What can we say about a beginning such as Genesis describes? “Let there be light . . . .” A flash and, as it says, “there was light.”
The Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaître developed a theory about the beginning of our universe. He hypothesized back from the observation of its continued expansion to the idea that at one time it must have all been concentrated in single point. Lemaître called this the “cosmic egg” or the “primeval atom.” The beginning of our universe, he suggested, happened with the explosion of this egg. As I understand it, it was Father Lemaître’s ideas that were the beginning of the theory we know as the Big Bang. For Lemaître there was no need to choose between a scientific description like his and the poetic biblical one. Both speak truthfully.
What Lemaître’s physics-based theory can’t tell us is why the original “egg” existed at all. Why is there something rather than nothing? It also can’t tell us what this something means, whether it is good or bad, whether it is a gift or a curse.
How then can we talk about the beginning? What can we say about whatever was before there was time? What can we say about there being nothing at all? I quite like how the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it:
The place where the Bible begins is one where our own most impassioned waves of thinking break, are thrown back upon themselves, and lose their strength in spray and foam. . . . For we cannot speak of the beginning. Where the beginning begins, there our thinking stops; there it comes to an end.
Bonhoeffer wrote, actually he originally spoke, these lines in Germany during the academic year of 1932-33. This was a time of deep confusion and anxiety for his country. The Weimar Republic had come to an end; the Third Reich was in its infancy. No one knew precisely what it would become, but they knew things were changing. In that context the young Bonhoeffer developed and taught a course at the University of Berlin. It was on the first three chapters of Genesis. The course was to be a theological exposition of this passage, a long reflection on the nature of creation and sin. To reflection theologically on creation is to be reminded that we don’t get to determine what all this is for. That belongs to the one whose glory is “set above the heavens”—in the words of the psalmists. So Bonhoeffer offered a course on creation and sin as the clouds of Nazism grew thick. Whether we like the term ‘sin’ or not, few of us would doubt that their lies beneath the surface of each of our lives invisible currents of selfishness and violence. The early chapters of Genesis help us see these.
Our text today is just the first chapter of Genesis. Yet, as the idea of Bonhoeffer’s course suggests, there is much from this passage that we could explore. This is a rich and provocative set of verses. They have something to say about the basic framework of our lives. For instance, as I’ve already suggested, we could read them and wonder about the correlation between the burst of light it describes and current theories about the beginning of the cosmos.
Or we could notice the subtle but consistent way in which this chapter describes God “separating” day from night and land from sea. That might suggest to us, as it did to its ancient readers, that the God of scripture is a God of order. Those ancient readers, like Bonhoeffer’s students, like us, felt anxious and vulnerable. To know that God was not capricious and random was a great comfort. To know that God is one who brings meaning out of chaos was reassuring. Or we could explore the way the plural reference to God’s image as “our image” might interlock with the Christian doctrine of the trinity. It’s probably that possibility and the mention of the divine wind or spirit in the second verse that has us reading this passage on Trinity Sunday.
Ah, but there’s more, from the same set of verses we could emphasize that even here there is assurance that both women and men are equally created in God’s image. Whatever the differences might exist between any particular set of individuals, they have nothing to do with their being more or less an icon of God. Or, working from this one chapter, we could begin to upend the common idea that the language of “dominion” here necessarily results in environmental irresponsibility. To do that we would look at how the rest of scripture describes God’s dominion and see that it implies a careful nurture of all life. Or we could notice the repeated phrase “God saw that it was good” and recognize the deeply positive view scripture has for the natural world. Any of those would be rich and deeply biblical themes.
Where I will point the rest of us, though, is toward something simpler than any of that. It’s just a little observation: that is, in this is first chapter of Genesis we are reminded that we are creatures. We each have skin and bones, breath for a few decades. For a few decades we gather in—experiences, knowledge, possessions, relationships—and then, whether we wish it or not, our grip goes slack and we let it go. We are creatures.
This simple observation might seem simplistic or even too common a notion to be worth our time. Yet I think we should hover here, especially in our own anxious and confusing times.
Allow me to suggest an important part of the context in which we read these verses. Think about the number of years we expect to live. Think about it in comparison to previous generations. Estimates vary a bit, but the reality is something close to this: in the year 1800 the life expectancy of the population in Europe, to choose just one part of the world, was 33 years. In the year 2000 it was almost 80. This is a significant change, one that has happened or is happening in now in most parts of the world. Or think about our expectations for infants. For as long as we can tell, to the extent that there is any historical record, 1 in 4 infants died within the first year of their lives. That is, until less than 200 years ago. Today less than 5% of infants across the globe die.
Now, such changes are obviously no consolation for anyone who has lost an infant or for anyone who is facing a life threatening disease. In either of those cases it isn’t the averages that matter, just the fact that it has happened to you. Where these changes do matter, though, is in the way our sense of mortality—our creature-hood—has changed. Where death was once close at hand to everyone everywhere, that is no longer the case. We have no way of knowing if this will continue or not. There are signs that in societies were ‘natural’ threats to life abate human-caused threats begin to rise. For our own experience, however, what is important is that for most of us our encounters with death are much fewer and farther between than they would have been for our ancestors.
This has changed much of our experience of life. As the theologian Ephraim Radner has observed, this massive transition has changed how we experience family. The age of parents has changed, so too the number of children and the relationship of parents to children. This transition has changed how we experience work. There is now a relatively long gap between the end of full-time work and death. It has changed our experience of gender roles and maturation. We now have all sorts of stages and gradations. The limitations of our creatureliness are harder to see. Things are not the same, and for good reason.
We tend now to hive death off from our lives. That might not be true from some of you in medicine, but in general I think it is. It used to be the case that people would spend a life-time preparing for death. Now we spend our lives trying to avoid thinking about it.
And yet, Genesis tells us, we are “made.” We are not self-generated or self-perpetuated. The realities of evolution and sexual reproduction have nothing to do with our being “made” by God. It’s there in verse 26: God says, “Let us make human kind in our image, according to our likeness.” So, just as the animals were “made” in verse 25, so are human beings like us. To be made, to be created, is to be a creature. We are not self-made, self-sustained or self-assured. We are creatures, dependent and fragile, with no certainties.
Against this we have begun to speak of our bodies as though they were machines, as though we might indefinitely keep repairing and replacing parts and live forever. We envision ourselves like some of the machinery of the Canadian Armed Forces. In the end, though, we will expire. Whatever we might hope for in a life to come, what we know is that the one we have now will come to an end.
What do we do in the face of this? We naturally respond to it with sadness. That is true even though we have no way of knowing if the dead are sad. We are sad because there is much to life that we love. The scriptures suggest, however, that there is more to recognizing our mortality than sadness. Listen to a few lines from Psalm 90.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. . . .
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
The last line is the one you paid for: “So teach us to count our days (so) that we may gain a wise heart.” The old King James wording might be more familiar: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
The poet is suggesting that in recognizing the limited character of our days we will better understand them. You see, wisdom is not just about having more data, but about living better. Could it be that through this reminder from Genesis of our creatureliness we might live better?
Several years ago Sarah and I were at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. This is part of an annual celebration of mountain culture in western Alberta. The best films then go on tour across the continent. In introducing one of the documentaries, a producer called up a young guy named Alex. Alex was totally unassuming. He wore a hoodie. He talked about climbing mountains like anyone could do it. In the years since we saw Alex I have thought of him only a few times—until this last week. This last week I read that he had attempted to free solo El Capitan. El Cap, as the climbers call it, is a 3,000 foot cliff in Yosemite National Park.
The main part of this wall was first climbed in 1958. It took 48 days. The climbers hammered in pitons and hauled themselves and a massive amount of gear up ropes. A woman, Lynn Hill, was the first person to climb the route without using any mechanical assistance. Last Saturday Alex Honnold, the guy in the hoodie, climbed the wall in a little under 4 hours. He used no pitons and no ropes at all—just his hands and feet. Losing his grip at any point would have meant death. It is one of the most remarkable accomplishments in climbing history.
I relate this little story not to suggest that any of us need to try death-defying activities to reconnect with our mortality. I tell it to suggest that these grand adventure stories engage us precisely because, in one scrunched up narrative, we are reminded that our days are numbered. We are creatures. Our lives are relatively brief. They will be imperfect. Yet they are gifts.
We could not invent ourselves. That recognition can change how we look at things and how we experience things. It can make us less tense about the fleeting annoyances of life. It can help us savor life’s goodness. Remembering that we are creatures is the seed of wisdom in a world that tries to forget.
God, our creator and redeemer, teach us to number our days, and may we apply our hearts unto wisdom. Amen