minds when they hear the word “creation”: they will think of the environment. Harvest festivals, of course, are a time when we rightly turn our attention to “the fruits of creation” – to sun and soil, to the crops of gardener and farmer, to their “ploughing, sowing, reaping”, as well to lorry-drivers and workers in Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s and what local shops are left. Harvest services are also a time when we remember “the hungry and despairing”, those whose crops have failed due to drought, or been overwhelmed by flood, or who in the South continue to get a scandalously raw deal by American and European bankers and financiers; time also to be disgusted with Western leaders with their broken promises of reducing or cancelling Third World debt, as well as their inaction over protectionist First World agricultural subsidies and tariffs. “Feed the World,” we sang one Christmas, in retrospect rather over-optimistically, as upbeat tears of emotion have turned to cynical cries of rage.

And now, to make matters worse, much worse, perhaps now even irrevocably worse, there is the ecological crisis, particularly the visible, tangible onset of global warming and climate change, about which some right-wing fools with interests to defend remain in denial – “It’s a liberal conspiracy!” they cry – yet the results of which were brought catastrophically home to the unsuspecting people of Yorkshire and Gloucestershire this very summer, when the UK witnessed its worst floods in modern history, yet which we are warned were a mere April shower compared to the downpours yet to come. And how terribly ironic that our Commitment for Life partner this year is Bangladesh – people used to national inundations, yet for whom the monsoons came earlier and more destructively this summer, and whose entire country threatens to disappear within just a few generations under the rising coastal tides. In this global context the word “creation” begins to look like a sick misnomer, as human beings, called to be stewards of creation, become engineers of de-creation, as we work to turn God into a liar, complacently undermining his promise that “never again will a flood destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11).

So, evolution, cosmology, the environment, harvest yields and ecological doom – we may think of any of these things when we hear the word “creation”, but – to the point – none of them, in fact, is the essential note that should sound when Christians hear the word “creation”. When Christians hear the word “creation”, the first sound that should ring, sing in our minds is grace. Creation is grace! And that is because creation, in Christian teaching, is an act of sheer divine generosity. Out of nothing, and not for any reason but only from love and for love, God, the “maker of heaven and earth” (as the creeds put it) creates a world.

God does not need a world, as if the world fills a gap in God’s being, as if God would be the less without a world, or as if God were under obligation or constraint to create. On the contrary, if God did not make a world, God would still be the same God, no less the God that God eternally is in beauty and glory as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That God creates is not a law of nature, it is a completely free and gratuitous decision and act. And, further – what creationists don’t get – “Creation isn’t a [scientific] theory of how things started” – however close we ever get to the moment of the Big Bang, it will tell us absolutely nothing about creation – rather creation is a way of seeing everything that is in relation to God, not only back then but always and forever.

“Whatever you encounter is there because God chose it should be there,” and only because God chose it should be there. “It should be a rather exhilarating thought,” writes Rowan Williams, “that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything.” And – further still – “It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it. It means that every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.”

Finally, this. That creation is grace, that God has made a place and space for us – why? Answer: that we may live and flourish with freedom and joy. God creates a rich, intricate, green and growing world that we could never completely explore or explain were we to live a thousand years. And because creation is an act of divine generosity, an exercise in self-giving, an overflow of goodness which seeks only to bless, and in which God himself delights, so does the church teach that the appropriate response of faith is not just to acknowledge our absolute dependence on God, or even to live in gratitude to God – though that is certainly true – but, above all, to imitate God’s lavish generosity and goodness and blessing in our own relationships, so that we might not only respond to God but also correspond to God, indeed become like God, which is what it means to be created in the image of God.

That creation is grace, therefore, is not “just” doctrine, it is ethics: it is how we should live and behave as the creatures we are made and meant to be. The great church father Irenaeus was once asked to define the “glory of God”. “The glory of God,” he answered, “ are human beings fully alive.” You and me, not only the apex of creation but the very glory of God: Wow!

26 Comments:

Bruce Yabsley said...

Ahem. Returning from that important matter to consider the sermon again for a moment:

Well spoken Kim. That brings out the connections between Christian doctrine and contemporary issues very well, and with balance.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Gabriel's lucky catch,

Amazing the way you cracked my sermon's code. But I often get comments like that after my preaching. It may be that my sermons are rather underdetermined. Or it may be that minds have gone walkabout.

Oh, and thanks, Bruce.

Bin Laden said...

Golly.

B said...

Well done, Kim. T
his could also be easily tied in with Bonhoeffer's idea of God's grace being manifest in his desire for us to be in unity with the origin (himself). The fall, then, is us becoming like him apart from his desire, and the final grace is his allowance through redemption of us to once again to be in His image within his desire.
Thanks for the thought.

Dharmashaiva said...

If Creation itself is grace, then how should one understanding the "nothingness" out of which Creation arose? Is the "nothingness" of "ex nihilo" also grace?

Ben Myers said...

In case anyone is confused by the references to Bin Laden in this thread, there was a spam comment which I've now deleted....

Thanks for the sermon, Kim! My favourite statement in Barth's Dogmatics in Outline is: "Creation is grace!"

Jonathan Keith said...

Hi Kim and thanks for this sermon. I found it very helpful. I hope you don't mind if I quiz you about a peripheral point - it is at least more relevant than bin Laden.

I'm interested in whether and how my Christian beliefs can help me do better science. I'm less interested in whether the sciences can support my Christian beliefs - I ask not what science can do for religion, but what religion can do for science! Can religion help me, not only to understand creation better, but act as a guide in its exploration, suggesting investigations that might not occur to an atheist or an adherent of another religion? Can Christianity act as a kind of organising principle - a framework within which scientific work can be carried out more effectively?

One complicating factor with such an approach is that the successes of an 'organising principle' do in practice increase one's faith in that principle. My own faith in evolution by natural selection for example, has, I think, been built up in this way. I do not have a Popperian view of science - I do not think science can be reduced to a hypothetico-deductive procedure, or that the frameworks within which we work as scientists are wholly testable. Nevertheless, in practice the successes of one's framework do build one's personal confidence in it. Consequently, seeing Christianity as an 'organising principle' in the sciences will, I think, be perceived as a kind of natural theology, something most Christian theologians would want to distance themselves from.

Well, they're big questions, and as I say peripheral to your sermon, but I'd be interested in your thoughts.

JBH said...

Kim,

Your comments concerning fundamentalists (i.e. concerning dogmatic positions on young earth creationism, anti-evolutionsim, anti-global warming) are quite fundamentalist and dogmatic themselves. You caricature them and make assertions in passing, supported either by anecdotal evidence or non at all. You clearly are not up on moderating positions, seen in your false dilemma (i.e. either you jump on the global warming band wagon or you're a "right-wing fool"). For someone so devoted to ecumenism and peaceful rhetoric, I see a disharmony.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Jonathan,

I'm not sure that Christian beliefs, as such, can help one do better science, anymore than they can help one make better pasta or (pace the Colorado Rockies!) play better baseball. They can, however, perhaps induce a mindest apposite to the scientific enterprise: by inspiring feelings of wonder, humility, and gratitude, awakening an awareness of vocation, instilling a sense of responibility and accountability (particularly where science issues in technologies).

But as for the "organising principle" you ask about, I'm not sure I have anything worthwhile to say. There are, of course, a body of well-rehearsed ideas about the kind of world a Christian doctrine of creation submits that scientists will encounter and explore: rational, contingent, ordered, yet open and surprising. The latter in itself perhaps suggests that we should be skeptical not only about theological organising principles but also about scientific organising principles, let alone "theories of everything". And of course a doctrine of creation will make us short-tempered with scientists who think that the "scientific method" (if there is one) is the only way to get to the bottom of a reality which clearly discloses itself to us in poems as well as equations.

On the other hand, while I am too much a Barthian to have much truck with natural theology, I fully approve both of robust theologies of nature and of the work being done by theologians interfacing not only with scientists but also with philosophers of science. (Dawkins, but the way, not only needs to study some basic theology, he also needs to study some philosophy of science.)

I am sorry, Jonathan, if I haven't even come close to answering your question - but I'm glad you liked the sermon!

Hi JBH,

Actually, I thought I was quite kind to creationists, and I thought that some scientists might take me to task for referring to ID as science-friendly. As for the anti-global warming brigade, I have listened to the arguments of scientists who disagree with the huge majority of their colleagues, but when government policies like those of the Bush administration (the right-wingers I had in mind) are clearly driven not by disinterested analysis but by the ideological pursuit of economic feather-bedding - well, allow me to withdraw the word "fool" and substitute the word "knave". In the circumstances, that's about as eirenic as one can get.

Pastor David said...

Thank you. This was a wonderful sermon - it seemed to flow very nicely, and I loved the strong proclamation of God's grace in creation. Wonderful.

One of my profs used to say that the modern creationism/evolution debates are debates between 19th century science and 19th century theology - and the best work in both fields has moved well beyond the positions being espoused in the current debate.

That said, I wonder if their is not a way in which God does in fact need us. That if we had not been invited, called, and gathered into the perichoris of the Trinity, the life of the Trinity would be diminished. Perhaps what I am trying to say is less a question of need, than it is a question of the difference of a complete (without us) and more fully complete (with us) Trinity.

Anonymous said...

Some thoughts:

"Creation isn’t a [scientific] theory of how things started” –

The qualification "[scientific]" is important because while it may not be a chemical theory, creation is still ultimately cosmology. I hate the "god of the gaps" as much as the next guy but I think we are stuck with this particular gap. Should the Big Bang researchers you reference find that time and matter are infinite before that supposedly primeval moment then that would surely impact the idea that God is holding everything in existence as a gift right now, wouldn't it? Things would just become self-sustaining necessary brute facts perhaps to be brought into a relationship with God if you, the observer, like.

Creation would then just become a theory of perhaps redeeming independent matter that more importantly provides a foundation for an ethic
"a way of seeing everything that is in relation to God"
but it still would be just an unnecessary projection.

“Whatever you encounter is there because God chose it should be there, and only because God chose it should be there."

What if I encounter malaria? It won't be all white heat and wonder I assure you.

Also on JBH's impatience with the rhetoric on global climate change, a great balanced article in the WaPo yesterday entitled "Chill Out" by Bjorn Lomborg...

http://tinyurl.com/34hk7e

Jack

Samuel Lago said...

To be perfectly honest, this sermon seemed to be a long apology for thiestic-evolution.

Also, I was surprised that you should trace a line from creation, and our being created in the image of God, without mentioning Christ, (as in Colossians 1, 2).

Surely if we're going to talk about God's grace in creation, we should connect that with God's grace in recreation, centered upon He who is supremely His image!

Bruce Yabsley said...

jonathan: It's good to know there are other scientists among the regulars at this blog! For the record, I'd endorse what kim said in his reply, including the comment about theories of everything. I'd be happy to speak to it further if you had questions or reactions to what kim wrote.

jbh: I re-read kim's sermon following your remarks, and I'm afraid I'm missing your point. Certainly kim is firm in his settled view that creationist positions are empirically false and more broadly mistaken, but this alone cannot make him dogmatic or "a fundamentalist". For almost the entire educated class of the Western world judges the position to be empirically false ... including non-scientists and some quite happy to critique the culture of the sciences in other areas; and including in particular Christians who are otherwise theologically conservative. That, of course, does not make kim+my+everyone-else's view correct (let the evidence decide that), but it means it is not fundamentalist under any sensible use of that term ...

Jack: Lomborg is an activist of a kind. It is beyond my professional competence to assess the controversy surrounding his views, but I don't take anything said by such people, especially outside their sphere of professional knowledge, with too much seriousness --- and yes, I do include Al Gore in that statement.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Pastor David,

Thanks for your comment. Inasmuch as God has, in fact, created and covenanted, de facto we should not speak of God without the world or the world without God - a very Bonhoefferan point - as long as we keep in mind the "infinite qualitive distinction" between them.

And Anonymous,

I must disagree that "we are stuck with this particular gap." Any "god of the gaps" cannot be "God the Father almighty, creator of heave and earth", in whom we can only believe. Indeed we can only believe in (the) creation, which, unlike nature is a theological concept through and through. Creator, Redeemer, and Reconciler are one and the same God and can only be known in faith.

As for malaria, it too cannot not exist without the will of the creator, even if it is his permissive will (a distinction with which I am not altogether happy). The maws of theodicy open. I'm with Herbert McCabe, who argues that while "the evil in the world is not in fact incompatible with God's goodness", he would not "be able to show how it flows from God's goodness."

And Samuel,

Your comment reminds me of a venerable Old Testament professor I used to know who once preached at one of Swansea's more evangelical churches - and was taken to task by a deacon in the vestry after the service for not mentioning Jesus.

Of course you are right about the imago Dei and the imago Christi. But that my sermon is "a long apology for theistic evolution" - if that is not an eccentric reading of it then I ought to be ashamed of myself. I must leave other readers to decide and, if they would, get back to me!

And Bruce, many thanks for the time you have taken for further comment.

Got to go and catch some zzzs - off to Heathrow early tomorrow to catch a plane to New York to see my mommy/mummy!

Jonathan Keith said...

Thanks Kim for your response. 'Rational, contingent, ordered, yet open and surprising' - some of these are already deeply incorporated into the frameworks of the sciences, and perhaps that's at least partly due to the influence of Christianity. And perhaps these things can do even more scientific work than they already do. But I take the point about expecting creation to be surprising.

I can't shake the nagging suspicion that knowing something about the purpose of creation should entail empirical expectations. That may be the case even if, as you say, creation is the product of natural causes in a way that does not lessen its divine origins. I have to confess, I also think that Christianity does entail that creation is designed in some sense, and that assumption may have the potential to do scientific work.

Bruce, I'm very interested in hearing your further comments.

byron smith said...

Mere an apology for theistic-evolution? Hardly. In fact, this excellent sermon is just the opposite: a coherent and compelling demonstration that there is far more to the theological concept of 'creation' than the evotion/creationism debate.

Pastor David said...

Kim,
No, I did not see in this sermon a long apologetic for ID. I found it to state most clearly that (a) The evolution debates (or any other debates) are not the point of creation, and (b) the point of creation is God's grace. And that is, I believe, a much needed message on both counts.

JBH said...

Bruce,
First of all, creationist positions cannot be "empirically false." For the record, I am not a young earth creationist, but I young earth creationists are in their full epistemic rights to believe what they believe. It cannot be "empirically false" because they are not positing a natural occurrence. If you were to test the wine after Jesus transformed it at Galilee, you could certainly determine how many years it had been fermenting.

Second, perhaps I wasn't clear enough. My main problem is that Kim was creating false dilemmas. It is not either you jump on the liberal political policy concerning global warming or you are a right-wing fool (I was going to link that op-ed piece by Lomborg but apparently it has already been. Also, Lomborg would admit he is not a climatologist, he is just saying (in other places) that dealing with Global warming will cost extreme amounts of money with little gain).


Third, I should probably apologize. Kim, I'm sorry, I do not think you hold your positions without justification (i.e. fundamentalist, dogmatic). But I would still be against the rhetoric that amounts to: if you are not supportive of global warming policies, you're a fool, if you are a young earth creationist, you're a fool (if that is a correct rendering).

andrewE said...

Thanks a lot Kim – cracker.

æ

Bruce Yabsley said...

jbh I am very glad to hear that you are not a young-earth creationist, but nonetheless I am not going to let YEC's off the hook as easily as you wish.

You adduce the wedding at Cana as an example, saying you could certainly determine how many years [the wine] had been fermenting: I'm not sure that this is necessarily true (what's the argument?) but in any case it will not do concerning the age of the earth. You seem to be making the notorious argument that God might have created the earth in the recent past in order to look as though it were old. I agree that arguments like this can trump just about any empirical claim, but how is this either interesting or important?

The long age of the earth, the footprint of (extremely time-consuming) geological processes that can be observed in situ, taxonomic and genetic relations between species consistent with common descent (& note that the radiating tree pattern is highly nontrivial), are all empirical facts, as are any number of things immediately fatal to a naïvely historical reading of the early chapters of Genesis. Given this, it is entirely straightforward to describe not just YEC but also certain other creationist positions (I admit, not all of them) as "empirically false" without further discussion.

Do you really wish to bypass this with an appeal to deliberate deception by God in the construction of the world? I hope you mean something different, because it is shameful for a Christian to make such an argument.

And no, YEC's are not within their "epistemic rights" to believe what they believe. Maybe they were in the mid-nineteenth or early twentieth century, when we did not have access to multiple knock-down results of the kind I mention, and the argument was necessarily more extended and subtle. Maybe a humble and untutored believer in the present, reading the Scripture, is within their "rights" to be a YEC as long as they are ignorant. But for an informed person to claim this, or even worse to subscribe to a movement promulgating such tosh? I'm sorry. No such "right" exists: it is simply wrong to do such things.

JBH said...

Bruce,

You haven't refuted my argument. My argument is that at least some miracles give the appearance of age. If you believe in a historic (and specially created) Adam and Eve, then you believe in apparent age. If you believe that God gave manna from heaven to the wilderness generation, you believe that the bread had apparent age. You have just just provided arguments that say that aspects of the universe appear old. God is not a deceiver because you are presupposing that the phenomena at which you are looking came to be naturalistically. And that is an unproved premise.

Bruce Yabsley said...

jbh please give me a break. I am not sure I believe in any of the things you mention --- woops, there goes my credibility with lots of folk --- but let us grant Adam and Eve for the sake of the argument, and also an apparent age for the wine at the wedding at Cana. (The manna was not supposed to be bread-as-such in the terms of the biblical story, so I'll quibble on that, but you have two examples, and we are on.)

Could God create things with an apparent age? Sure. Is there precedent for him doing so, on the basis of these examples? Yes, it's granted for the sake of this argument.

So, along side the apparent age of the first couple (a matter of making mature and functioning people), and of the wine (a matter of being a good sport and helping out his mum), could we have the apparent age of all manner of physical phenomena? Yes. But for what reason? I understand the motivations in the other cases, based on the biblical story. What is the motivation in this case?

By describing me as "presupposing that the phenomena at which you are looking came to be naturalistically", you attempt to put the burden of proof onto me in this matter. ("Unproved premise" indeed!) What else should I "presuppose"? This loaded word is meant to imply that I am doing something exceptionable or in need of justification. What would you have me do in this case? And with what reason?

I conceded that the argument could work logically. What I accused it of was being uninteresting and unimportant. And I repeat my statement, unless something other than the traditional will-to-deceive is adduced as the motivation, that the argument is a shameful one. It is depressing that the discussion of kim's sermon should come down to this point.

byron smith said...

Hey Kim,
I'd love to get the reference for the Williams quote if possible. The only places I seem to find it on the net are blogs quoting your sermon!

kim fabricius said...

Hi Byron,

First great to hear from you - and I hope you are well.

The quotes come from Tokens of Trust (2007), pp. 37, 35.

Take care, mate,
Kim

byron smith said...

Thanks! I've now used in a post of my own that links to this one and steals a few ideas from it.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Ahem. Returning from that important matter to consider the sermon again for a moment:

Well spoken Kim. That brings out the connections between Christian doctrine and contemporary issues very well, and with balance.

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